Two weeks in the Arctic

Hello everyone!

As promised by some of my posts on Instagram/Facebook/Twitter, here is an article about my summer course at UNIS (University Centre in Svalbard), in Longyearbyen (78°N!). It was called “Shipping in the Arctic”, and lasted from the end of July to mid-August (2 weeks). You have to know that Longyearbyen does not experience night from the end of April to the end of August, so your biological clock gets very confused very rapidly… I walked across the town after midnight a few times and it looked like it was midday, minus the tourists and infrequent cars!

The famous signs at Longyearbyen’s airport!

UNIS is a Norwegian research centre which organises courses that any student can attend if they meet the course requirements (usually, one year of undergraduate courses, with enough science background to understand the course contents). It’s located right next to Longyearbyen’s fjord, and the inside is mostly made of wood, so it has a very warm and hygge atmosphere. No one wears shoes inside, and I think there’s a competition as to who has the coolest super-thick wool socks (or I’m just being envious!). The view on the fjord and on glaciers (and occasional reindeers) from the classrooms is so amazing that it’s a wonder that students manage to concentrate and pass their exams here. Everything is super well organised, beautiful, and welcoming, and I really would love to go back for more courses!

Views while walking up to one of the student housing, Nybyen, which consists of barracks where miners used to live! It’s a very nice 30 minute walk from the university.
View from my room’s window in
Sjøskrenten, a modern student housing building in Longyearbyen.
Zoomed-in picture of the view from my room. How mind-blowing is this?
A picture of me in front of the university building that deserves some editing
Classic view of Longyearbyen
Longyearbyen’s “main street”

— This section of my article mainly summarises some of things that I learned this summer, and if you have any questions, feel free to write a comment in the comment box at the bottom of the blog post. Also, this is all from memory, so apologies for any mistakes —

Because of climate change, more and more of the Arctic Ocean is ice-free during the summer (the sea ice extent reaches a minimum in September). In addition, the ice that builds up during the winter is increasingly thin and unstable, which means that it melts even faster during the following summer. An obvious example of sea ice retreat is Longyearbyen’s fjord. Until 2001, it was frozen over throughout the winter, and people could safely cross the fjord by snowmobile. Nowadays, it mostly stays ice free, which is convenient for locals to get food shipped up to them, but terrible for the environment and ecosystem.

Observed average sea ice cover in February (end of winter) and September (end of summer) from 1986 to 2005, and modelled predictions of future average sea ice cover in 2081-2100 with two warming scenarios (RCP 4.5: +4.5 W/m² radiative forcing in 2100 relative to pre-Industrial values, corresponding to an average global temperature increase of 1.8°C. RCP 8.5: average global temperature increase of 3.7°C). Svalbard in particular is currently one of the places in the world that is warming the fastest, with a warming of 4°C over the past 50 years; the winter average temperature has gone up by 7°C).
Image from: Future of Climate Change, US Environmental Protection Agency

Throughout the Arctic, sea ice retreat has very direct environmental (one of which is that less solar radiation is reflected by the ice, so more radiation is absorbed by Arctic ocean, and it heats up even more – a “positive feedback”) and economic implications. Nowadays, and in the foreseeable future, most of the ships travelling in the Arctic are big tourist ferries (4000+ people sometimes come to Longyearbyen for one crazy afternoon – there are about 2000 people living in Longyearbyen normally – and “expeditions” – the fancier cruise version, with usually less than 200 passengers), as well as scientific cruises.

Until now, trans-Arctic commercial shipping has been very expensive and dangerous – notably because hard sea ice can be hidden within softer ice; unsuspecting ships can easily break their hulls by colliding with sharp, thick ice. Ships can also get trapped in drifting ice and be stuck for weeks or months in the Arctic before being able to extract themselves from the ice (or before sinking, which has happened repeatedly in the past). Ship captains need a lot of experience to safely navigate across the Arctic.

Most transport routes are located within the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone, as that is where the sea ice retreats the most during the summer (along Canada/Alaska, sea ice is more resistant). Russian authorities charge transiting ships a considerable amount of money, notably to pay for maintenance of their harbour infrastructures in Siberia. This, and many more reasons, makes trans-Arctic shipping unattractive, in spite of shorter route distances (for instance, it would be much faster for ships going from Rotterdam to Japan to cross the Arctic than to go through the Suez Canal – where there are political issues -, across South-East Asia, and then North towards Japan).

But, in the future, with the decreasing summer sea ice cover (no shipping company would envisage to cross the Arctic during the winter, when it is completely dark, with very thick ice), the Arctic might become a new major shipping route. This would have serious consequences on the environment, on the economy, and on the Arctic communities (which would have to cope with high amounts of boat traffic and visitors).

Twelve-ish people were in my class, and we had one main lecturer as well as “guest” experts lecturing us from 9 to 5 almost every day for two weeks. It was very intense, but very rewarding! Many lecturers came from Scandinavia, but some came for a few days from Canada and from Connecticut to lecture us (and also do some research while they were in Svalbard)! We also had the opportunity to visit Longyearbyen’s harbour, and to interview the harbour director as well as ship captains, and it was really interesting to see real-life examples of what we had been learning in class.

One of the piers of Longyearbyen’s harbour.

During my free time, I went on a one-day cruise to Pyramiden, which is a Soviet “ghost” town (there’s a pyramid-shaped mountain near it, hence the name). It used to be a 1000-inhabitant mining town, with a primary school, a sports centre, music studios, and a theatre. After the collapse of the Soviet-era, it was no longer economically viable, and most remaining miners moved out to the other Russian city, Barentsburg, which still is one of the major towns in Svalbard today (470 inhabitants – it’s all a question of perspective). In Pyramiden, all the signs are written in Cyrillic, and there are daily life items lying around as if people were still living there. It was very odd and exotic to be walking through a Soviet city that is quite literally “frozen in time” for most of the year (although there was no snow when I was there, as it was in August)! It’s an eight-hour boat daytrip to go there, but during the winter, it is apparently possible to go to Pyramiden from Longyearbyen by snowmobile – I really have to go back to do that!

Pyramiden, ft. the Nordenskiöldbreen glacier in the background.

On the way, I saw lots of very cute puffins, and many incredible glaciers from far away, and also one from up close! When the boat got close to the glacier near Pyramiden, (Nordenskiöldbreen) everyone could feel the frigid air that was coming down from the ice onto the water, and it was incredible to see massive walls of white-blue ice for real, and realise that you really are in the Arctic!

The glacier near Pyramiden
Just one of the many cliffs which we saw during the cruise.
The famous Global Seed Vault, as seen from the ship when we got back to Longyearbyen (it is located between Longyearbyen and the airport).

There are also many touristy things to do in Svalbard: museums, mine tours, hikes, and trying to find reasonably priced food are all part of the experience!

Deep inside the mountain… Svalbard used to be an important coal mining town.

Two other Edinburgh Geoscience students went to Svalbard and did the “Environmental Change in the High Arctic Landscape of Svalbard” 5-week course, which was started with a safety training course (I didn’t get one as I only stayed in Longyearbyen for two weeks): rifle shooting (to scare bears away – never shoot directly towards them unless you absolutely have no other choice), jumping into the 4°C water with a bright orange survival suit (I wish I could have done that too!)… everything that you need to survive in the wild Arctic summer. If you want to spend some time at UNIS in winter (aka the never-ending night), the safety training is even more detailed and complex! My two friends from Edinburgh, after some lectures and after having come up with a research project proposal, went into the wild with their course mates and lecturers for a few days to conduct their selected projects. How cool is that? Their only main issue was that they were stuck inside their accommodation for three days as a polar bear family was hanging out next to their cabin!

I did not see any polar bears myself, although I heard that polar bear traces had been found in the mud right on the edge of Longyearbyen, where I had been walking not two days earlier (and it was quite foggy on that day, so the polar bear could have actually been quite close to me)… Scary stuff!

Don’t let the polar bears deter you though, Svalbard is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and it’s an incredible and amazing opportunity for students to be able to experience life in the Arctic. Students at UNIS are living further North than most people have gone, see glaciers from their university room, and walk past reindeers (and for the lucky few, Arctic foxes – I only saw one, at 2am, while waiting for the airport bus) on a daily basis!

If you want to apply to a summer course at UNIS, the deadline is on the 15th of February! There also are autumn and spring courses with deadlines later on in the year.

2 thoughts on “Two weeks in the Arctic

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  1. What a nice article about the course, Emma!
    And I really liked your photos, especially the with the puffin – it is so cute! 🙂

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