The whiteout began in a high valley, amid glaciers and moraine fields buried deep in fresh snow. Seven snowmobiles slipped through piles of powder in single file, flying one by one through the Arctic air, up near the top of the world. The snow wasn’t falling with much force. Instead we seemed to be suspended among it, bearing witness to its making. We drove along in the gathering white, increasingly unable to make out our surroundings—mountain, cloud, sea or sky. Then the light went flat. A kind of seeing blindness took over, a dizziness where hard lines vanished and all was blank.
I glanced down at the speedometer and jammed my knees into the sides of the machine, looking for a focal point and something solid. But everything felt afloat. I squinted into the white, searching for the rider in front of me, a black smudge that would hover and wobble a hundred feet ahead, then fade from view. Counting to myself— a thousand one, a thousand two—I decided that if ever the smudge didn’t reappear in five seconds, I’d let off the gas and brake to a stop. I had no interest in tumbling into a crevasse. Or off a cliff.
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We’d set out that morning from Longyearbyen, the metropolis of the High Arctic. Home to about 2,500 people, it is the main town on Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The Norwegian islands sit 560 miles north of the far upper reaches of mainland Europe, at nearly the same latitude as the northern coast of Greenland. There are a few fishing villages and research outposts that are closer to the North Pole, but none of them has more than a few dozen residents. Longyearbyen is the northernmost town in the world.
The land here is inhabitable only because it lies at the farthest point of the Gulf Stream, which keeps temperatures from being unmanageably cold. Still, it’s a frigid and remote part of the world, and it takes a couple of days, once you’ve arrived, to fully accept that there is such a well-functioning community in that bewildering spot, with a university, a sophisticated museum and a handful of good restaurants.
With extreme weather becoming more commonplace worldwide, climate change may finally be getting a bit of its due from the highest ranks of political power. In October the Pentagon issued a report outlining the ways in which climate change poses an immediate threat to national security. In November a UN-backed study detailed numerous dangers tied to the warming of the planet. The primary concern among scientists is glacial melting in the polar regions. Spitsbergen, with an economy that relies on the unlikely mix of coal mining, climate-change research and adventure tourism, is in the unique position of contributing to the climate’s woes while studying the growing problem and welcoming travelers to observe and learn from it all as they enjoy themselves. Which makes this onetime hardscrabble frontier both strategically important and locally vulnerable all at once.
THE ISLAND WAS DISCOVERED in 1596 by Willem Barentsz, a Dutch explorer who stumbled upon it while looking for a new passage to sail to the Pacific. Soon after, whaling boats were working Spitsbergen’s waters by the hundreds, followed by hordes of hunters that slaughtered seals, walruses and polar bears onshore. The whales were nearly killed off by 1800, but other hunting was widespread into the 20th century. Norway, which was granted sovereignty over the entire Svalbard Archipelago in 1925, didn’t ban polar bear hunting until 1973.
John Munro Longyear, a former mayor of Marquette, Michigan, sailed to Spitsbergen in 1901 as a tourist with his wife and four children. Longyear had made a fortune in mining, railways and real estate, and as he looked out over the craggy and treeless landscape, he saw an opportunity. He established the Arctic Coal Company and dug the first mines into the slopes above Adventfjorden in 1906. A company town was born.
Active coal mining has long since moved beyond Longyearbyen’s city limits, but the hulking infrastructure of the industry remains. A sprawling, old receiving building sits massively on a prominent bluff to the west. The paths of dozens of trestles, which once held the cableways that brought coal to the building from distant mines, branch out in lines that curve through the valley and across the slopes.
There aren’t many buildings in Longyearbyen that are particularly impressive or quaint, as though everyone decided that there was no point in trying to compete with such a spectacular setting. Hemmed in by flat-topped mountains, the town blankets a valley that falls quickly away to the shore. Across the fjord, the mountains continue, jutting into the sky in every direction. For most of the year, the place is locked entirely in darkness or light. The sun disappears in late October and doesn’t show up again until mid-February. From late April, it’s all sun all the time through most of August. But in the shoulder months (like March, when I was there), there is both day and night. And when the sun is up, it stays low to the horizon, bathing everything in long, golden light. Days this time of year are constructed of six hours of sunrise followed by six hours of sunset—a photographer’s dream.
Walk uphill from the water and you’ll pass through a gathering of restaurants, boutique shops and hotels, including those by Basecamp Spitsbergen, the travel outfitter that was my host for a week. The company (part of Basecamp Explorer, which also operates safari camps in Kenya) runs five eco-lodges on Spitsbergen and offers adventures that include snowmobiling, dogsledding, cross-country skiing and ice- caving. (See “How to Do the Arctic,” page 116.) Its Longyearbyen hub, Trapper’s Hotel, is built of driftwood and slate, the walls covered in the skins of seals and polar bears and old black-and-white photographs of hunters, explorers and ice-breaking ships. From the lobby, you can slip through to Kroa, the restaurant, where a gleaming white bust of Lenin presides over several shelves of liquor at the bar.
STEINAR RORGEMOEN LIT HIS PIPE and unpacked a spread of coffee, cookies and chocolate. The snow had stopped, and the bloated sky was beginning to lift. “I couldn’t see anything,” he said of the whiteout that we’d come through. He had used his GPS to lead us out of the mountains, and now we gathered where a wide, flat valley fanned out to the sea. “Those peaks on that last stretch are full of overhangs—dangerous for avalanches—so that was a little tricky,” Rorgemoen said, speaking in the casual, matter-of-fact manner of someone who had deep experience in difficult conditions. But there remained some wonder in his voice, as if he couldn’t quite believe that he got to spend his working days in such a place. Over his shoulder, the sun broke low through the scattering clouds, lighting the snow and sky in shades of blue and pink.
Rorgemoen, 51, is the managing director of Basecamp Spitsbergen. Nearly six-and-a-half-feet tall, with boyish blond hair and teeth lightly stained by tobacco, he is part Zen master, part shepherd, part imposing authority figure. He personifies the rigor and quirkiness of the men and women who run Basecamp, traits I found in about everyone I met on the island. He endears himself easily to travelers, calling out to them with an affectionate “Amigos!” while mixing his Arctic expertise with thoughtful storytelling and, like tour guides the world over, an eager evangelism for well-worn jokes.
The only wildlife that we’d seen were a few reindeer, their snouts buried in the snow in a grim hunt for something to eat. (Many reindeer die of starvation, Rorgemoen said, because their search for scant vegetation buried in the winter snow leaves them chewing on mouthfuls of rocks, eventually destroying their teeth, so they are unable to eat anything at all.) Like everyone, we were constantly on the lookout for polar bears. Svalbard’s tourism industry can’t explicitly advertise polar bear expeditions—it’s against the law to disturb the animals—but getting a glimpse of the world’s largest land predator is one of the area’s main attractions. There are about 3,000 polar bears on Svalbard, but they mostly shy away from humans. Sightings from a safe distance are by no means a sure thing, and close encounters are very unlikely. But they do happen, and so leaving Longyearbyen without a gun or an armed guide is not advised.
Rorgemoen’s Ruger 308 Win rifle was strapped to his snowmobile. A couple of bears are shot and killed on Svalbard every year due to run-ins with people. Rorgemoen had never used his rifle against one of the animals, although once he came upon one suddenly while on the frozen sea ice of Tempelfjorden. “My adrenaline was going bam, bam, bam. I saw him straight into the eye,” he said. “But he stood there and watched me, and my pulse went down. He was eating a seal.”
Not everyone is so lucky. As we drank our coffee he told us about a British teenage boy who was killed in a polar bear attack about 25 miles from Longyearbyen in August 2011. The boy had been camping with a large school group, and the bear was reportedly emaciated and starving.
IN HIS PRE-ARCTIC LIFE, Rorgemoen had been a business executive, wearing a suit every day while rising through the management ranks of a home-electronics retail company in Oslo. He had started with the company at 32, eventually spending five years as its CEO. But when he turned 46, he’d had enough. “I felt like I’d gotten to the end of a book and was turning back to page one to start reading it all over again,” he said. “I did some reflecting on life and wondered if this was it or if there was anything more on the other side of the valley.”
Rorgemoen quit his job, moved to Longyearbyen from the main- land, and enrolled in the University Centre in Svalbard to learn how to become an Arctic nature guide. Soon he got a crash course in crisis management under extreme conditions. In April 2011, to fulfill one of the last segments of his degree program, Rorgemoen set out with two other guides, four guests and two dogs on a cross-country ski trip, starting nearly 200 miles north of Longyearbyen and aiming to be home in a month. But in the first few days, they got hit with a bad storm.
“It wasn’t so cold—maybe 17 degrees Fahrenheit,” Rorgemoen said. “But you factor in the snow and wind at more than 100 miles an hour—and the freezing rain. We were covered in ice.”
He called on his satellite phone for a search-and-rescue helicopter. But the conditions were so bad that the pilot couldn’t land. Still, they managed to load up five people, leaving Rorgemoen and one other guide on the ground.
“The rescue man said if you two are coming, you have to shoot the dogs,” Rorgemoen said. “By then we’ve been in this hurricane for 18 hours, and we were mentally a bit off. The other guide said, ‘I cannot shoot my best friend.’ And I said, ‘No, we can’t.’ And I told the rescue guy to go. That was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.” Rorgemoen and his companion flailed about in the storm for a few more hours—disoriented and freezing. They searched in vain for their ski gear. The dogs were too terrified to be any help. “We saw that we were going to die,” Rorgemoen told me. He tried the satellite phone again but was too cold to hit the right numbers.
“Suddenly there was a dark shadow and I thought maybe it was a polar bear, so I took up my rifle,” he said. “But it was the rescue man.” The helicopter had come back.
“That,” he said, “was my closest call ever.”
Did he ever—in the midst of the storm—second-guess leaving his old life behind and moving to the Arctic?
“Not one single minute,” he said. “No regrets at all.”
POLAR VORTICES, SEVERE TROPICAL STORMS, debilitating droughts—extreme conditions are on the rise, and the impact in the Arctic is profound. In Svalbard rising temperatures are taking a toll on nature and wildlife, sparking concern over threatened species, like the polar bear, and prompting some to wonder if the archipelago’s deep-frozen winter might soon be a thing of the past.
“When I first got here in 2003, you could snow-scooter straight across here. Not anymore,” said Oskar Birkeland, a Base-camp guide, using the local slang for snowmobile. He was pointing at the distant mountain peaks of Nordre Isfjorden National Park, clearly visible across more than ten miles of choppy water that was now completely free of ice. “March is our coldest month, which usually means 20 below zero Fahrenheit,” he said. “Now it only gets to about five above. It’s a shame, but there’s no use crying over it—we have to adjust what we do.”
The winter of 2013–14, in fact, was the warmest in recent memory. Our itinerary included a couple of nights on the Noorderlicht (northern lights), a 300-ton steel-hulled schooner that had been built in 1910 for the German government. A Dutch captain named Ted van Broeckhuysen bought and rebuilt the ship in 1992 and started sailing her to Svalbard for summer expeditions in 1994. He took up winter expeditions in 2004, anchoring the Noorderlicht in Tempelfjorden, usually in December, and waiting while the water froze in tight around her. That was where the ship would stay for a few months, with Basecamp travelers covering the 40 miles from Longyearbyen by snowmobile or dogsled—the last stretch over the saltwater fjord, frozen solid. Inside the ship were cozy cabins, a chef and a well-stocked bar.
But when I arrived in March, there was the Noorderlicht, tied to a dock in Longyearbyen, rocking in the water. On board one evening, as the snow fell outside, Broeckhuysen, who is 58 and looks like Yul Brynner, was openly frustrated with the weather. “The glaciers are retreating,” he said. “We sail every year to the glacier front, and every year, we have to sail farther. It’s clear there’s global warming. The ice is getting smaller.” But if March is the coldest month, I said, then maybe there was still time for low-enough temperatures to freeze the ship in before the end of the season? “No, it’s done for this year,” he said, exasperated. And he was right. The year 2014 would be the first that the Noorderlicht didn’t freeze into the fjord.
The Arctic’s vastness and harsh conditions have helped make it one of the least scientifically documented regions of the world, and so Svalbard’s location and relatively temperate climate make it invaluable for climate study. No other place at that latitude would be nearly as tolerable for extended periods, much less for permanent settlement. Those same factors have also made the archipelago something of a bellwether in the face of global warming. The rising temperatures—spurred on by what British novelist Ian McEwan called the “hot breath of our civilization” after attending an artist retreat on the Noorderlicht in Spitsbergen in 2005—have affected Svalbard in ways that are more easily measurable than elsewhere in the Arctic zone.
A study published in May 2014 and coproduced by the University Centre in Svalbard, for example, showed that the sea ice just north of the archipelago is particularly vulnerable to climate change. Although sea ice loss across the Arctic has been most pronounced during summer months, the melting off the north coast of Svalbard has been worse during the winter. Since 1979 that area has lost nearly 10 percent of its winter ice area per decade, the report found. Experts attribute the trend to an influx of ever-warmer water flowing into the area from the Gulf Stream. Over the past 30-plus years, the temperature of the Gulf Stream water coming into the Arctic has increased by half a degree Fahrenheit per decade. And water temperatures will continue to rise as the ice-free path north of Svalbard widens, because shrinking ice coverage means less ice to shield the cold water from the sun.
The same thing is happening on land. About 60 percent of Svalbard is covered in glaciers, but as temperatures rise, the glaciers are melting. And as the glaciers and sea ice disappear, so does wildlife habitat.
“It was strangely warm the last month—above freezing the whole time,” said Kit Kovacs, a senior research scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute, referring to a trip she took to Svalbard in February 2014, a few weeks before I was to arrive. “It’s disrupting absolutely everything. If you don’t have ice forming in the inner fjords by late November, the seals are pretty much screwed. When there’s no ice, there’s going to be no survivorship.”
Kovacs, who is an expert in polar marine mammals, called the 2014 winter temperatures “very aberrant.” But she has coauthored studies that document the overall warming trend and sea ice decline, including a report in 2012 citing projections of “a virtually ice-free Arctic in summer in the near future.”
That’s bad news for ringed seals, who need fresh sea ice covered in deep snow to build lairs to give birth to their young. It’s also bad news for polar bears. Ringed seals are the bears’ primary food on Svalbard, and, in the spring, the mother bears need seal pups to feed their own babies. A lack of sea ice, in fact, wreaks havoc on all the animals. “It bangs down the whole system,” Kovacs told me.
Jon Aars, a research scientist on polar bears for the Norwegian Polar Institute, sounded an even grimmer note. “In Svalbard there will be a dramatic drop of polar bears in 50 years,” he said. “They need a certain amount of sea ice, but it’s retreating. You don’t need fancy studies to say that polar bears will be gone in the long run.”
YOU MIGHT WONDER, given all this, if perhaps it’s too late to see Svalbard in all its winter-wonderland glory. While it’s true that global warming is threatening the Arctic ecosystem in very tangible ways, there remain plenty of reasons to visit Svalbard. And if you go in winter, you’ll still need a suitcase full of long underwear, wool sweaters and down jackets. Even with global warming, it’s probably the coldest place you’ll have ever been.
It’s also a place where you can eat and drink surprisingly well. One evening, I joined a dinner party in the wine cellar at Huset, a restaurant located in Longyearbyen’s old village hall, built in 1951 just up the valley from the center of town. With a wine cellar of 20,000 bottles and an elaborately sophisticated menu, Huset is the kind of spot that could fool you into thinking that you’re back in a big city on the mainland, eating food by an eccentric chef obsessed with such polar delicacies as Arctic king crab, reindeer sausage and sea buckthorn ice cream.
The dinner guests encapsulated the eclectic vibe that in Svalbard is simply considered normal. Among those at the table were David Adelsheim, president of Adelsheim Vineyard, who had flown in from Oregon’s Willamette Valley; Jason Roberts, an Australian filmmaker who helped produce the BBC miniseries Frozen Planet; Christin Kristoffersen, the 41-year-old mayor of Longyearbyen and the first woman to be elected to that office; and her 20-year-old son, Viljar Hanssen, who was badly injured in the 2011 terrorist attack on the Norwegian island of Utøya, in which 69 people, mostly teenagers, were killed. Hanssen was shot five times in the attack, losing his right eye and three fingers on his left hand.
After dinner we went to a coal-miner bar for drinks, the place packed with men who’d come down from their shifts in the hills. But even this was a place with a twist. What might have been a dark, sooty nook was a spacious room with a bar full of polished bottles and walls covered in artful black-and-white portraits of local coal miners. The mayor made the rounds, hugging people as she moved through the room and raising a beer or a shot glass as the toasts rang out. It was well after midnight when she led us back outside and into the cold.
“WE ARE SO LUCKY TO BE HERE,” Rorgemoen told me at the end of our long day of snowmobiling. “We have this environment—the nature and the mountains and the incredible light. And the infrastructure is good. But there’s also the people. No one cares if you are a doctor or bartender or scientist. They want to know who you are as a person. That’s why we live here. And the nature and the wildlife and the beauty is all part of that—it’s all part of the why.”
The morning whiteout went unrepeated the rest of the day. But with the clear sky and sunshine came plummeting temperatures, and by dusk it was in the teens. Our circuitous daylong snowmobile route took us to Isfjord Radio, a decommissioned radio station built in the 1930s that has been reincarnated by Basecamp Spitsbergen as a boutique hotel. It has 23 rooms in four buildings, situated on an elbow of land on the far western shore of Spitsbergen, some 55 miles on a straight line west of Longyearbyen. We were welcomed at the entrance by two young women with rifles slung over their shoulders and steaming mugs of spiked apple cider. Before long it was dark, and I found myself shivering on the beach with a small group, each of us stripped to our bathing shorts and wool socks, standing on snow-covered rocks and staring into the black and frothy surf. Rorgemoen, who had been gleefully egging us on to this moment all day, was there as our fully clothed armed guard. At the last moment, he became suddenly serious and called for our attention.
“Amigos! A couple of rules,” he announced. “No swimming out into the water. I don’t want to have to come get you. And no one stays in longer than 20 seconds.”
He needn’t have worried. I ran into the churn and dived into the first wave that came, the salt water hitting me like a wall of frozen steel. Soaked and yelping like an injured dog, I ran back to the shore, wrapped myself in a bathrobe and headed for the warm indoors. My feet, bare but for my wet, sagging socks, tingled as I dragged them through the snow. It was about 15 degrees out; the water was probably close to 30.
That night, we ate smoked seal, reindeer tartare and halibut with roe butter. Outside the snow drifted and blew. It was easy, looking out into the cold dark after six hours bent over a snowmobile, to feel the incredible isolation of that spot. Another day without a polar bear, but that quest had given way to a slack-jawed wonder that was increasingly overpowering. It seemed that every other minute you’d round a bend and be struck dumb by the sight before you, an otherworldly combination of color, emptiness and stark beauty that seemed impossibly unreal. Yet there it was, again and again.
In the morning, we packed our snowmobiles and headed out, maneuvering down the coast across vast flats that stretched on for more than 20 miles and were sometimes three miles across. In summer it is a land slashed by rivers and streams that carry runoff from the towering ridge of glacier-covered peaks just to the east. But in winter it is like a beach awash in snow.
We turned inland after several miles and headed up through a cut in the mountains. Rorgemoen brought us to a halt at the top of Fridtjov Glacier, at an elevation of about 2,200 feet. Mountains jutted up to our left and right, sloping down toward us and framing the scene in the shape of an enormous flat-bottomed boat that carried on and down for miles. We gathered and took pictures, Rorgemoen indicating where it was safe to walk and where not. And then he told us to find a comfortable spot to sit.
“I want no one to make a sound until I say so,” he said once we were settled. “Let us sit among all this space and nature. And let us be inspired by it. Leave our stresses behind, reflect on what is important in our lives, and reconsider what makes us happy, what life is all about. Let the beauty and power of this place reinvigorate us. This is the Arctic Silence.”
We sat there, completely still. There were a few bare wisps of blowing snow and cloud shadows that slipped slowly over the mountain peaks. Several minutes passed. And then, quietly, one of Rorgemoen’s colleagues began to sing. It was a kind of joik—a traditional form of music of the Sami people, who are indigenous to northern Scandinavia. As her voice grew stronger, it took on a spiritual quality that seemed to come from the mountains themselves. She stopped after a couple of minutes, and we sat there in silence a bit more. Then Rorgemoen walked slowly into view, his feet crunching in the snow and his pipe clenched between his teeth.
No one spoke. We stood, found our way to our snowmobiles, and pulled on our helmets. And then we headed out over the glacier—south, toward the sea.
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