Another Look At Svalbard

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Melissa Schäfer

The seed vault has been covered in our pages so many times, that I thought I knew enough, and that plentitude made me almost skip this travel story. Having seen the Northern lights in my teen years, while working at a summer camp in Maine, with 40+ years perspective I can say with certainty that no travel experience comes close to that. I am a travel junky, and have had some profound travel experiences. Kelly McMasters makes me want to chase down that visual wonder that, try as I may, I cannot explain to anyone, and to combine it with some serious winter adventuring:

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Greeting the New Year In Earth’s Northernmost Settlement

In Svalbard, above the Arctic Circle, you can’t be born and you can’t be buried, but you can find renewal in the dark of winter.

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Melissa Schäfer

Few people have heard of Svalbard and even fewer have seen it. The isolated group of islands is an old mining settlement turned glacial adventuring outpost located 1,200 miles north of mainland Norway, one of the closest landmasses to the North Pole, along with Greenland and Nunavut. The approximately 2,200 inhabitants dotting the desolate tundra are itinerant, a mix of climate scientists, miners and globe-trotting explorers mostly from Russia, Scandinavia and Canada. There are more polar bears than people.

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The northern-most greenhouse dome in the world provides microgreens to a local restaurant. Melissa Schäfer

Historically, this archipelago was the isolated purview of turn-of-the-century airship explorers obsessed with finding the Northwest Passage; more recently Svalbard served as the fantastical setting for Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Today, it is poised to be the next extreme vacation destination for tourists obsessed with climate change, wilderness and chasing the Northern Lights.

Svalbard is an Arctic desert. It’s permafrost makes it the ideal home for the Global Seed Vault, an underground repository for the world’s most vital crops (and likely Svalbard’s most famous tourist attraction, though no tourists are allowed inside). But this permafrost also means nothing can take root, giving the place an eerily lunar landscape, with no trees and few animals.

The extreme isolation and hardness of the landscape is what drew me here, too. I took the trip with my partner Noah. Both of our marriages had recently ended, and in our 40s, we were suddenly rootless, dislocated in a way neither of us had expected. It was as though we’d sat on the shoreline, watching a glacier crumble into the ocean. We’d found each other, but our relationship was still new and untested. Perhaps we’d been drawn to the Arctic to see if anything permanent in the world still existed.

And so, at the end of December, after spending a few days in Oslo exploring Grünerløkka’s record shops and the Viking Museum’s ships, we took a direct morning flight to Svalbard. I imagined stepping off the plane into a sea of phosphorescent green aurora, but when we arrived, the sky was cloudy. Noah had seen the Northern lights many times, mostly in Iceland, but this would be my first experience. I loved the idea of the sun setting off a solar flare 92 million miles away, and having it appear here in all its eerie ectoplasmic beauty, like some ghostly atomic postcard.

A set of stairs was rolled up to the plane’s exit door and along with everyone else we wrapped our bodies in our serious coats and hats and mittens before stepping out into the icy air. At the bottom of the slippery staircase, a woman in a reflective flightsuit directed us toward the airport with hand-held lantern flares. A silver foil tiara spelled out Happy New Year on top of her white-blond bun. It was 10 in the morning on New Year’s Eve and pitch black…

Read the whole article here.

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