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Life on Svalbard: An Insight into the Arctic

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

The Arctic island of Svalbard is not your everyday go-to location, particularly not for students. Some may have neither heard of the island group, situated in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, nor of its biggest town Longyearbyen, hosting around 2000 inhabitants.  If you are one such individual, it is my pleasure to introduce you to this remote beauty.  

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Often seen as the little sibling of big old Greenland, Svalbard provides its visitors with a unique landscape and incredible wildlife. Have you ever seen a humpback whale swimming in front of your student apartment? Have you ever made a bonfire in the middle of the night while standing in bright sunlight? While all this sounds unlikely in Unite accommodation, trust me: it is possible.

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Life is different on Svalbard. With 24 hours of sunlight per day in the summer; no trees or shrubs; no traffic lights or public transportation, the island certainly offers an alternative student experience. Boasting hiking, kayaking or skiing as every day after-class options, few stress factors add to your workload. Absolute silence, apart from the sound of the waves, is not unusual.

During my time studying at The University Centre in Svalbard, I found myself asking ‘Who has to protect whom here?’ and ‘Who is really pulling the strings around here?’. Humans or Nature?

As remote as it seems, the island is visited every year by thousands of tourists, most of them reaching Svalbard on cruise boats or by airplane. Everyone wants to see polar bears, whales, polar foxes and other wildlife in its natural habitat. Tourism infrastructure is well built, and the city gratefully receives the income provided by visitors. Tourists are not always so kindly welcomed by the resident wildlife, as you may have heard reported yesterday.

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Infrastructure is a big issue here. Taking the car from one settlement to another is not possible as there are no roads connecting them. Only in winter, when everything is covered by snow, can you get around on snow scooters.

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Building new roads often doesn’t make sense because the landscape is constantly changing. Thawing permafrost gives the airport runway a bi-annual pothole issue, and it is highly likely that any road close to the shore will be gone in a few years due to coastal erosion. Footpaths can sustain themselves for a few months at a time, but will eventually become hidden under rock falls or mudslides. Personally, I love the fact that here on Svalbard, the forces of nature are able to act with such unfettered power.

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Hence, for the local authorities, protecting Longyearbyen from the effects of landslides, avalanches and other geo-hazards is the greatest priority. That said, there is an apparent growing emphasis on sustainability. Local environmental concerns revolve around the old mining infrastructure left from the seven 70-year-old mines on Longyearbyen, as well as questions of waste management or plastic pollution. However, there are also more regional concerns; namely new shipping routes along Svalbard or deep-sea mining.

Greenpeace has been active in the Arctic for years now. Their main focuses have been highlighting the impact of human activity on the local environment, and forcing action against destructive practices such as deep sea mining.

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Still, sustainable approaches are also taken up by the residents of Svalbard, with an emphasis on minimalizing waste and consumption through re-using and sharing. The northernmost permaculture is carried out in Longyearbyen, where vegetables are produced locally to feed the town’s population. At a shop called Bruktikken, you can both bring and purchase second-hand clothes, DVDs, accessories and so on- a bit like a charity shop. You can also rent bicycles at the tourist office for free, and students are able to rent camping, outdoor or skiing equipment for free from the university, instead of buying it new.

Nonetheless, the Arctic ecosystem is already suffering, and the greatest tragedy would be seeing it reach the point of no redemption. The populations of multiple species are declining, especially in the marine ecosystem. As more and more human activity is planned for the Arctic, a shift in the dominant forces is possible and the ecosystem might not be able to adapt. As it stands, nature still calls the shots on Svalbard, but preventing further damage to the Arctic is the most important action humans can take.

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About the Author: Saskia Marie Bacher is a third year Geoecology student based in Potsdam, Germany and Cork, Ireland. She is currently working for a polar research institute in Germany in the periglacial research section, focusing on sediment core data bases and palaeo-research with diatoms. 

Photos with permission of Lena Nicola.

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