Transcript of Podcast #1: Svalbard - Is there such thing as an Arctic theme park?

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An Arctic themepark. Is there such a thing?

If the glossy brochures and aerial drone footage on tourism websites are anything to go by, there certainly now appears to be.

For a good chunk of the past winter, January and February, I flew the couple of thousand miles north from London to the High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. It’s located on the edge of the frozen Arctic Ocean, one of the most northerly spots of land on Earth. Indeed, it’s a mere six-hundred or so miles from the North Pole.

Previously almost unheard of in the temperate south, these islands have been enjoying a popularity surge due to their likenesses appearing in an array of best-selling books and even a TV series. This has had a vast impact on what Svalbard has become, on the handful of people who have lived there over the long term, and of course, on the polar environment.

Svalbard, with the main island of Spitsbergen the primary focus of attention, is governed by a treaty signed in 1920. This made it a sovereign territory of Norway, with governance, currency and many laws to match. However, it’s a somewhat oddball of a territory. All other treaty signatories, including the usual suspects of the UK, Denmark and so on but also curiously North Korea, have the right to pursue commercial activities there, and their citizens may visit and work. Rather like the Antarctic treaty, military activity is banned, although enforcing this ban has ruffled a few feathers in recent years.

Apart from Norway, the only other significant player is Russia. They operate and govern their settlement of Barentsburg, second to the de facto Norwegian capital of Longyearbyen. Many of these terms, capital for example, should be in inverted commas. The scale of settlement is tiny. Longyearbyen is home to around two thousand and Barentsburg five hundred or fewer in winter. Aside from a couple of other research stations, that’s it. The overwhelming majority of Svalbard is today entirely empty – left to the snow, mountains, polar bears and other fauna.

Human activity on the other hand has been a highly international affair for these islands. They have no indigenous population, unlike most of the Arctic, were most likely reached by norsemen in the twelfth century, spotted for certain by the Dutch centuries later, used as a whaling base by the British, attacked by the Nazis, and subsequently settled by Scandinavians and Russians, it’s nearest neighbours. Longyearbyen itself is named after an American coal mining developer from a century ago. This brings us to coal, a pivotal part of Svalbard’s current progression that I’ll come back to.

But first, I need to explain what I was doing there. As a specialist in polar travel and with projects usually dominating my time, especially the winter and spring which bring the most challenging yet feasible conditions, this winter just gone I found myself with a season spare so to speak. I was still in development with a major expedition and a smaller Arctic journey didn’t end up working out time-wise with my team, so the bulk of winter was there for the taking. Unwilling to lose a season and having never set foot on Svalbard, I decided to go solo.

But, to do what? Instead of a simple point A to point B expedition, for example a crossing of an icecap or island, my motivations were more nuanced. First, I craved some winter time – the true pitch black polar winter of the highest latitudes. I’ve long since focussed my attentions, unlike the vast majority of polar travellers who favour spring or summer, on this forbidding time of year. I also had a number of other tickboxes on my to-do list. I needed to build contacts in the local logistics community for a future project, and also research and further develop new tent and ski binding designs that I’m working on with a couple of outdoor companies. I also needed to shoot some footage for a commercial partner. But finally – I just wanted to go – I hadn’t been, and I wanted to.

In the months that followed I absorbed the full range of what winter is in this odd part of the High Arctic. It truly is like no other, even at comparable latitudes. First to strike me was the mild weather, fifteen degrees above the minus thirty-five being endured by my Polar Eskimo friends in the extreme north of Greenland. The sea was mostly clear of sea ice due to North Atlantic currents and the position of the isolated islands. I was previously used to thick sea ice being the main route for travel throughout much of the year. Here, it was absent.

From my base in Longyearbyen, I explored the local area at first and then ventured further and further. I built on my limited snowmachine experience. Known by all sorts of names – snowmobiles, snowscooters, Skidoos – I’d always kept my distance in the past mainly because I saw them as cheating on major polar journeys and in any case, they are almost entirely shunned by Greenlandic Inuit with whom I spent my formative years. Skis, and occasionally sled dogs, were my preferred method of getting about. My scepticism of snowmachines was soon reinforced by an endless stream of both first hand experience and stories from locals. Snowmachines, even if well maintained, are a large and blunt instrument. You can eat up four hundred miles in a single day, granted, but they give you little feel for the snow or ice you are on. This can prove fatal in avalanche zones, something Svalbard has suffered from a great deal, and on frozen rivers and lakes where sounds and small movements can give away a dangerous area. They guzzle fuel like no tomorrow, meaning you’re constantly limited by your fuel capacity. And. They break. The landscape is peppered with broken-down or abandoned machines. Even the best-designed models are susceptible to hard wear over unrelenting, bumpy terrain and technical gremlins. I went through three machines. The first decided to lose all drive in the pitch black, in a narrow gulley, with large and recent polar bear tracks just beside it. I was fortunate that I could hitch a ride back with my Russian companion.

Humans on skis may be slow by comparison, but they break down less often and are very efficient on fuel. A kilo of food a day can keep a skier going. As it can a dog team, and you can also hunt or fish to refuel a dog team. Electrics don’t go array and engines don’t conk out in skiers or dogs. Regardless, there were days when I was thankful for the range they gave me, and I gained plenty of experience on some very steep and technical surfaces that approached the limits of what snowmachines can deal with.

I had weeks with which to explore on skis and on foot. I travelled with new friends and also alone. I tested all my new gear – in particular a totally new type of composite hybrid snow shelter that should go public in the near future. I shot hours and hours of film, and stocked up my photographic collection, vital for both sponsors and communicating my travels to audiences back home.

I left Svalbard on the first day of March. The sun had officially risen to mark the start of spring a few days before, but due to the steep mountains it hadn’t yet touched the Longyear Valley.

What impressions did Svalbard leave on me? How did it compare to my research and expectations? In particular, how does it fit in amongst the wide swathes of the remainder of the Arctic I’ve worked in? Is it a themepark?

To answer that, we need to come back to coal. Coal mining has for nearly a century been the entire purpose behind people keeping the settlements open. Millions of tons of it were and are still used to power a good proportion of coal-fired industry in Europe. With the widespread disuse of the dirty fossil fuel however, this was clearly a ticking clock. What was left was a smaller residue of scientific and tourist activity that piggy-backed off the revenue generation of the coal. Svalbard has been though, even decades ago, the only real tourist destination in the High Arctic, mostly for the great and good of various European and American societies.

Aside from a small nucleus of coal miners who still work transiently – mostly Norwegians, Russians and Ukrainians, the transition from coal to a post-coal era has been afoot since the close of last century.

What now is the point of Svalbard for humans? How about closing the settlements and letting it return to nature entirely? Perhaps just the preserve of the occasional visitor, as 99% of the rest of the High Arctic is and likely will be for centuries to come, even in the face of global temperature rises?

Svalbard’s importance as a source of power, and it’s strategic value in both the Second World War and the Cold War that followed, has set it apart. Infrastructure and investment from the Soviet Union, but mainly Norway since, has shot it way ahead of any competitors. It’s for these reasons that, rather than declining in an age of satellite communication and renewable power generation, Svalbard is hot property. Those scientific missions from all across the globe, focussing on wildlife, climate, microbes living in glaciers and so on, that survived on the back of the coal industry have remained, even as their financier slinks away into the shadows. There is even a branch of a Norwegian university teaching students Arctic-orientated courses. But, unless bankrolled by governments, science needs cold, hard cash and lots of it. Unless universities get into bed with industry, they need to find another way to justify keeping everything in Longyearbyen going – the airport, the hospital, the docks, the shop. This is where the big T word appears on the scene.

Tourism is across most of the remotest parts of the globe, and the Arctic in particular, treated as an unfortunate necessity. It’s seen as commercial, transient, wasteful, dirty, and without understanding for the special places it seeks. And, it is all of those things. Tourists in the eyes of locals, native or not, occupy the lowest rungs of the ladder of respect. We’ve all heard the jibes about tourists acting like herds of sheep as they block the pavements in capital cities, and how in the Arctic they emerge in thousands of pounds-worth of clothing still with the price tags attached. The problem is – Svalbard now needs tourists. And, the old argument of remote corners of the globe being off limits to the unworthy, hapless tourist is now just plain archaic. The horse has bolted. Those with the money and the desire will come, and why on Earth shouldn’t they.

As the old industries of Svalbard abandon it, the locals, students and scientists will need their infrastructure funded by paying guests. And not just a few. Tens of thousands roll off cruise ships that dock in the summer, engulfing the small town. They just can’t build hotels fast enough. Space is oddly at a premium in the valley as buildings on the edges of Longyearbyen are destroyed by avalanches nearly every year now. I looked out of my window one morning to see a three-story apartment building destroyed – luckily no-one was hurt this time. In 2015, two people were not as fortunate.

Even in the dark winter, every daily flight from the mainland is crammed with tourists and commercial tour companies block book entire planes, driving up prices for locals who need to travel at short notice. Built up around these hotel-dwelling tour groups are a few companies who dominate the industry. From guided tours of town showing the disused coal mines and foundations of buildings shelled by Nazi battleships, there are dog sled rides and skidoo tours. Prices for all are eye-wateringly high. I saw mass formations of snowmachines out near the delta in rows twenty wide and ten deep. Apparently, minor accidents are frequent as total novices head out into snowy, steep and gravel-strewn polar bear territory on their powerful, top heavy steeds. After a few years the machines are so worn out and damaged by inexpert use they cannot be sold second hand. Most of the services like mechanics and repairs, and clothing shops, are owned by the same companies who run the tours and hotels. It’s very hard to find independent operators and there is a campaign, supported by the Norwegian governors’ office, against so-called black guiding. This is when independent guides not working for the two of three main companies offer their experience for more affordable prices.

Regulation has long been a favourite occupation of the government, both on the islands and the mainland. To a large extent this is vital. Dangerous places attract cowboys and novices, often needing to be saved from themselves. After all, when it all goes wrong, and it does, it’s the government that picks up the pieces or is even blamed. But, the application of rules seemed a little odd to me. You can be three hundred miles out in the wilderness on your snowmachine but if a patrol from the governor’s office stops you and you’re without your drivers licence, you’re fined. Yet, newly-arrived workers to the islands can take paying guests out on dog sled tours in bear territory, in the dark, without backup, with no experience with firearms, the Arctic or even dogs. This happens daily with at least one major tour company.

When we discussed all those over eight-pound-per-pint beers in Longyearbyen, the views are jaded to all this. You get the standard routines of locals – seeing themselves as the equivalent of natives despite only having been on Svalbard for a decade or two – being disparaging towards more or less everyone; the tourists, the scientists, the university students, the transient workforce. It’s the ladder of worthiness yet again. Guides jostle for position in order of how qualified or experienced they see themselves. Feathers are ruffled with an ease I’ve not seen anywhere else. As a newcomer to Svalbard, and regardless of my hundreds of days of Arctic experience, a dogsled business owner called me a madman for riding a snowmachine a mere six miles along as safe route in high winds. ‘It’s always the experts that need rescuing’, she scoffed. This, at a time when her dogs were in such a poor state of health that I was a hair-trigger away from a visit to the governor’s office. There was without doubt a super-concentrated sense of status-competition, driven by the small-town culture and of course, gossip.

One self-styled senior wilderness guide blasted forth in a bar with tales of how he’d deploy flares and deterrents if a polar bear approached his group within a hundred metres. When it was suggested this was overkill and likely to cause an incident and not avoid one, he flew into a rant. After then being shown footage of a polar expedition veteran calmly and safely deterring a polar bear that had approached to under ten metres, he claimed the expert to be a fake showman and badly trained. That veteran was none other than Borge Ousland.

What a place, you may think! Fiscal uncertainty, double standards from the regulators, an invasion of sandal and sock-wearing tourists, a power struggle amongst insecure guides and even commercial monopolies. Luckily, that is not the whole story.

Longyearbyen is also home to truly remarkable individuals who are attracted by the uniqueness, the remoteness, the beauty and the challenge. I met some of the most competent and kind outdoorspeople that I had met in any Arctic territory. Standing out were the Russians in both settlements.

There were some ferocious scientific intellects and passionately-committed policy makers who call Svalbard home too. It’s a place of extremes and there’s not a lot of space for anything in the middle.

I think it is, if handled carefully, no bad thing for there to be a place in the High Arctic where a country like Norway has created an oasis of comfort and modernity in the middle of the otherwise featureless north. People want to see the Arctic, of course they do, and so it needs to be dealt with in a way that doesn’t destroy the landscape or fill bodybags. In northern Canada’s High Arctic, a debate now rages about thousand room cruise liners sailing the North West Passage in a territory that could barely handle a Search and Rescue operation for ten per cent of the crew and passengers. Svalbard mustn’t allow similar to occur.

Many of you listening may be considering your own visit to Svalbard, perhaps to see the Northern Lights. On that note as an aside, some advice. Don’t go anywhere just for the aurora. All you need is a few clouds or a little back luck and you’ll end up empty handed. Go for other reasons and see the lights as a bonus. Besides, Tromso to the south actually has far better aurora as it’s on the main belt as it were.

If you do go, read reviews or even better, contact someone who lives there via social media to get the low-down. Be discerning with who you deal with and give your money to. If something seems dangerous or badly thought through, say something. There most certainly is some bad practice going on with tour groups. It’s my view that it’s only a matter of time before a major accident. But above all, research and perhaps even get a little training in the cold and outdoors. You’ll be more comfortable, be able to enjoy the Arctic more, and you’ll be less of a burden if things do get serious.

So where does this leave us?

Is Svalbard an Arctic themepark? Nearly I think, but not quite yet. It can be brought back from the brink.

Alex HibbertComment