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Yearly Archives: 2016 − News & Stories


The famous seed vault – 29 Febru­ary, 2016

Of cour­se you may say it is just a big free­zer and not­hing else. That is, essen­ti­al­ly, true. But – again – of cour­se it is so much more than just that. A hope for man­kind, a life­ring for sur­vi­vors of glo­bal cata­stro­phes. Well, the first sen­tence may be under­sta­ted as much as the lat­ter one an exag­ge­ra­ti­on, but in any way, the seed vault does attract a lot of atten­ti­on. Some­thing that also led to the new sec­tion of this web­site.

But actual­ly ente­ring the seed vault? Did not hap­pen. It is not a place that nor­mal peo­p­le would nor­mal­ly get to see. Also some peo­p­le who are not nor­mal peo­p­le are said to have wai­ted in vain for that lar­ge door to open. Access is strict­ly regu­la­ted, and it was impos­si­ble at times when the local fire bri­ga­de oppo­sed anyo­ne visi­ting the vault. A natu­ral safe deep insi­de a moun­tain does natu­ral­ly not have emer­gen­cy exits.

But occa­sio­nal­ly, when new seeds come to the vault, the doors are ope­ned for accre­di­ted jour­na­lists.

Even though I unders­tood quick­ly the atten­ti­on that the seed vault was about to get glo­bal­ly in 2008, I have to admit that I have never real­ly been fasci­na­ted. It is neither part of Spitsbergen’s natu­re nor of its histo­ry nor is it con­nec­ted to tho­se who are living here today. Its con­text is not the arc­tic.

What does man­kind actual­ly prepa­re for here? What kind of cata­stro­phes do we have to expect that can wipe out the gene­tic heri­ta­ge of thou­sands of years of agri­cul­tu­re? You may as well say that you don’t real­ly want to know. But it is worth noti­cing that the who­le struc­tu­re is loca­ted high enough abo­ve sea level to remain dry even in case all ice on earth was to melt.

Dif­fe­rent count­ries deli­ver seed samples that repre­sent the who­le diver­si­ty of their crops, and they are stored near Lon­gye­ar­by­en under con­di­ti­ons that are sup­po­sed to make them last as long as by any means pos­si­ble. The air tem­pe­ra­tu­re is strict­ly con­trol­led and kept at -18°C. Hard­ly visi­tors who might cau­se dis­tur­ban­ces, seve­ral strong steel doors, sur­veil­lan­ce came­ras. The who­le lot.

A hall­way is lea­ding about 150 met­res into the moun­tain befo­re you reach a lar­ge hall. The wall that is facing the hall­way is not flat, but it is gent­ly cur­ved into the moun­tain. It is easy to miss this litt­le detail or not to pay any atten­ti­on to it, but the­re is a bizar­re reason for it: even though nobo­dy knows of any rea­li­stic sce­na­rio that invol­ves an explo­si­on in the hall­way, the shock waves of any explo­si­ons would be reflec­ted back into the hall­way and thus not hit the actu­al sto­rage cham­bers, kee­ping the seed samples out of harm’s way.

From this hall, dou­ble doors are lea­ding to the actu­al cham­bers (a bit like in an Egyp­ti­an pyra­mid). Two out of the­se three cham­bers are still lar­ge­ly emp­ty.

The door to the third one is cover­ed with ice, as it is con­stant­ly cold in the­re. At the time being, it is pro­ba­b­ly the col­dest part of Spits­ber­gen any­whe­re. A last fence sepa­ra­tes the visi­tor from the tre­asu­re, a code opens the door. Behind that door, the­re are huge sto­rage racks. And the­re, boxes, boxes and boxes.

A sus­pi­cious gap shows whe­re the first samples have alre­a­dy been retrie­ved again. They were from Syria and more seeds are grown now of their sorts – in Moroc­co, whe­re the Syri­an seed vault had been moved befo­re it could be des­troy­ed in the war.

Gal­lery – The famous seed vault – 29 Febru­ary, 2016

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

You are wal­king past tho­se racks in awe. Insti­tu­ti­ons that are devo­ted to the sci­ence of rice, wheat or pota­toes have pre­ser­ved their valuable tre­asu­res here for, well, not eter­ni­ty, but as clo­se to as pos­si­ble. Most count­ries are repre­sen­ted, only a mino­ri­ty is still miss­ing. North and south Ame­ri­ca, Afri­ca and Euro­pe, Asia, Aus­tra­lia, they are all in the­re. Some woo­den boxes catch the eye becau­se of their simp­le appearance: north Korea. They signed the Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty just a few weeks ago, and now the are also here in the vault.

Some incon­spi­cuous boxes draw my atten­ti­on, and I am get­ting goo­se­bumps just a moment later. The sen­der: The Inter­na­tio­nal Cent­re for Agri­cul­tu­ral Rese­arch in the Dry Are­as, in short ICAR­DA. Their address: Alep­po, Syria. In this town, now des­troy­ed by Syri­an and Rus­si­an bombs, someone had been coll­ec­ting seed samples to pre­ser­ve them to bet­ter days in the future, when peo­p­le will hop­eful­ly be able again to grow them, to take care of the nut­ri­ti­on of their fami­lies, their peo­p­le, their coun­try. It seems a bizar­re hope! The simp­le boxes in the sto­rage racks insi­de the per­ma­frost of an arc­tic moun­tain are sym­bols of this des­pa­ra­te hope. May their con­tents find their way back into Syri­an soil when it is not cor­ru­ga­ted by bombs, but by ploughs!

The seed vault left a strong impres­si­on on me, that is for sure.

Living house in Lon­gye­ar­by­en in dan­ger of col­lap­se: evacua­ti­on

Lon­gye­ar­by­en is curr­ent­ly having tough times, espe­ci­al­ly if you hap­pen to live in the wrong house: after the cata­stro­phic des­truc­tion of 11 hou­ses and the loss of two lives during an ava­lan­che befo­re Christ­mas, the old hos­pi­tal had to be evacua­ted very quick­ly last week. The old hos­pi­tal (gam­le syke­hu­set) is near the Spits­ber­gen-Hotel (form­er­ly Hotel Fun­ken) upval­ley from the cent­re. It was built in 1954 and con­ver­ted to a living house with 16 flats in 1997.

More recent­ly, the buil­ding had shown signs of move­ment such as minor cracks in walls and shif­ting angles – not­hing that cau­sed any grea­ter con­cern, but it caught enough atten­ti­on to ask for the report of a civil engi­neer. The result came Thurs­day last week and it hit the inha­bi­tants like a ham­mer: at 4 p.m. peo­p­le were told that they had to lea­ve their homes until 10 p.m. the same day. Any­thing they were unable to remo­ve from their homes would be out of reach for some time, as it was not allo­wed to enter the buil­ding at all from then on, initi­al­ly.

Curr­ent­ly, the inha­bi­tants get per­mis­si­on to enter their homes under rest­ric­tions to retrie­ve their belon­gings as much as pos­si­ble. Some have alre­a­dy offe­red their belon­gings for sale or even for free to anyo­ne who is able to pick it up.

The buil­ding is in dan­ger of col­laps, but when this may or may not hap­pen is not known. It may col­lap­se today or stand for ano­ther year or more. But it is not expec­ted that peo­p­le will be able to move back.

For the inha­bi­tants, who are most­ly the owners of their homes, this came as a total shock and, in some cases, it is likely to be a com­ple­te eco­no­mic­al dis­as­ter.

The local admi­nis­tra­ti­on (lokals­ty­re) has offe­red tem­po­ra­ry accom­mo­da­ti­on to tho­se con­cer­ned, but only for a cou­ple of weeks. Not a lot of time for every for ever­y­bo­dy to find new homes.

The old hos­pi­tal (gam­le syke­hu­set) lies within a cal­mer dwel­ling area a bit away from down­town Lon­gye­ar­by­en. Curr­ent­ly, it is not quite as calm the­re: the inha­bi­tants were evacua­ted on very short noti­ce last week.

The old hospital (gamle sykehuset) in Longyearbyen

Pyra­mi­den – Febru­ary 2016

After our arc­tic weekend in Spi­ce­bo­rough (Würz­burg, haha) things hap­pen­ed quick­ly: from the pre­sen­ta­ti­on screen to the train sta­ti­on, train, air­port, pla­ne, air­port, hotel, air­port, pla­ne, and then sud­den­ly … Spits­ber­gen. Stop, befo­re I got that far I got a brief glim­pse of main­land Norway’s nor­t­hern­most coast. In the far back­ground, you can almost see the North Cape (use a bit of fan­ta­sy and then you will see it), but this long, nar­row island under the wing tip and a litt­le bit to the right, that is Fugløya. We will be sai­ling the­re in late May with Anti­gua and then set cour­se for Bear Island … but that is ano­ther sto­ry, a sum­mer sto­ry. First, arc­tic win­ter. Alt­hough it is a stran­ge win­ter, with litt­le snow and very litt­le ice in the west coast fjords. Some sci­en­tists belie­ve that it may have to do with El Niño, the tem­po­ra­ry chan­ge oce­an curr­ents in the Paci­fic, which has con­se­quen­ces for the cli­ma­te of the who­le glo­be. But it would be hard not to think of lon­ger-las­ting cli­ma­te chan­ge as well. Of cour­se, the­re have always been bad ice years every now and then. But the long-term ten­den­cy? That is pret­ty clear.

Gal­lery – Pyra­mi­den – Febru­ary 2016

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

I am joi­ning a came­ra team. My job is not in front of the came­ra this time, but behind. One of our first trips takes us to Pyra­mi­den. Fasci­na­ting as always, but dif­fe­rent: parts of the place are a ska­ting rink. Very litt­le snow, lots of ice. And no Sascha. But he will be back within a few days. We have been to Pyra­mi­den even befo­re Sascha came! Yoho!

North Korea signs Sval­bard Trea­ty

While North Korea is pro­vo­king the world by test­ing nuclear wea­pons and long-ran­ge mis­siles, the regime has signed the Sval­bard Trea­ty on Janu­ary 25 wit­hout much public atten­ti­on. This trea­ty, which was signed in 1920 in Ver­sailles and came into force in 1925, gave Nor­way sove­reig­n­ty over the Spits­ber­gen archi­pe­la­go (the ori­gi­nal trea­ty docu­ment does not have the name Sval­bard) while main­tai­ning rights of signa­to­ry govern­ments and their citi­zens to be eco­no­mic­al­ly and sci­en­ti­fi­cal­ly acti­ve wit­hout the need for a gene­ral per­mis­si­on. One of the con­se­quen­ces is that Spits­ber­gen is, in con­trast to main­land Nor­way, not part of the Schen­gen Trea­ty area.

Sval­bard is not unknown in the far east: espe­ci­al­ly in Thai­land, peo­p­le are quite awa­re of this uni­que job oppor­tu­ni­ty that does not requi­re resi­dence or work per­mits. The third-lar­gest popu­la­ti­on group in Lon­gye­ar­by­en are Thai peo­p­le, which have been forming an important part of the social and eco­no­mic struc­tu­re of the town for many years by now.

It is not known if the North Kore­an regime plans their admis­si­on to the trea­ty to be fol­lo­wed by any prac­ti­cal steps or any kind of pre­sence. North Korea is also mem­ber sta­te of the Ant­ar­c­tic Trea­ty (wit­hout voting rights). As far as known, the only North Kore­an acti­vi­ty in Ant­ar­c­ti­ca was the par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on of some sci­en­tists in a Soviet expe­di­ti­on in 1989/90.

What is Kim Jong Un doing in Sval­bard? Cree­py duo in Pyra­mi­den (pho­to com­po­si­ti­on).

Kim in Svalbard

Source: The Inde­pen­dent Barents Obser­ver

Loo­king back at 2015 – Decem­ber

While I am tal­king about good old Anti­gua: right now, she is in the shi­py­ard. Cut into two parts. No ice­berg and now under­wa­ter rock are the reason for this, but the owner’s plan to make her a bit lon­ger. Half of the cab­ins will be a bit lar­ger from 2016. But the­re won’t be more cab­ins and no more beds than so far, so not more peo­p­le than we are used to, and that is important. And they say that a lon­ger hull is making for bet­ter sai­ling abili­ties. I am loo­king for­ward to a rene­wed Anti­gua in 2016!

Anti­gua rel­oa­ded, Decem­ber 2015. Pho­to © Sven­ja Hol­lank.

Antigua in the shipyard

Mean­while, the polar night has come over Sval­bard. What should have been a peaceful and silent arc­tic win­ter brought dis­as­ter to Lon­gye­ar­by­en just befo­re Christ­mas, when a snow ava­lan­che went into a housing area, stron­gly dama­ging 11 buil­dings and kil­ling two peo­p­le. So the year 2015, which has brought war and ter­ror to many count­ries, comes to a sad end also in Spits­ber­gen. Let’s hope that 2016 will bring as many gre­at adven­tures as 2015, but less sad ones.

During the sea­son of the short days, I am sort­ing the trips of the past, get­ting tri­plogs, vide­os and pho­to gal­le­ries rea­dy, which I recom­mend to ever­y­bo­dy who wants to lea­ve their home or office men­tal­ly for a moment to take a vir­tu­al trip up north. New trips are being plan­ned, with Anti­gua, with Arc­ti­ca II, with Ópal (in 2017), with Auro­ra. To Spits­ber­gen, Green­land and Jan May­en. A new focus on hiking, in ear­ly Sep­tem­ber. This all takes time for a lot of thin­king and plan­ning. 2015 has seen 166 news and blog ent­ries on this web­site. Also new book pro­jects are get­ting on. Seve­ral ones are in the making, some in a stag quite advan­ced. So I can pro­mi­se new books, but I am not going to say any­thing about timing. I am not plan­ning an air­port, I am just wri­ting books. Nobo­dy is pay­ing me for that. So I don’t have to pro­mi­se any­thing and I don’t have to excu­se any­thing in case it takes more time. That keeps life easy (kind of).

I wish all rea­ders a good and hap­py new year! Gre­at trips in high or low lati­tu­des, health and hap­pi­ness! May­be our paths will cross, near the poles or some­whe­re in bet­ween. Under the mid­night sun or the polar light.

Cruel­ty to polar bear in Rus­sia

I guess I have to warn you here: this is not for the faint-hear­ted. The sto­ry and a rela­ted video on you­tube are dis­tur­bing.

The­re has been an extre­me case of cruel­ty to a polar bear on Wran­gel Island in the far eas­tern Rus­si­an arc­tic. A fema­le polar bear accom­pa­nied by cubs had visi­ted a con­s­truc­tion site regu­lar­ly. Appear­ent­ly, she had beco­me used to peo­p­le, who fed her regu­lar­ly. In Novem­ber, a fire­cra­cker was mixed into the food and explo­ded in her mouth, hea­vi­ly inju­ring the ani­mal. A you­tube video shows the bear moving around in gre­at pain and losing blood. The fire­cra­cker is said to have been a mili­ta­ry-type ban­ger nor­mal­ly used for mili­ta­ry edu­ca­ti­on and trai­ning, con­tai­ning 80 gram gun­pow­der.

The offen­der was the cook, who said later that it was an act of self defence, an attempt to divert the polar bear’s atten­ti­on away from ano­ther near­by per­son. This is, howe­ver, unli­kely to be true, accor­ding to local media, who report that the bear had been used to peo­p­le and never show­ing aggres­si­ve beha­viour. It is said that workers quite com­mon­ly pho­to­gra­phed them­sel­ves tog­e­ther with this par­ti­cu­lar polar bear.

A video is cir­cu­la­ting on you­tube, show­ing how the polar bear is suf­fe­ring from strong pain and blee­ding sever­ely. Infor­ma­ti­on about the con­di­ti­on of the bear sin­ce is con­tra­dic­to­ry: the­re are state­ments that she is ali­ve, but others say she has not been seen sin­ce.

Initi­al­ly the offen­der see­med to get away with a sym­bo­lic fine, but sin­ce the case drew inter­na­tio­nal atten­ti­on on the web, poli­ti­ci­ans inclu­ding Rus­si­an Envi­ron­ment Minis­ter Ser­gej Dons­koj and the gover­nor of Chu­kot­ka have deman­ded inves­ti­ga­ti­ons and a lawsu­it. The Att­or­ney Gene­ral has taken up inves­ti­ga­ti­ons, which may lead to impri­son­ment up to 3 or 7 years, depen­ding on source.

A peti­ti­on on thepetitionsite.com is sup­po­sed to increase pres­su­re on Rus­si­an aut­ho­ri­ties to take strong steps.

The online peti­ti­on does not con­tain dis­tur­bing images, but the abo­ve men­tio­ned you­tube video is tough stuff: cruel and dis­tur­bing. If you want to see it, then this is the link.

The offen­der was (is?) working for the com­pa­ny Русальянс (Russ­al­li­ans), which is con­trac­ted by the Rus­si­an Minis­try of Defence. Offi­ci­al­ly, the com­pa­ny is sup­port­ing a foun­da­ti­on that is working for the arc­tic envi­ron­ment, inclu­ding a “har­mo­nic rela­ti­onship bet­ween humans and ani­mals”.

Screen­shot of the you­tube-video.

cruelty to polar bear on Wrangel Island

Source: Stutt­gar­ter Nach­rich­ten

Loo­king back at 2015 – Novem­ber

Novem­ber is not the time for long out­door trips in the arc­tic. A slight­ly con­fu­sed Eng­lish tou­rist did not see any reason why he should not walk on his own from Lon­gye­ar­by­en to Pyra­mi­den – in the polar night. Local could final­ly con­vin­ce him that this was not a gre­at thing to do.

Our last miles with guests on SV Anti­gua went in north Nor­way, get­ting out of the way of a big storm east of Trom­sø. Later, we found the nor­t­hern lights that we had all come for, and the glo­rious Lofo­ten sce­n­ery that makes this area unfor­gettable. Admit­ted­ly, some­thing else that is quite unfor­gettable is the migh­ty Adolf gun near Har­stad. So I just had to men­ti­on it here. Done that now, enough of it.

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

Thank you, Anti­gua, for gre­at trips again in 2015! This includes, of cour­se, all good peo­p­le who have been part of it. The crew, the col­le­agues, the guests. Good peo­p­le, good times, good stuff.

Loo­king back at 2015 – Octo­ber

Octo­ber began with this year’s last days in Spits­ber­gen spent on SV Anti­gua. This is of cour­se not­hing dra­ma­tic, quite the oppo­si­te, it feels good when a good time is coming to an end and you can rea­li­ze that is has actual­ly real­ly been a good time, wit­hout any acci­dents or other major unp­lea­sant events. Ins­tead, we got our final polar bear sightin­gs and the beau­tiful light of the arc­tic fall in a land­scape that is more and more get­ting into win­ter mode.

Jan May­en memo­ries came back as I show­ed the pic­tures during a pre­sen­ta­ti­on at Sval­bard­mu­se­um in Lon­gye­ar­by­en, while nor­t­hern lights were dancing on the night sky.

It was not just in natu­re that were lights were tur­ned off, but also in the Nor­we­gi­an mines in Spits­ber­gen. Not com­ple­te­ly and final­ly, but it does look dark and the working force has been redu­ced dra­sti­cal­ly in 2015. Lon­gye­ar­by­en is shrin­king, some­thing the place is not used to at all. And Sveagru­va is shrin­king even more. The­re, they are get­ting rea­dy for years of being a slee­ping beau­ty. But nobo­dy knows if this sleep will ever real­ly end to give way to rene­wed acti­vi­ty.

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

My Spits­ber­gen calen­dar 2016 saw the light of day at this time, the fourth of its kind in a row.

Lon­gye­ar­by­en ava­lan­che: more hou­ses dama­ged

Soon after the evacua­ti­on was lifted on Tues­day evening it tur­ned out that more hou­ses are dama­ged so stron­gly that they have to be aban­do­ned. The inha­bi­tants had to lea­ve them again soon. The hou­ses are loca­ted in Vei 228 (yel­low cir­cle in pic­tu­re below) and owned by the sta­te-owned Stats­bygg, who was at least able to quick­ly pro­vi­de repla­ce­ment accom­mo­da­ti­on. It is at least pos­si­ble to return to the buil­dings to get per­so­nal belon­gings.

This is more luck than tho­se have who lived in the now stron­gly dama­ged hou­ses (red cir­cle) hit by the ava­lan­che with full force. This area remains clo­sed to all non-aut­ho­ri­zed traf­fic accor­ding to Lokals­ty­re (the local admi­nis­tra­ti­on), who will make a plan how the for­mer inha­bi­tants can get their per­so­nal belon­gings.

Queen Son­ja of Nor­way and minis­ter of jus­ti­ce Anund­sen visi­ted the ava­lan­che site on Thurs­day after­noon.

A fami­ly who have lost their home in Vei 236 and almost their lives have now published their dra­ma­tic expe­ri­ence of the ava­lan­che in Sval­bard­pos­ten. They were in their kit­chen, having break­fast with their two litt­le child­ren and a fri­end when the ava­lan­che hit. They were com­ple­te­ly buried in snow befo­re anyo­ne could react and they just mana­ged with a lot of luck and the power that comes from despe­ra­ti­on to get them­sel­ves at least part­ly out of the snow until help came. Altog­e­ther it took about three quar­ters of an hour to get ever­y­bo­dy out. They were buried under up to two meters of hard snow, mixed with sharp frag­ments of wood and other debris. They were taken to hos­pi­tal and part­ly trea­ted for hypo­ther­mia in advan­ced stages. Due to an ama­zing amount of luck and a lot of help during and after the dra­ma­tic event, they are all well now.

The resi­den­ti­al area hit by the ava­lan­che. The hou­ses mark­ed by the red cir­cle are lar­ge­ly des­troy­ed. As it tur­ned out now, some buil­dings in Vei 228 (yel­low cir­cle) also have to be aban­do­ned.

Longyearbyen avalanche

Loo­king back at 2015 – Sep­tem­ber

A memo­ry card lost in the arc­tic wil­der­ness in 2009 was retur­ned to the owner after six years, to her (the owner’s) gre­at plea­su­re.

Mean­while, I had the gre­at plea­su­re to spend a very memo­rable week with the Ice­lan­dic scho­o­ner Ópal in Score­s­by­sund in east Green­land. What can I say. A stun­ning dis­play of arc­tic colours, a land­scape on a sca­le of its own kind. A hea­vy storm raging out on the open sea and in Ice­land, cal­ming down just in time to let us fly out wit­hout pro­blems – yes, some luck on your side is always hel­pful. And so is a buf­fer day in Ice­land if you come back from Green­land, just in case. I just men­ti­on it …

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

In Spits­ber­gen, Sep­tem­ber brings the often unde­re­sti­ma­ted magic of chan­ge bet­ween day and night back. Sun­sets and … of cour­se, nor­t­hern lights. Which we got. And, after seve­ral years, final­ly again a landing on Mof­fen, a for­bidden island in the sum­mer. The wal­rus­ses the­re were obvious­ly hap­py to see some peo­p­le. They don’t get to see too many the­re.

Loo­king back at 2015 – August

I was on the sai­ling yacht Arc­ti­ca II when July left and August came. This sum­mer was unu­sual­ly ice-rich in Sval­bard, so we expec­ted to be unable to cir­cum­na­vi­ga­te Spits­ber­gen, some­thing that had not been the case for seve­ral years. But who would com­plain about too much ice in the arc­tic? Usual­ly, we are moa­ning about the oppo­si­te the­se days.

Crossing Prins Karls For­land from west to east is not quite like crossing Green­land. It can easi­ly be done as a day hike. But how often do you have the oppor­tu­ni­ty? The sea calm enough to go ashore on the expo­sed outer side? The wea­ther good enough to make it real­ly enjoya­ble? Ever­y­thing work­ed out well and we all tho­rough­ly enjoy­ed the stun­ning views over Prins Karls For­land and the adja­cent seas and moun­ta­ins.

Some­thing that cros­ses my mind when I think back of this trip is the days that we spent in the ice in the sou­the­ast. The com­bi­na­ti­on of ice and cur­rent in Heley­sund was inde­ed spec­ta­cu­lar and some­thing one would not neces­s­a­ri­ly want to do every day. Having done that, we con­side­red the cir­cum­na­vi­ga­ti­on a fact and I was hap­py to get to Barent­søya and Edgeøya. A sum­mer wit­hout get­ting to the­se islands in sou­the­as­tern Sval­bard would not be quite com­ple­te.

Not quite com­ple­te as of yet was our cir­cum­na­vi­ga­ti­on, as it tur­ned out. The ice in sou­thern Storfjord actual­ly almost made us doubt it would hap­pen at all, but after spen­ding some time loo­king for a pas­sa­ge, the strong Hur­tig­ru­ten ship Fram sud­den­ly came, pushed into the ice, thus crea­ting a chan­nel that we could use com­for­ta­b­ly.

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

While were were cir­cum­na­vi­ga­ting Spits­ber­gen not wit­hout some effort, some bra­ve adven­tu­r­ers went around Nord­aus­t­land – in sea kay­aks! Actual­ly, two teams did this almost simul­ta­neous­ly. For one of them, it was just a part of a pret­ty extre­me trip from and to Lon­gye­ar­by­en. This was one of the last big „firsts“ to be had in Sval­bard. Con­gra­tu­la­ti­ons!

Ava­lan­che in Lon­gye­ar­by­en: evacua­ti­on lifted

The wea­ther in Lon­gye­ar­by­en is final­ly sett­ling with tem­pe­ra­tures below zero and litt­le wind, so aut­ho­ri­ties could now lift the evacua­tions and gene­ral ban on any traf­fic in are­as on the eas­tern side of the sett­le­ment. Peo­p­le are free to return to their homes sin­ce Tues­day evening, 2000.

The cata­stro­phic ava­lan­che befo­re Christ­mas, which des­troy­ed 11 hou­ses and kil­led two peo­p­le, was fol­lo­wed by an evacua­ti­on of a total of 114 flats. Con­se­quent­ly, about 200 peo­p­le had to lea­ve their homes, near 10 % of the total popu­la­ti­on. The exact num­ber is unknown, as not ever­y­bo­dy con­cer­ned repor­ted to the aut­ho­ri­ties. Some are also, as is quite com­mon, on Christ­mas holi­days, fol­lo­wing the events from warm bea­ches far away.

At the same time, the ava­lan­che hazard for parts of Lon­gye­ar­by­en is high­ligh­ted by aut­ho­ri­ties. This risk had been known for a long time, but now it has bru­t­ally come to everybody’s minds, final­ly. A preli­mi­na­ry sys­tem with actu­al ava­lan­che risk eva­lua­ti­on has been instal­led on varsom.no, as has been com­mon­ly used in main­land Nor­way for some time alre­a­dy. Ways to deal with the risk local­ly will be dis­cus­sed now. Are­as at risk will be map­ped and then mea­su­res from tech­ni­cal safe­ty means to – poten­ti­al­ly – per­ma­nent evacua­ti­on of some are­as will con­side­red. The local com­mu­ni­ty admi­nis­tra­ti­on (Lokals­ty­re) is respon­si­ble, in coope­ra­ti­on with rele­vant tech­ni­cal aut­ho­ri­ties.

The lack of safe­ty mea­su­res, a war­ning sys­tem and public awa­re­ness, also within the aut­ho­ri­ties, has recei­ved cri­ti­cism, as the risk had been known for many years. Lon­gye­ar­by­en will see a deba­te about respon­si­bi­li­ty.

The rele­vant part of Lon­gye­ar­by­en befo­re the ava­lan­che (image © Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te).

Longyearbyen avalanche

The rele­vant part of Lon­gye­ar­by­en after the ava­lan­che. Hou­ses can be iden­ti­fied in both images by the num­bers. Buil­dings have been moved up to 80 met­res (pho­to © Geir Barstein/Svalbardposten).

Longyearbyen avalanche

Source: Sys­sel­man­nen

Loo­king back at 2015 – July

The long cir­cum­na­vi­ga­ti­on of Spits­ber­gen with SV Anti­gua is always an important mile­stone in peak sea­son. This is the case even when the trip turns out not to be a cir­cum­na­vi­ga­ti­on. Ins­tead, at some point we had to con­ti­nue the oppo­si­te way. Not only does this sound bet­ter than going back, but it is quite true. This point was rea­ched at the ice edge in sou­thern Hin­lo­pen, whe­re it beca­me obvious for ever­y­bo­dy who was the­re that a sai­ling ship, and actual­ly any ves­sel other than the very stron­gest ones, would not con­ti­nue any fur­ther that way. But think of all we would have missed had things gone any other way! The wha­les far out on open sea, the Litt­le auks in Hyt­te­vi­ka … to men­ti­on just to events that cross my mind very spon­ta­neous­ly.

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

The polar bear in Raud­fjord that appeared exact­ly whe­re I had picked up the last ones just minu­tes ear­lier. The colours of the tun­dra, full with count­less flowers, sur­pri­se mee­tings with sci­en­tists … not to men­ti­on the three polar bears, not rela­ted, who hap­pen­ed to be all in the same place, on the ice of the lagoon of Mus­ham­na, fol­lo­wing their indi­vi­du­al ways for hours, mee­ting occa­sio­nal­ly for moments, kee­ping a watchful eye on one ano­ther. No human will ever know what a polar bear real­ly thinks of any other polar bear. Usual­ly, they will tre­at each other with respect and be rather careful. We were bles­sed with an oppor­tu­ni­ty to obser­ve that for the best parts of a memo­rable day.

Loo­king back at 2015 – June

Just in time as May gave way to June we arri­ved with SV Antiu­ga in sou­thern Spits­ber­gen, coming from Bear Island. A defi­ni­te high­light among­st this year’s events is the encoun­ter with a polar bear fami­ly in Van Keu­len­fjord. Who could ever for­get that? Anti­gua was moo­red along the fast ice edge, in peace and silence, until in the very ear­ly mor­ning hours the offi­cer on watch came down to wake ever­y­bo­dy up. The polar bear fami­ly that had been seen alre­a­dy the day befo­re, kilo­me­t­res away out on the ice, had come to the ship out of curio­si­ty. The mother was a bit more careful and stay­ed more in the back­ground, but did not mind her two cubs, both loo­king well and healt­hy, coming straight up to the ship and inves­ti­ga­ting us from all sides. An ama­zing way to start a day!

A nui­sance for tho­se con­cer­ned, but later an event not wit­hout some enter­tai­ning value: Lon­gye­ar­by­en air­port was run­ning out of fuel. A nice litt­le remin­der that the arc­tic is still a remo­te place, and even the­se days it may hap­pen that sup­pli­es are not always available when they are nee­ded. Some flights direct­ly bound for Oslo had to make a sto­po­ver in Trom­sø for refuel­ling.

Mean­while, many were won­de­ring if polar bears now have dis­co­ver­ed dol­phins as their favou­ri­te prey, as seen and pho­to­gra­phed the year befo­re, and now pho­tos and dis­cus­sions were coming up. Weird. Obvious­ly nobo­dy has spent much thought on how polar bears should get hold of dol­phins on a regu­lar basis. When natu­re hap­pens to ser­ve dol­phins on a sil­ver tablet, for exam­p­le by them get­ting stuck in ice in a fjord, then a polar bear wouldn’t be a polar bear if he said no to the oppor­tu­ni­ty. But that is real­ly no news.

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

Later in June, I could add ano­ther expe­ri­ence to the alre­a­dy long list of this year’s memo­rable and plea­sant events: the view from the top of Bee­ren­berg, Jan Mayen’s famous vol­ca­no. A dream of seve­ral years, taking years of pre­pa­ra­ti­ons, beca­me a rea­li­ty in my second attempt, made pos­si­ble by a fri­end­ly wea­ther god and rea­li­zed with con­sidera­ble effort. It was worth every hard breath, and the­re were quite a few.

Loo­king back at 2015 – May

The snow melt is start­ing in May. Time to put ski and snow mobi­le away and to set sail! Tra­di­tio­nal­ly, my arc­tic sum­mer starts with SV Anti­gua, sai­ling from Bodø in Nor­way to Bear Island and up to Spits­ber­gen. Lofo­ten are a gre­at place to start the sea­son. No polar bears, no Zodiacs, a rela­xed warm-up, but wit­hout any lack of scenic beau­ty. And then off to Bear Island. Always some­thing spe­cial!

Click on thumb­nail to open an enlar­ged ver­si­on of the spe­ci­fic pho­to.

But the­re was some­thing lack­ing else­whe­re. Money. The Nor­we­gi­an mining com­pa­ny Store Nor­ske does not get the pri­ce she needs for the coal on the world mar­kets, and this has brought her into gre­at trou­bles. Mining in the high arc­tic is expen­si­ve, and being a coal miner in Spits­ber­gen is dif­fi­cult the­se days. It invol­ves a gre­at risk to find a let­ter of can­cel­la­ti­on in your post box, and that’s what hap­pen­ed to many of them. Dif­fi­cult for the peo­p­le, for the com­pa­ny, for all of Lon­gye­ar­by­en. The place is small enough to suf­fer from a loss of major parts of the indus­try.

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