16 September 2009

78 degrees north

Got back late last night from my trip to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago the size of Ireland in the arctic ocean, and probably the most northerly inhabited part of the world. It was an intense experience with enough amazement for a lifetime crammed into four too-short days. It's too soon to be able to take it all in and figure out how this experience has affected me, but I've uploaded a few photos and that will have to do for now.

I stayed in Longyearbyen, the main town on Sitzbergen island and in the whole archipelago, at 78.8 degrees north. A mining town with about 1,600 inhabitants in all, the Norwegian government took a controlling interest in the mine operations in the nineties and since then has pursued a policy of softening the town and turning it into a proper community with an emphasis on quality family life, with schools, creches and other community facilities. There's also a university that focuses on polar studies, with a student body that is 50% Norwegian, 50% international, bringing a very diverse mix to the town. You aren't allowed out of the town limits without a rifle or an armed guard because of the polar bears, of which there are more on the island than people. Probably the most northerly town in the world

Photos of Longyearbyen

Sarkofagen - Friday saw a five hour hike up Sarkofagen, a peak over-looking Longyearbyen (about 600m high and -10C at the top), and down the side of the Longyear glacier.

Photos of the Sarkofagen Hike

On Saturday took a trip by ship out around the archipelago to the abandoned Russian town of Pyramiden and the Nordenskiold Glacier. In addition to the spectacular landscape that surrounded us, we passed by the Noorderlicht, a wooden sailing ship that traps itself in the sea ice every year and becomes a hotel accessible only by dog-sled or snowmobile. An amazing day marred only by the sight and smell of other passengers wolfing down whale meat cooked on an open grill.

Photos of the sea trip aboard the MS Polargirl

Pyramiden is an old Soviet mining town abandoned by the Russians in 1998. Its a ghost town, preserved exactly as the day it was abandoned. There are a handful of engineers returned in the last year or so ostensibly to prevent a ecological disaster from happening (a dam is in danger of collapsing and washing the town and much toxic contamination into the sea), but in reality part of the ongoing Russian moves to bolster its claim to the arctic sea floor and whatever natural resources are made newly accessible there by climate change.

Photos of Pyramiden

Nordenskiold Glacier was the most amazing sight for me, a giant glacier meeting the sea. Somehow I managed to capture on film a series of pictures showing a 10 second collapse (a 'calving') with car-sized chunks of ice falling into the water. "Awe inspiring" is a phrase that gets bandied about a lot, but in this case is actually an understatement. I also took some video of the glacier which gives an idea of scale.

Photos of Nordenskiöld Glacier

Sunday was a tough day, starting with a 3 kilometer kayak across open arctic sea, six hour hike up and down Hiortmountain (a mountain just under 1,000m with spectacular views across to Longyearbyen and beyond), and a 3k kayak back. Tough because I have never kayaked before, and can't swim. Still, as the guide said, "don't worry about drowning, the cold will kill you first". Comforting. Sat by myself on the side of the mountain for about 20 minutes, never have I felt more alone or more at peace in my life.

Photos of the Hiortmountain Hike

Monday saw a lightning visit to the entrance of the Global Seed Vault, a repository of seeds from around the world in case Armageddon wipes the rest of the world out. Take a look at the TED talk, or read the web site, really cool. All the articles I've read make it look like this is in the arctic wilderness, in fact its about 500 meters above the airport on the road to an active mine, pretty easy for folks like Ban Ki-Moon to fly in, get their photo taken, and fly out again without ever having to put on a baselayer.

Photos of the Global Seed Vault

Svalbard is simply the most amazing place I have ever been, there really aren't the words to describe it.

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At 7:28 pm, Blogger belgravy said...

not one snowman in sight? I guess they gotta earn a crust too

At 9:53 am, Blogger Snag Breac said...

That looks totally amazing. The pictures are incredible, the glacier, the hike in the mountains with the views...its amazing!

At 2:15 pm, Blogger Ebauche said...

Wow. That all looks absolutely fantastic. Such a different world it must have been.

Your adventuring really is wonderful to read about :)

At 11:13 am, Anonymous steve said...

100% wow. looks like a really mindblowing trip. every photo is impressive.


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