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View from Svalbard, Norway

Norwayʼs extreme Svalbard archipelago may become a key hub in the changing future of the Arctic

In the world’s northernmost permanent (non-military) community, in an archipelago north of Norway, barely 12 degrees from the North Pole, you can call a taxi. There is a road network of about 50km, just within the town, connecting the airport at one end, and the EISCAT radar station at the other, via a couple of coalmines. There is more. My cab driver is from Seattle, but he could have been from Thailand, the second nationality after Norwegian in this town of slightly more than 2,000 inhabitants.

I pay the cab fare, enter the only grocery store and am greeted by a locker with the following sign ‘NO GUNS OR RIFLES IN THE SHOP, ASK STAFF FOR STORAGE’. There is a reason for this. There are about 20 per cent more polar bears in Svalbard than people, which determines many aspects of the daily lives of this small community. For example, you are not allowed to leave the town without a rifle (or accompanied by someone with one). Accidents happen. Both between rifles and bears and between bears and people, the latter with the most dramatic of outcomes.

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Longyearbyen, the administrative centre of Svalbard and its largest settlement

These anecdotes give some sense of the idiosyncrasies of Svalbard’s largest community. This group of islands, deep in the Arctic Sea, known in the past for its whaling and mining resources, has since 1920 been of Norwegian sovereignty, and has a peculiar legislation. The Svalbard Treaty, which defined its political status in the early 20th century, and whose subscribers have grown to 40, allows for any of its co-signers to become residents. There is no social safety net though. No healthcare, subsidies or unemployment aid; if you don’t have a job or a place to live, you will be removed from the island. Probably by the governor, trained at Langley − Langley, Virginia (read FBI training). It makes you wonder what else he has to be prepared for.

It is February, and we barely see the sky light up for more than a couple of hours (no sun above the horizon until early March). Temperature drops to -38 deg C and we are so far north that we have to look south to see the Northern Lights (they occur 60-70 degrees north, and south). I am standing on one of about 60 wooden poles, pushed 15 metres into the ground of a nascent building site waiting for spring action. The poles are foundations. Building is a problem in Longyearbyen. Apart from the fact that everything has to be shipped in or flown from mainland Norway or Russia, the ground is mainly permafrost. In this case frozen mud or loose conglomerate. Traditional foundations are not encouraged, unless you want your building to heat the frozen soil, and slowly sink, as demonstrated by some of the surviving early 20th-century buildings in the area.

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Surfacing in the bleak polar-bear inhabited landscape of Svalbard, the Global Seed Vault preserves plant seeds in an underground cavern

So why live here? Originally it was due to mining. Barentsburg, a Russian enclave of some 300 inhabitants, hours away by snowmobile, still produces coal, but only for its own consumption. Today, Longyearbyen is populated mainly by researchers, academics, students and the tourist industry. Since the opening of UNIS, Svalbard’s University Centre, focusing on biology, geology and technical courses, students flow in and out all year round. Tourism is growing, with flights every other day.

There is a definite political agenda with heavy subsidies and PR investment. The Global Seed Vault, built at a cost of over US$9 million, was fully funded by the government of Norway. Curiously, local coal is used as energy to ‘further cool’ the storage space, to -18 deg C. UNIS, again, is state-funded, and brands itself ‘the world’s northmost teaching institution’. In a world where focus on the Arctic and its resources is increasing, there is a clear move from Norway, via Svalbard, to make its presence stable, known and accepted. There is no flag placing, as with Russia’s North Pole seabed stunt in 2007, but it is interesting to see how infrastructure and architecture are used to attract attention and inhabitants to what may be a key hub in a shifting Arctic future.

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