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Chilling out in Arctic Norway

One of the highlights of the three years of my geology degree so far at the University of Southampton has been the number of fieldtrips to various different locations, both within the UK and abroad, including Spain, Tenerife and France. However my trip from 4-20 August 2007 to Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago at 78°N to collect samples for my 4th year independent research project with my project supervisor and his PhD student has to comfortably top the list.

The Svalbard archipelago lies between 74 and 81°N in the Barents Sea, and is owned by Norway, however there are several Russian coal- mining settlements in operation. The largest island, Spitsbergen lies between 76 and 81°N and contains the 5 main settlements: Longyearbyen, Barentsburg, Sveagruva, Ny Alesund and Hornsund. My destination was the largest Norwegian settlement of Longyearbyen at 78°N, home to around 1,800 inhabitants. 

My first view of the Svalbard Arctic wilderness from the plane window as the fluffy white cumulus clouds beneath us suddenly cleared completely took my breath away. Innumerable pointed peaks rising up into a clear blue sky as far as the eye could see, clad in a brilliant white snow that reflected strongly the low-angle bright evening Arctic sunshine into our eyes.

Inbetween, incised valleys carried immense ridged and striated pale-grey to white glaciers flowing around the pointed peaks, the peaks acting as if a confluence in a river system. Large fjords cut in from the coast to the west, sparkling in the clear sunshine and creating a rugged, incised western coastline, frequently exposed to raging westerly gales. We touched down at Longyearbyen airport at 8.45pm local time and unsurprisingly were the only plane in the small airport. This is the land of the midnight sun during early-mid August, and the 24-hour daylight was something we would have to get used to in the coming 17 days.

Longyearbyen is the largest settlement in the archipelago by some margin and although surrounded by a bleak landscape, is actually remarkably civilised for this Arctic wilderness. Here you will find a supermarket (the Svalbardbutikken), several cafes, souvenir shops selling items at the typical high Norwegian prices and even a rifle hire shop. The Svalbard university (UNIS) lies at the northern limits of the town near the shores of Adventfjorden and contains a museum, which is well worth a look around with some nice displays and also some good English books and maps available for sale on this remarkable archipelago.

A 20-25 minute walk up the valley from the main shopping street in the centre of town brings you to Nybyen (=New Town), a settlement built away from the main centre of Longyearbyen for use by coal miners in times gone by. The coal miners are long gone now however and Nybyen is home to several guesthouses, including the Spitsbergen guesthouse, where I stayed for the majority of my stay and Guesthouse 102, where I stayed on my final night. Hotels including the Radisson and the Spitsbergen Hotel are located in Longyearbyen itself and there is even a campsite next to the airport for the brave (or foolish!).  

Just outside of Nybyen a road ventures across the other side of the valley to what appears to be a huge mansion. This is Huset and a visit to this remarkable building is essential when in the area. Within the Huset is a bar, posh restaurant and a cinema. On a Friday/Saturday night we were surprised to witness a nightclub start up in the main bar area after 11pm, complete with disco lights and clubbing music such as Rihanna, 50 Cent and Justin Timberlake, with the curtains drawn to provide darkness and shelter from the 24-hour daylight outside.

Every day you would meet different people in the bar. Once we saw a huge party of noisy Norwegians locking out the central large table and giving the appearance they were drinking for Norway, another time some quiet Germans were sitting at a table by the window, and we even met a bubbly Scottish women from Dumfries on the first night! The initially bizarre feeling of stumbling out of the bar after a few drinks at 11pm into broad daylight became normality after a few days. The low angled evening Arctic sunshine reflected off the steep scree and snow-covered slopes, giving you the uplifting energy to get out and start climbing the mountains at 11pm, an urge that was difficult to resist.

There’s no doubt about it though, even during early August the climate is cold when compared to the normally warm summer temperatures of the UK. When we touched down on 4 August, the temperature at the airport was reported as 11°C, but this is not to be expected. Most of the time the temperature hovered around 6-8°C during the day, but the windchill in the open valleys and on the high peaks can be formidable without suitable layers. I became accustomed to wearing 2 pairs of leggings underneath a pair of waterproof trousers, 2 or 3 t-shirts, a couple of warm jumpers and a warm jacket with a hood. At times this was a bit too much, but I was thankful for it on the windy peaks!

My research work in Svalbard consisted of sampling siltstones and shales that formed in a shallow marine environment 55 million years ago, and now located at 600 metres altitude on the eastern slopes of Nordenskioldfjellet, a peak rising to 1050 metres. As soon as you leave the city limits, it is essential to carry a rifle incase of polar bear attack. As I had had the most training prior to our trip, I was in charge of carrying the rifle and it is wise to undertake a training course before you go. Rifles can be easily hired from Arctic Sport in Longyearbyen and as far as I was aware you only had to be over 18 to hire one, but maybe I was missing something! It became commonplace to meet folks walking around with a rifle astride their back after a few days. Fortunately we did not meet any polar bears; it is more common to come into contact with them during the winter. Working at such an altitude however did mean that on several occasions we were working up in the cloud and had visibility of only ~50 metres. Low
cloud commonly envelopes the higher peaks of Svalbard and the weather is changeable like that of the UK, however rain here is mostly light and normally, but not always, fairly short in duration.

One may expect the flora and fauna of Svalbard to be extremely restricted due to the harsh inhospitable winter climate, however a surprisingly large number of species do survive in this Arctic wilderness. The flower of Svalbard is the Svalbard Poppy and we encountered this in bloom on 16 August at 700 metres altitude, with beautiful pale yellow bowl-shaped flowers adding colour to the grey scree slopes. We also saw the Arctic Willow, botanically a tree, but a plant that grows very slowly along the ground where it is protected from the icy winds. Patches of heather and grass were encountered at lower elevations. On the fauna side, we encountered reindeer both in the field and outside our guesthouse in Nybyen and these animals are quite frequently seen around Longyearbyen. We also saw ptarmigans in (Bjorndalen) Bear Valley on one of our field outings.

Svalbard is home to over 2000 glaciers and a visit to one or both of the glaciers above Longyearbyen is a must. This whole area is a mecca for anyone interested in glaciology, as the valley containing Longyearbyen itself is a large glacially carved U-shaped valley, with steep scree-covered slopes rising up to around 500 metres on either side. The shrinking remnants of this once large glacier can now be seen above Longyearbyen as Longyearbreen (=Longyear glacier), the lower and most visible of the two from Longyearbyen, and Larsbreen (=Lars glacier), a larger glacier at higher altitude to the left when looking up the valley from Longyearbyen. Many people book on a glacier tour which climbs up to Larsbreen first, curves round and returns via Longyearbreen. However being adventurous geologists, we decided to avoid the inevitable expense of this tour and go on our own adventure, the initial plan to just climb up Longyearbreen for the experience.

We climbed up the frontal moraine first, where some nice 55 million year old plant fossils such as leaves and stems can be found, which are extremely well preserved (just don’t put them in your hand luggage on the return flight!). We then ventured onto the glacier, which consisted of crunchy rubbly ice with many pinnacles offering good grip. We were fortunate to enjoy a settled spell of weather at this time, and the cloud was gradually lifting and dispersing around the nearby lofty summits allowing warming rays of sunshine onto the glacier. The remarkable feature of these glaciers is the abundance of clear meltwater streams running along the surface, eroding away the upper surface of white frosted ice rich in air bubbles, to expose the older ice of a beautiful pale blue hue where all of the air has been compressed out. Throughout our trek up the glacier we could constantly hear a low frequency rushing sound, which could potentially have been meltwaters running through underground ice caverns beneath us during
the summer melting phase. We trusted our judgment and stayed well out into the centre of the glacier away from any deep clefts. As the gradient of the glacier leveled out, we veered off to the left, off Longyearbreen and up towards Larsbreen thinking it would be nice just to see the other glacier. This was a very steep climb up scree-covered slopes with solid permafrost just a few centimetres below the upper layer of scree.

Larsbreen in my opinion was a far more interesting glacier, not only at a higher altitude with a fantastic view across Isfjorden (Is Fjord) to the immense glaciers of Oscar II Land, but also the ice structures on this glacier were much more complex, consisting of delicate, intricate pinnacles and spires of white and clear ice, some rich in clear air bubbles. The meltwater streams on this glacier however were often surrounded by slush puddles, waterproof trousers come in very useful here!! By this stage our plan for the day had already gone awry, but we hadn’t planned on meeting a guy on Larsbreen who told us about the fantastic view from the peak across the other side of the glacier, standing at 849 metres altitude. It didn’t look that far away, we had to give it a try. The slopes were very steep and consisted of loose scree however the view from the summit was a revelation. A 360° panorama across unspoilt Arctic wilderness, completely untouched by man, except perhaps for the secondary consequence of global warming. Except that is for Huset, which was visible far below, although we couldn’t see any loud Norwegians or Germans quietly enjoying their meal! The view across Larsbreen was simply stunning as the glacier emanated from a beautiful bowl-shaped cirque. Behind this to the SW, the 1031 metre summit of Haberget rose up, spawning a small glacier on its northern slopes. To the west the long ridge of Nordenskioldfjellet (1050 metres) rose up majestically above the gash in the landscape occupied by Longyearbreen, which was obscured from view. We must have stayed on this summit for an hour; basking in the clear unbroken sunshine and watching the shadows progressively lengthen across Larsbreen as the afternoon wore on. The complete absence of wind from the summit was incredible and gave great pleasure to the view, which was comfortably the best view I have ever seen from any mountain peak and may never be superceded.

Svalbard only has around 45km of road and on one day I think we cycled most of it! The main road runs east from Longyearbyen for around 20km down Adventdalen (Advent Valley) then climbs a hill at the far end. This road also runs west from Longyearbyen past the airport and ends at Bjorndalen. We chose to cycle east down the wide glaciated valley of Adventdalen. As soon as the city limits of Longyearbyen are cleared, the road changes from tarmac to a dirt track. Cotton grass grows on either side and the road is raised up above the permafrost. The climb at the end of the road is quite steep but the views from the top are stunning; east to numerous, some pointed, some flat-topped snow-clad peaks, and west through bare Adventdalen to Isfjorden and the distant glaciers of Oscar II Land.

Boat trips run daily from one of the two harbours at Longyearbyen, including an excellent taxi, which picks you up bright and early from your accommodation.  The trips are again costly (~1200 NOK) and last for ~9-10 hours, however are in my opinion worth it except for those who suffer from sea sickness! The trip across Isfjorden lasts around 2.5 hours and we saw puffins, seals and numerous other wildlife on the trip, with the immense glaciers of Oscar II Land getting ever bigger and ever closer. The boats pay a close visit to Esmarkbreen (=Esmark glacier), an immense glacier with 50 metre high, striated ice walls of a striking pale blue hue rising vertically out of the water. We watched in awe as several large chunks of ice detached from the main sheet and plummeted into the sea, creating a deep low frequency booming noise. On our cruise aboard the Langoysund, we were served food from a delightful onboard BBQ as we sailed from Esmarkbreen to the Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg, but beware this part of the crossing can be rough.

Being committed geologists, nothing gets in our way to see the local geology, which includes staying two nights in run-down Barentsburg, with a population of 550 people. But we were having second thoughts when we arrived to see plumes of jet-black smoke rising out of the town, as a result of the coal mining. Many of the buildings were in a state of disuse and were more commonly inhabited by seagulls than people. The hospital wasn’t in a much better state and certainly would not have been my choice of destination had I fallen ill. There was a statue of Lenin in centre stage and the Russian consulate building appeared to be in the best condition.

Our hotel, aptly named the Barentsburg Hotel, was among the better looking buildings. Journeying inside was like stepping back in time 60 years!  A huge phone with a receiver the same size as my head was attached to the wall just inside and a musty smell floated throughout the building. The tap water was ominously cloudy but at least the bare essentials were there: bed, shower and toilet. The two days we spent in Barentsburg were certainly an experience. The woman in the hotel bar was rather unfriendly to say the least (not once did we get a service with a smile) but we were served a whole range of interesting, very different but often nice Russian cuisine. We rather suspected however that these were not the sort of meals that the coal miners received.

Despite the run-down nature, Barentsburg is well worth a visit on one of the day cruises as you are shown around for an hour by a Russian guide, followed by another hour of your own adventures in this distant outpost of Russia, including the delights of the Pomor Museum and the souvenir gift shop. However at the end of two days in the place we were ready to leave, the only trouble was the ferry was late and the rain was turning to sleet and wet snow!

However nothing could prepare us for the weather we would return to in Longyearbyen. The boat trip back was rough, a strong westerly wind was blowing us swiftly back eastwards to Longyearbyen and snow was starting to significantly accumulate on the higher hills. However once we entered Adventfjorden (Advent Fjord) and got our first good view of the hills around Longyearbyen, we saw that the whole area was experiencing a violent blizzard and snow was settling only around 50 metres above sea level. As we arrived back at Nybyen and checked into Guesthouse 102 for our final night, we could see that our sample localities on the side of Nordenskioldfjellet were under several centimetres of snow, completely different conditions to the bright sunshine we had enjoyed on our glacier expedition the day before we left for Barentsburg. Winter was already knocking on the door of Longyearbyen and summer appeared to have faded into an already distant memory. We walked briskly through the vagaries of the weather to Huset, to enjoy one final night in the friendly Norwegian atmosphere and contrast it to the hostility of Russian Barentsburg.

We flew out of Longyearbyen at 2.55pm the next day, more snow had fallen overnight but had once again only settled up on the hills. Unfortunately the extensive cloud cover denied us a final view from the air of this fantastic archipelago, shaped by snow and ice over thousands, maybe millions of years. Lets hope it is never spoiled by excessive human intervention.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences over the 2 weeks I was on Svalbard and would urge anyone who has the chance or the urge, to go. However the flights from the UK are costly at £400 each, involving a flight from Heathrow to Oslo, then Oslo to Tromso, and finally from Tromso to Longyearbyen. However this long expensive journey is certainly worth it, as it is without a doubt an experience that will last a lifetime. 

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