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.
“What I saw was 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 none the worse for the experience.
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 1,000km from the North Pole. Fur trappers followed, building isolated huts such as Bamsebu 140km 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 sun – 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.
Hilde Fålun Strøm (and Ettra)
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 Meteorological 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, exacerbating the warming effects – part of a process known as “polar amplification”. The ice surrounding the Svalbard archipelago, 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 on average. 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, unseasonable 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, 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, watercolour grey and the temperature hovering stubbornly at around five degrees, it’s not instantly 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 still considered terra nullius – no man’s land.
Today the islands are governed by an unusual agreement, which dates 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, including Norway, can use them for military purposes, and all have the same rights 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 Sunniva, 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 a seal that she shot, skinned and embroidered herself.
Longyearbyen’s Kulturhus, home to a library that’s advertising a literature festival and a café that serves us lattés, didn’t exist when Strøm first arrived. Back then, she remembers, the settlement was so small and male-dominated that “everyone knew there was a new girl in town”. But as tourism grew, the town grew with it, with the new industry attracting a generation of young, international adventure-seekers who stayed – drawn-in by the magnetic pull of the polar landscapes, the chance to earn Norwegian wages and the visa-free access granted by the Svalbard Treaty.
Today, Longyearbyen’s year-round population is just 2,300, yet includes citizens of more than 50 countries. The third-largest population group is Thai, and with 33 percent of residents that are non-Norwegian, it’s a number bolstered by the more than 700 students and academics from 43 countries who conduct research at UNIS, the University Centre in Svalbard. Among these is Zdenka Sokolíčková, a Czech social anthropologist, who explains that while Longyearbyen is not entirely free of problems (not least, overtourism), xenophobia has never been one of them.
“It’s a utopia,” says DBC Pierre, the Booker Prize-winning author who comes on holiday to Svalbard every year. In a place this remote, he says, “people are free to be themselves. And people are naturally tolerant, I think. In Svalbard, it doesn’t matter who lives over the hill, you know you have to help them if they’re in trouble, and likewise they’ll come and help you.”
Occasionally the outside world will intrude, in the shape of a sabre-rattling pronouncement from Moscow. But on the ground, the treaty’s strict demilitarisation clause has held firm. For more than 40 years, Svalbard was a geopolitical anomaly – with Soviet and NATO citizens coexisting side-by-side just a few kilometres up the fjord from each other. Yet having seen off the threat of nuclear war with their neighbours, the people of this increasingly international community are now facing a new, but no less existential, challenge.
Biologist Mads Forchammer
Mads Forchhammer doesn’t look like a harbinger of doom. If anything, his ruddy cheeks, silver beard and easy laugh suggest he should be delivering presents, not news of the impending apocalypse. But as we drive out of Longyearbyen into Adventdalen, the broad, glacial valley where he conducts the bulk of his fieldwork, the picture the professor of arctic biology paints is a bleak one.
The rapid rise in average annual temperatures – between three and five degrees since 1971 – is causing dramatic changes in the vegetation, he explains. Svalbard is visibly greener in summer than it was just a few years ago. “We also have a shift in species, so plants or species which thrive better in warmer weather are now seen more frequently,” he says. His story is complicated by the fact that for some species, including Mads’ main subject of study, the Svalbard reindeer, this has been a boon. “You probably don’t want to hear this,” he says, “but we have never had as many reindeer as we have now”.
Yet climate science is rarely straightforward, and in the short-term at least, when an entire ecosystem is upended, there are likely to be winners as well as losers. The new, tropical-coloured carpet of vegetation certainly makes Svalbard easier on the eyes in summer, but in the soil beneath the surface, things look more disturbing, as long-frozen micro-organisms begin to stir.
Forchammer’s colleague Sarah Strand, originally from California, has spent the past six years studying permafrost. In Adventdalen, her studies show that the active layer of permafrost, the section which thaws in summer and freezes in winter, is thickening by one centimetre a year on average.
Meteorologist Siri Wikström and permafrost scientist Sarah Strand
“When the active layer is frozen, there’s not much happening in terms of microbes,” she explains. “If you have stuff that’s rotting, it won’t be rotting when it’s frozen.” As more and more permafrost thaws, however, the rot spreads, with the potential to release vast quantities of greenhouse gas. Methane, around 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, “is the main cause of concern,” says Strand. “But also CO2, and carbon monoxide”.
Feedback loops like this, where warming creates the conditions for further warming, are one of the factors that make climate projections so difficult. But scientists agree that at some point these processes – permafrost thaw, or the polar amplification caused by the disappearing ice caps – are likely to lead to tipping points. The climate crisis, it seems, will play out like a bridge rusting through – issues might remain imperceptible for years, but the collapse, when it comes, will be catastrophic.
A report published in 2019 by the Norwegian Centre for Climate Services suggests that if global emissions aren’t reduced, average air temperatures will be 7 to 10 degrees warmer on Svalbard by 2100. Annual rainfall will increase by up to 65 per cent, contributing to worsening soil erosion, an increasingly unstable snowpack, more frequent floods, landslides and avalanches.
Yet on Svalbard, climate science isn’t just a set of predictions in academic papers; it’s something people see with their own eyes. Talk to anyone in Longyearbyen – even those rare few who, off the record, dispute the idea of manmade climate change – and they’ll tell you it already rains more than it used to; that the snowmobile season is generally getting shorter; and the Isfjorden, or “ice fjord” on which Longyearbyen lies, hasn’t lived up to its name since the winter of 2004-5.
There have been more deadly consequences, too.
Longyearbyen’s avalanche guard
Strøm and her husband Steinar live in a pretty, terracotta-coloured house at the top end of road no. 230, in the oldest part of town. It’s part of a long terrace that is frequently photographed by tourists, with each traditional A-frame dwelling connected to its multi-coloured neighbours by a flat-roofed, wooden entrance hall.
On the morning of December 19, 2015, the couple were at home, eating breakfast. It was the middle of the Arctic winter, and a heavy storm had battered the town all night, ripping the roof off one of the school buildings. Around 8am however, the wind died down, leaving behind a thick blanket of fresh snow. It was a Saturday just before Christmas and, despite the darkness, the children were getting excited.
Two doors down from Hilde and Steinar, a young family was preparing to go out. Two-year-old Nikoline Røkenes and her sister Pernille, three, were putting jackets on in the entrance hall, waiting impatiently for their parents to come out of the main house. At around 10.20am, the avalanche hit.
A huge slab of snow, some 200m wide, slid down the hillside, tumbling over itself in a deadly white torrent, four metres high in places. Twelve houses on the Strøms’ road were swept clean away, with debris carried 80 metres downhill. Some of the A-frames remained intact enough to protect those inside, but the Røkenes’ entrance hall splintered, as if it was made of matchsticks.
“I was the first at the site,” remembers Strøm. “Me, Steinar, and there was one other man there maybe before us – in addition to the young couple, who were looking for their small girls.” As the emergency services, and more of their fellow residents, arrived to help in the desperate search for survivors, Strøm took care of the girls’ mother. But avalanche snow sets like concrete, and two small children are hard to find when you don’t even know where to start digging.
Longyearbyen, population 2,300
After an agonising two hours, rescuers eventually found Pernille, who had miraculously survived. But little Nikoline, who was pulled from the snow a few minutes before her sister, never regained consciousness. As she lay in the hospital, more tragic news filtered through. Atle Husby, a 42-year-old father of three, who taught at the school and played mandolin in the local bluegrass band, had also been killed.
The avalanche hit the small, self-reliant community hard. The physical scars are visible to this day – the black soil where 12 homes once stood still is churned by the movement of diggers and salvage vehicles. On the hillside above, two gleaming rows of steel avalanche barriers, installed to ensure the tragedy is never repeated, serve as a constant visual reminder. But there are deeper, mental scars too.
Four years later, when Zdenka Sokolíčková, the social anthropologist, first started interviewing long-term residents about life in Longyearbyen, several of them broke down. “Everybody knew that life in Svalbard was kind of dangerous, but people tended to believe that they were safe when they were at home in Longyearbyen,” she says. “Realising that this was not the case hurt a lot.”
There was comfort to be taken from the candlelit vigils, the moving memorial services and what Sokolíčková calls the “official discourse” of a community coming together. But beneath that, darker currents swirled. People pointed fingers, arguing about the complex causes of the avalanche and asking why people hadn’t been better-protected. With the dangers of climate change apparently suddenly and horrifyingly real, community cohesion suffered. Longyearbyen, it seemed, was no longer the utopia some had imagined.
For Strøm, the trauma was a galvanizing force. The idea of spending a whole winter at Bamsebu was something she’d been mulling over for a while. “But now, my dream of an overwintering went from something selfish, a point of experience, to something that I really wanted to do to make a contribution,” she says. “I wanted to raise awareness. But I didn’t know how.”
Explorer Sunniva Sorby
The answer came to her the following September, at a travel trade conference in Alaska. Like Strøm, 59-year-old Sunniva Sorby, a Canadian of Norwegian descent, has spent a large part of her career in the polar regions – although most of it at the other end of the planet.
Introduced by a mutual friend, the pair were queueing for coffee when Sorby gasped. “Oh my god. You’ve got the same ring!” With its looped polar bear design, made by an Inuit artist on the western coast of Greenland, the ring instantly marked Strøm out as someone special to Sorby, who combines the determined optimism of her hero, Ernest Shackleton, with a tendency towards the spiritual. “It gave me goosebumps,” she says.
For her part, Strøm remembers being slightly starstruck. Sorby had been part of the first female team to ski to the South Pole, in 1993. “I thought that was pretty cool,” Strøm says. The two of them hit it off, and in between comparing notes on their previous extreme endeavours, realised they shared a deep desire to do something about the destruction of the polar ecosystems they had lived in, and loved.The initial idea for the overwintering might have been Strøm’s, but it was when Sorby came on board that it started to morph into the multi-pronged project that Hearts in the Ice became, encompassing activism, education and research. “I inspired her, and she inspired me,” says Sorby. “We were playing ping-pong with ideas.” Sorby brought with her not just boundless enthusiasm, but a wealth of serious fundraising experience and a black book that complemented Strøm’s when it came to finding sponsors, even persuading British singer Joss Stone to get involved.
Sorby was also instrumental in pushing the idea of citizen science. “There is a word for it in Norwegian, folke forsker,” explains Strøm, but it’s not a “common expression”. Sorby, by contrast, had worked with scientists from Nasa, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), on her Antarctic expeditions. When the two women laid out their plans, her contacts, and Strøm’s friends from UNIS, jumped at the chance to send them assignments.
The men who built Bamsebu in the 1930s might have picked the location for fur trapping, but its remoteness, the complete absence of light pollution and the length of Strøm and Sorby’s stay meant they were perfectly positioned to take the regular measurements that researchers working on today’s data-driven studies require. Where the hut’s original occupants would have hunted with crude traps, Strøm and Sorby spent their days gathering evidence – a process that involved altogether more sophisticated equipment.
An Eiscat radar dish
There was the drone, a DJI Mavic 2 modified by Canadian company InDro Robotics, which flew preset patterns to record infrared imagery. This was fed back to researcher Eric Saczuk at BCIT, who uses multispectral analysis to map out the lichen which contributes to the “greening” effect observed by Mads Forchammer and his colleagues. They also had a terrestrial camera (a Fuji X-T3 DSLR), which they used to shoot long exposures of the Northern Lights for Liz McDonald, a space weather scientist at Nasa – and, on one occasion, to photograph a rocket launch.
There were blunter instruments in their arsenal too. The hand auger in its big red box, which they used to take ice core samples for analysis back at UNIS, and perhaps the simplest, but most important, tool of all – the Secchi disc. Strøm and Sorby would lower this black and white circular target into the ocean from their boat, recording the depth at which it disappeared in order to give Allison Cusick, a biological oceanographer at the Scripps Institution, vital data about phytoplankton populations.
“Phytoplankton don’t do so well in warmer water, or fresher water,” Sorby explained on one of the regular Zoom phone-ins she and Strøm conducted with their scientific partners and classes of awestruck school children during their mission. “What researchers are noticing is that, with the sea ice melting, and fresh water melting into salt water, they’re not surviving.” This, she says, is scary – not just because the microorganisms are the building blocks of the entire ocean ecosystem, but because “they’re also responsible for around 70 per cent of the oxygen in the atmosphere – more than a rainforest.”
Feeding data to climate scientists became a huge part of Strøm and Sorby’s project. But the fact that they are, as Sorby modestly puts it, “two ordinary women”, was arguably more important for their message. “We wanted to show that we can all make a contribution to climate science,” Strøm explains. Sorby says they wanted “to speak to the young girls out there, but also the young boys, and say ‘you know, role models come in all shapes and sizes.’”
The hyper-masculine history of polar exploration, which glorifies dangerous gambles and the act of sticking your flag in somewhere first, features prominently in Svalbard lore. From the outset, Sorby says, they were determined to showcase a different way of doing things. “I feel that men show up in the world of exploration with more of their ego at stake,” she says – but the leadership the climate crisis requires is the opposite. “It’s about compassion, communication, and building community; not competing against one another.”
Pyramiden, 50km from Longyearbyen
For all the success of their collaboration, spending an entire year in two small rooms, with someone you’ve previously spent no more than two weeks with, is a daunting task. When those two small rooms are in an uninsulated, 90-year-old wooden hut and your nearest neighbours are a six-hour snowmobile ride away, it becomes several orders of magnitude more difficult. Add in the lack of running water or a flushing toilet and blizzards so strong that, on one occasion, they ripped the door off the hut – not to mention the ever-present risk of hypothermia, frostbite and polar bear attack – it’s no wonder that things sometimes got a little tense.
The arguments were usually sparked by small disagreements, the pair say. When getting dressed in all the layers needed to go outside takes ten minutes, it’s easy to be frustrated if your partner takes 15. Because of the bears, looking out for each other was essential at all times. “So I mean, we did everything together,” Strøm says – even walking down to the shore to dispose of their waste when one of them went to the toilet. “There was no privacy. We were like an old married couple.”
But as the generations living on Svalbard before them had discovered, when the simple acts needed to stay alive – creating heat, making food, sourcing water – take up to four hours a day, friendship and co-operation quickly become the default human emotions. And if they ever doubted their decision, the questions of the nearly 10,000 school children who dialled in to hear them speak over the course of the winter quickly reminded them of the importance of their mission. “There’s a good saying in Norwegian, ‘kunnskap endrer atferd’, which means something like ‘knowledge changes behaviour’,” says Strøm. Once you know, how can you not agitate for change?
Much of the conversation around climate change on Svalbard revolves around that idea: that these islands, and the microcosm of the international community that calls them home, could serve as an example for the rest of the world. Local engineers make the case that if renewables can work in such an extreme environment, they can work anywhere. Academics argue that the open-door immigration policy promotes the kind of collaborative research the planet desperately needs, and tour operators suggest that if only more people could come here to see the damage with their own eyes, they too would become climate advocates.
Yet despite the growing numbers of VIP visitors, decisive international action of the kind required to spare this archipelago and its inhabitants from the most apocalyptic scenarios remains elusive. There’s every chance the example set here could be a far bleaker one.
On July 25, 2020, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute recorded the hottest temperature ever registered on Svalbard: 21.7°C. The following morning, miners from Store Norske, the historic coal company, arrived at work to find it shut down indefinitely. A melting glacier had flooded the mine.
Concern cuts right across Svalbard society, according to Morten Wedege, head of environmental protection at the Sysselmannen, the Governor’s Office. Smartly dressed, with grey hair and a neatly trimmed patrician’s beard, he explains that it doesn’t really matter how well the community here responds to the climate crisis – it is decisions made in far-flung capitals that will ultimately decide their fate.
“I am very, very worried about how Svalbard will look in 20 years,” he says. “What will people see when they come and visit? What will there be left to see? Even if we stop all emissions today, you still have a delayed effect. The snowball is rolling basically, which is scary.”
On the morning before Strøm is due to leave Longyearbyen for a long-overdue break on the mainland, I swing by her house to say goodbye. Under the eaves of the entrance hall, hanging just out of Ettra’s reach, are two bloody sides of raw, red meat – the result of a reindeer hunt earlier in the week. In the kitchen, Steinar is quietly butchering the rest, while the living room floor is covered in expedition gear from Bamsebu. Rifle cases lie open by the radiator, backpacks overflow in the hallway, and there are boots drying in a corner. She’ll leave some of the gear packed-up, Strøm says, because she and Sorby are going back.
“It’s many things,” says Strøm, when I ask why. “But mostly it’s where we see we can make an impact. How much stronger are our voices from Bamsebu, than from here in civilization?”
Events beyond Svalbard, Sorby later explains over the phone from Montreal, have only served to highlight the urgency of their message. When they left for Bamsebu, there were wildfires raging in Australia. When they came out, California was on fire. “Imagine Mother Nature as a body with different organs,” she says. “In one part of the world her lungs are failing. In another part of the world her liver is not functioning. In another part of the world her heart is having trouble beating. Once you understand that all her systems are crashing, you realise that ‘holy shit, it’s not tomorrow, it’s now’.”
They’re under no illusions that it will be tough, but they’re nothing if not tenacious. “I’m not Mother Theresa, and neither is Hilde,” says Sorby. “We’re simply trying to show up, and do our part.” Or as Strøm puts it, her mouth set in a steadfast smile: “The climate crisis isn’t taking a break, so neither are we.”
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