About a year ago I participated in an unforgettable trip to Spitsbergen (or Svalbard in Norwegian). The magic was in the beautiful landscape and the rich wildlife, as expected, but also in unexpected things such as living on a ship with 54 other researchers for two weeks. There was so much to learn from so many different disciplines!
Since then, I am following the news regarding Svalbard. For example the TV series ‘Fortitude’. However, after one episode I realized there is little or no resemblance between the town depicted in this series and the real Longyearbyen community, apart from the polar bear at the airport. On the website of ‘Icepeople.net’ all the mistakes are recorded. For example, there is no violent crime on Svalbard, many buildings and roads do not exist, you cannot build a hotel in a glacier, and most importantly: what are all those trees doing on Svalbard?
My own research is about the question if there is a community in Svalbard that people feel part of; and if the residents care about nature. Svalbard is a so-called ‘churn society’; a society with a lot of turnover in the population. The hypothesis was that Svalbard is an indifferent miners’ community that does not care about nature. The outcomes of the survey indicate that indeed there is a lot of coming and going of people; but there is also a core that stays for a long time; even generations. Contrary to the hypothesis, most people feel they are part of a friendly community. Furthermore, Svalbardians see Arctic nature as very vulnerable and they all try to limit their impact. This is what I will be presenting at the Adaptation Futures conference.
Did we notice any impacts from climate change while we were there? Yes we did; there are many glaciers on Svalbard, and they have all retreated dramatically. We were sometimes sailing where there was still a glacier on the map. The glaciers leave massive amounts of pitch black moraine behind; sometimes shores looked like someone had been working with a shovel; but the debris was dropped right there by the glaciers, so fast that wind and rain did not have time to make it look natural again.
At the same time, Svalbard is struggling to keep its coal mines open. The Store Norske mine employed 300 people in 2015; it still was the largest employer in the archipelago. In February 2016, the staff was reduced to 150 employees. The mine is heavily subsidized by the Norwegian government and so is the Russian mine in Barentsburg. Worldwide, coal mines are in trouble because of the low oil prices. How does the Norwegian government pay for this? I suspect with the income from Statoil. So it is a paradoxical situation.
People on Svalbard are looking at fisheries, gold mining, and tourism to solve the employment issues. Some tourists are motivated by climate change: to see the North Pole before all the ice is gone. Tourism also relies heavily on fossil fuel; for the flights, the ships, the hotels. One excursion with one Zodiac already requires 25 litres of fuel. However, once you return from such a trip, you will be forever motivated to reduce climate change.