SVALBARD, Norway — It’s true that polar bears outnumber people in Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. It’s also true that the sun never sets in the summer. Six hundred miles from the North Pole, Svalbard is home to the northernmost human settlements on the planet and the sun doesn’t set from late April through mid-August. Instead of sinking below the horizon, the sun moves in an ellipse, perpetually overhead and completely disorienting to anyone who’s never experienced it. In the middle of June, midnight looks almost identical to noon. During the polar summer, many of the 2,300 residents of Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main settlement, cover their windows with reflective padding so they can sleep. The 3,000 polar bears are awake and roaming.
I entered this perpetual light in early June before sailing for two weeks around the archipelago’s largest island of Spitsbergen on the Antigua, a three-masted, 50-meter schooner. My companions were 29 passengers from around the world, a crew of 11, a fearless female guide who’s also a performance artist, and three experienced polar bear guards — all women — who have primary careers as a dancer, a creative writing instructor, and an employee at the local ionospheric radar center.
Svalbard is remote, a dot on the map, and almost off the map. An excellent piece of knowledge for a geography bee. But it’s not nearly as remote as it used to be. As travelers seek the edges of a planet that’s become more accessible, airline options have expanded and ships laden with passengers make their way north, into one of Earth’s most fragile environments, with increasing frequency. Svalbard, like many other places — Bar Harbor in Maine for example — is trying to create a balance between protecting spectacular and endangered places while increasing the economy through tourism.
This intersection creates problems all too familiar to anyone who has watched the Discovery Channel. I saw piles of trashed fishing nets, huge dented buoys, Russian soda bottles, rusted cans, bird skeletons tangled in plastic bags, even a discarded television on a desolate beach. Cruise ships routinely dock in Longyearbyen with more passengers in one boat than all the residents of the archipelago combined. The MSC Meraviglia, an Italian ship, began visiting in 2018 and carries more than 6,000 passengers and crew, nearly three times the population of Svalbard. There are big questions about how to manage waste disposal, and in some parts of the Arctic, concentrations of microplastics are several orders of magnitude greater than in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Research has indicated that cruise ship emissions are increasing air pollution around Svalbard.
But in this fragile environment, the beauty still overwhelms. There may be a question of how long this pristine place can last, but what I saw was, actually, breathtaking. There is some sort of crystalline magic in the far north, a testimony to the narrative of nature, and the urgency of ensuring that the polar parts of our world survive.
I arrived on a snowy, cold day to a town that was bustling. A huge passenger ship was anchored. Longyearbyen is in a valley, and I was staying at the much quieter top of the settlement, up a steep hill and just below the glacier Adventdalen, in a hostel that was once a coal miners’ dorm. After checking in I walked down into the center of town, past a gallery with a collection of antique maps and contemporary paintings, an upscale restaurant and theater in what used to be the miners’ community hall, the elementary school surrounded by polar bear fencing, and several condemned buildings that have become unstable because of the warming permafrost. Reindeer meandered across a hotel construction site.
Longyearbyen’s center resembles a tiny ski town with a pedestrian mall housing high-end gear shops, gift kiosks, bars, cafes, a coop selling everything from car batteries to legs of lamb, and the “farthest north” cash machine, thrift store, public library, and chocolatier in the world. Mountains rise on three sides.
At one end of town is a Radisson hotel, and I stopped there to ask for directions to the Svalbard Museum. Inside, hundreds of cruise passengers sat at white clothed tables dining on a fusion-Thai lunch overlooking the jagged mountains, 8,000 miles from Bangkok. It was a surreal contrast to the icy quiet outside the hotel’s lobby and felt oddly like I could have been in any small city in the world.
I did find the museum, and as Sander Solnes, the head conservator told me, “A settlement on mainland Norway of 2,000 people maybe has a gas station and a pizza joint. Here we have four or five fine-dining restaurants.”
The museum is impressive, and covers an extensive amount of geologic, natural, and human history. But Solnes’s concern is far bigger than where to find a minke whale burger or a decent pad thai. Erosion is washing away archeological sites across Spitsbergen, and the melting permafrost is causing those that remain to deteriorate rapidly. “In the past, we could excavate only one to two feet in the ground during the summer, and now, it’s thawing two or three times deeper,” he explained.
The contrast between the activity in Longyearbyen and the solitude across the rest of Svalbard is extreme. Svalbard is 23,560 square miles of high craggy mountains and icy glaciers that roll over silt and crevasses to calve into the sea. During summer, the fjords are such a radiant blue it seems impossible, and waterfalls run into rivers of meltwater. It’s an otherworldly place of rocky moraine, spongy tundra that’s soft as a featherbed, beaches strewn with icebergs, and glaciers so full of leafy fossils (from when Svalbard was close to the equator), it seems someone left them on purpose. The flora and fauna are out of fairy tales: polar bears, arctic foxes, reindeer, walruses, purple saxifrage, dwarf willow, psychedelic orange lichen. Arctic terns migrate every summer, flying nearly 25,000 miles north from Antarctica, and then, when winter begins to fall, they return south.
While there’s no indigenous population, Svalbard has a long and complicated human history that started with whaling in the 1600s. The whale populations were decimated by the mid-1800s. Next came hunting and trapping of seal, walrus, and arctic fox. Eiderdown is still collected for luxury duvets. Mining followed, and while the industry was largely unprofitable, coal left its footprint. “Cultural heritage” in the form of wobbly wooden buildings, pylons, slag heaps, and rusting rail bins are visible across Longyearbyen and other parts of Spitsbergen. Two small mines are still operating, and one is phasing out.
My real introduction to Svalbard started the day after I arrived when I kayaked across a fjord from Longyearbyen to the base of steep, flat-topped Hjortfjellet mountain with a group of four and a rifle-toting guide. We climbed to the summit in whiteout conditions, post-holing most of the way because spring was turning to summer and the snow was soft. We shared biscuits and tea huddled together in an ice storm, and half of me wondered why people lived in such a harsh place, while the other half was overcome by the beauty, even when we couldn’t see past our own feet.
After two days in and around Longyearbyen, I joined 29 fellow passengers and we boarded the Antigua, a Dutch steel-hulled schooner with a broad deck, comfortable dining and lounge areas, and cabins that ranged from minuscule to spacious. The Antigua sails in Svalbard and Norway’s Lofoten Islands from spring through New Year’s, on trips lasting four to 14 days. I was traveling with a group of international artists and educators whose work relates to polar geography, landscapes, imagery, and climate.
After my first steely gray and bitter cold introduction to Svalbard, most of the two weeks we were on the boat were spectacularly sunny. Unusually so, according to our lead guide, Sarah Gerats.
We were surrounded by blue skies and deeper blue water. Icebergs ranged from clear as glass to turquoise and sapphire. There was so much beauty — 24-hours a day — that I never wanted to close my eyes. I became delirious from the scenery and the sleeplessness. We climbed the glacier Bloomstrandbreen, looking down into its eerie dark crevasses. We watched and listened as Meyerbreen glacier cracked and calved. We followed polar bears — at a distance — for hours as they swam and walked along the shoreline. We rode in zodiac boats to remote beaches and stood close enough to walrus colonies that we could hear and smell them. We spent 17 tense hours stuck in pack ice west of Danskoya island, floating north with no navigation, after an electrical failure. I stood on an ice floe in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. We climbed the ship’s masts, helped set sails, sat outside no matter the weather or time, because every moment the scene changed and every blink meant we might miss a pod of beluga, a puffin, the elusive narwhal, a spectacular angle of light. A few of us went swimming and in photos, there are icebergs drifting behind us.
We had a bonfire on the summer solstice at Eidembukta, on a rocky beach below mountains, with toasted pink marshmallows. The sun was so bright and warm that some of us stripped down to T-shirts.
We wore sunglasses day and night, and it was hard to believe that in winter, there is an equal amount of darkness. Light fades quickly in the fall, and Svalbard transforms into a dim frozen world covered entirely in ice and snow, lit by northern lights. We were told that until a few years ago, intrepid winter adventurers were able to walk across the polar sea from Svalbard to the North Pole. But that trek is no longer possible, because of rising sea temperatures and the water not freezing sufficiently.
Traveling by ship, and sailboats in particular, provides a sort of suspended animation. We were gliding along, then landing to hike, walk on the beaches, nap in the sun above glaciers, look at the relics of old mines or hunting cabins, and rolling back out to sea, temporarily released from the issues of the terra firma. Our captain and Gerats did an excellent job of navigating us away from nearly every other ship. We rarely saw anyone else, and then only at a distance across fjords.
But Svalbard’s dilemmas follow on land or water. The lead article in the March 2019 edition of the Barents Observer, a daily on-line newspaper published in mainland Norway, announced 100 consecutive months of higher than average temperatures in Svalbard. When I talked to Solnes, the museum conservator, about the impact of climate on the environment and archeological sites around Svalbard, he shook his head and said, “We can agree or disagree about climate change but that’s not interesting. It’s happening.”
The archipelago is changing so swiftly that everyone — from the people who were raised there to recent arrivals — recognize the pace of transformation. “For a long time, Svalbard had three parts to its economy,” Gerats told me. “Mining, research, and coal. But as coal ends, tourism increases. And the shift to tourism is moving too fast.” She shook her head and added, “When those giant cruise ships show up, I go into my house and pull down the shades for four hours, until they leave.”
Tourism has taken center stage in Svalbard. Minke whale carpaccio is served with local permaculture microgreens. Svalbard Brewery uses 16 percent glacier water in all its beers. The Lompenseteret shopping mall sells pricey mukluk boots and mass-produced polar bear Christmas ornaments. The sleek bars could be in Oslo. There are dog sled rides, snowmobile trips up the glacier, (snowmobiles outnumber residents more than two-to-one), reindeer stew in a replica Sammi hut, and fossil hunting. The Svalbard Seed Bank is currently closed to visitors because of the melting permafrost.
My advice: Go to Svalbard now. It’s a very strange experience to immediately, and simultaneously, fall in love with a place and also fear its demise. The complications of Svalbard, a faraway dot on the map, its tenuous hold, and the lack of control it has over how the rest of the world affects its future, are actually very close. And they broke my heart. But everything else on the archipelago filled me to bursting. Go now, or if you don’t, be aware that by the time you get there it may have already changed.