Catherine Hyland

The Fastest Warming Town On Earth

The Fastest Warming Town On Earth

2021

Hilde Fålun Strøm didn’t realise it was a polar bear at first. Reaching the crest of the ridge on her snowmobile, she could make out Bamsebu, the remote trapper’s cabin where she and her expedition partner, Sunniva Sorby, were spending the long, dark months of the Arctic winter. But as she peered through the blackness of the February afternoon, the familiar shape of the hut appeared to be hidden behind what looked like a large snowdrift.

For the first time, the pair had decided to leave their dog, a two-year-old Alaskan Malamute called Ettra, behind when heading out to explore. They had also left their hand auger – the heavy manual drill they used to take samples of the ice – in its bright red box outside the front door. But as Strøm swung the snowmobile round, catching the cabin in the beam of its powerful spotlights, neither she nor Sorby, riding pillion, remembered that.

“I saw the dark hut, the white polar bear, and something red,” Strøm says, speaking on her return from Bamsebu in September 2020. “I was so scared.”

Most people, confronted by the realisation that their dog had probably been killed by a polar bear, might think twice about approaching it. Strøm gunned the throttle. To her surprise, the bear initially stood its ground. “Then, just before I had to turn in order not to crash into him, he took off,” she says. It was only then that she saw Ettra – sheltering in the doorway, apparently quite unharmed.

Polar bear encounters are nothing new on Svalbard. Stories of protracted battles with the animals began filtering back to Europe as early as the 1600s, when whalers and walrus hunters first arrived on this cluster of heavily glaciated islands, around 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole. Fur trappers followed, building isolated huts such as Bamsebu, 140 kilometres from the nearest neighbours, to pursue their livelihoods over winter. They braved not just the bears, but temperatures that frequently fell below -30°C, and three months without sunlight – the long darkness of the polar night.

By the time Strøm and Sorby set out in September 2019, hoping to become the first all-female team to overwinter in the manner of these early pioneers, modern technology had diluted some of these dangers. But recent rapid changes, both to the islands and the behaviour of the animals that live here, meant they faced a whole new set of challenges.

Svalbard is heating up faster than anywhere else on the planet. The polar ice cap that used to creep down and encircle the islands each winter, cutting them off from the outside world, is shrinking at an unprecedented rate, with 2020 set to be one of the worst years on record, according to the Norwegian Meteoro- logical Institute. In October, it reported that almost four million more kilometres of ice were missing compared to what was common in the 80s – an area ten times the size of Norway. Newly exposed areas of the ocean absorb far more heat than the naturally reflective ice, exacer- bating the warming effects – part of a process known as polar amplification. The ice surrounding the Svalbard archi- pelago, which lies at the tail end of the Gulf Stream, is particularly vulnerable. As Kim Holmén, international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, explains over video call: “The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Within the Arctic, the area that is warming the most – almost twice as fast as the average for the Arctic – is Svalbard.”

Disappearing sea ice and the plight of polar bears frequently make global headlines, but the world’s worst warming is also upending the lives of the people, like Strøm, who call these islands home. In 2006, Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on the islands, was chosen as the site of the Global Seed Vault. Dubbed “The Doomsday Vault” by the media, the seedbank was built to help repopulate the world’s crops in the event of environmental catastrophe. But in 2017, unsea- sonable rains caused the entrance hall to flood. In the space of a decade, it seemed the town had gone from ragnarök-proof refuge to the canary in the coalmine of the coming climate apocalypse.

When Strøm and Sorby launched their overwintering project, Hearts in the Ice, they weren’t just trying to make polar history – they were warning that without drastic changes, there won’t be much more polar history. Between them, the pair have half a century of hard-earned expedition experience. But with the environment around them changing so fast, old certainties are melting away. Dogs like Ettra would not normally be a target for polar bears, for example, but as their habitat and hunting grounds disappear, the animals are becoming more desperate in their search for food. Encounters with humans are on the rise, and bears are increasingly wandering into Longyearbyen itself, previously considered a safe zone.

One week before I was due to fly to Svalbard to meet Strøm and Sorby on their return from Bamsebu, Johan Jacobus Kootte, a 38-year-old manager at Longyearbyen’s campsite, was attacked and killed in his tent, which was pitched just 100 metres from the airport. As a friend wrote in an online tribute, “he wasn’t doing anything that hasn’t been done safely there for 40 years”.

Landing in Longyearbyen on a summer’s day, with the sky a washed-out grey and the temperature around 5°C, it’s not obvious why anyone would choose to live here. For centuries, very few people did. With no indigenous population, the islands were so sparsely inhabited that by the end of World War I, they were considered terra nullius – no man’s land.

Today, the islands are governed by an agreement dating back to the post-war carve-up by the victors at Versailles. The Svalbard Treaty stipulates that while the territory is legally part of Norway, citizens of all signatory nations must be allowed to live and work on the islands. No country can use them for military purposes, and all have the right to engage in commercial activities. For most of the 20th century, that meant mining coal.

Although 46 nations have now signed the treaty – including Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea – in practice only two, Norway and the former USSR, have ever possessed the will or the cold-weather logistical wherewithal, to fully exercise their mining rights. Because of the archipelago’s strategically sensitive location, and Norway’s membership of NATO, both governments subsidised their operations heavily, as a way of keeping civilian boots on the ground. Outside visitors were not encouraged. But in the 90s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the world’s appetite for coal cooled, the Norwegian government decided tourism might offer a better return on their investment, and the islands began to open up.

Svalbard’s first full-service hotel, a 128-room building that was dismantled and shipped north in its entirety after the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, opened in 1995 – the same year a 28-year-old Norwegian with white-blonde hair and an adventurous glint in her eye stepped off the plane to take up a job at one of the new tour operators in town.

Tall and athletic at 53, Hilde Fålun Strøm still exudes an untamed energy that leads Sorby, at one point, to compare her friend to a wild horse, but she talks with the steely self-confidence you’d associate with an experienced mountain guide. On trips beyond Longyearbyen’s limits where a gun is an essential safety precaution, Strøm carries a .44 Magnum in a holster made from the pelt of a seal that she shot, skinned and embroidered herself.