Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Week I Almost Quite My Job to Live in the Arctic

In another life I could have been an Arctic scientist. Probably a geologist or glaciologist. But since I didn't know those things existed and instead stuck to the social sciences, I guess being a diplomat that gets to visit the Arctic is the next best thing. I just spent 5 days traveling around some of the most northern and most pristine places in the world and can't wait to get back. Something about the remoteness, the air, and the crazy people who spend their lives up there just made sense to me.

I was lucky enough to accompany a group traveling from Washington D.C., so we were privileged to get high-level briefings and VIP tours along with the amazing scenery. We started off in Bodø to learn about Norway's military work in the North and then were treated to boat tour through Salstraumen, the strongest tidal current in Europe, and along the beautiful coast.

Scenery around Salstraumen

The tidal current going into the Fjord. 

View of the coast outside of Bodø

From Bodø we traveled to Tromsø, known as the capital of the Arctic. Tromsø is a great town with lots of activity around the Arctic, included a large university and the Fram Center, home to the Arctic Council Secretariat and the Norwegian Polar Institute. After all these years working on Arctic issues, it was a small thrill to see the offices where much of the work I've read about takes place.  The mayor of Tromsø joined us for a lovely dinner and everyone on the delegation started considering a move to the high north.

View of Tromsø from the hotel

The official greeter at the Fram Center

But the main show was really Svalbard, and so from Tromsø it was on to Longyearbyen, a town of around 2000 people, and the largest settlement on Svalbard. We spent just a few hours on the ground meeting the Sysselman (Governor) and doing some very quick shopping as a few pieces of luggage didn't make the hop from the mainland. Then, on a very small plane to Ny Ålesund, the most northern permanent settlement in the world. It was a true honor to be invited to Ny Ålesund, since it is very difficult for anyone apart from the researchers living and working there to visit. The international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute was our guide and the leader of the company that runs the facilities was our host. We learned about the important climate research taking place there, and saw first hand the changes taking place from boat ride along a rapidly retreating glacier.

Because of the gulf stream, the waters around Svalbard are usually ice free, sometimes even in the winter, but the climate is Arctic none the less. An hour long boat ride in the icy fjord was enough to chill us all and make us thankful for the huge survival suits and many layers of wool. The next day we walked around the village and heard from many of the researchers about the interesting science they were conducting on everything from sediments on glaciers to arctic bird reproduction. This is where I started questioning my chosen career and wishing that I could be out running around the tundra taking snow samples instead of sitting at desk writing reports, but I guess that's easy to say when it's a balmy 40 degrees with 24 hours of light. A candlelight dinner in a house once visited by polar explorer Roald Amundsen only added to the adventurous atmosphere.

Svalbard: Way the heck up there
Our transport from Longyearbyen and Ny Ålesund

Front seat view
View of Svalbard from above

Downtown Ny Ålesund

The beach

Getting up close and personal with a calving glacier

Just because we were at the end of the world, didn't mean we couldn't dine with class at the Amundsen Villa

Back in Longyearbyen for our last day, we visited the University Center and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Yet again, this was a privilege that few get to experience, as the director of the Vault flew up from Germany to escort us inside. Out of all the reasons someone might have heard of Svalbard, the seed vault, or doomsday vault, is usually up there. Going inside was fascinating, and learning about the system of seed banks and genetic cataloging around the world gave us all a sense of how important the facility is as a final back-up to the world's food. For instance, there were seeds from several countries currently in the midst of war in the case that the infrastructure within those countries fails to keep their national seed banks running. So cool.

Our final dinner was at one of the nicest restaurants in Norway, Huset, home to an astounding wine cellar and gourmet cuisine. It was a perfect end to a dream trip, and I really am trying to plot how to make it back up there again.

The vault sits above Longyearbyen and goes into the permafrost of the mountain

The final back-up plan for 700,000 food varieties

It's about -18 degrees celsius inside. 

Goodbye Longyearbyen, I'm back soon. 


  1. If the real views are even half as pretty as those photos I totally get why you would just want to move there. I do. I even feel like the air I'm breathing while looking at those shots is just a bit cooler and fresher than it really it.