79 Degrees North, Nearly

This post originally appeared on the blog “Arctic Research” run by the European Commission program INTERACT.

79 Degrees North, Nearly

Arriving in Svalbard

Waiting on the tarmac at Tromsø Airport for our Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) flight to Svalbard, I nervously check my watch as the noon deadline approaches for SAS pilots to announce a strike.  What will happen to our flight to Svalbard if the pilots strike? Will we be stuck in Tromsø? What will happen to the many months of planning and securing permits for our research on Svalbard? Shortly before noon we board the plane – a hopeful sign. But just after the stroke of noon, SAS announces a pilot strike. I lurch my head up and stare at the cockpit door expecting the pilots to swing it open and walk off. Instead, the plane begins to taxi down the runway. I will the plane skyward while fearing it will suddenly turn around and take us back to Tromsø like the zeppelin departing Berlin in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

View out the hangar of our Dornier 228 aircraft in Longyearbyen.

It’s not until we are snug in the little hangar at Longyearbyen Airport that I finally breathe a sigh of relief and let my mind wander to the third flight of the day to reach our destination – Ny-Ålesund, an even smaller town 70 miles northwest of Longyearbyen. I think about the hardship early explorers to Svalbard faced, braving days at sea amid thick pack ice and frigid temperatures. It hardly seems fair, but I’m happy to climb aboard when the attendant shepherds me to the plane for our 22-minute flight.

With each mile from Longyearbyen, my excitement grows. For months, I imagined spotting Ny-Ålesund, sitting upon the craggy, black-and-white coastline of Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest island, its shores awash in a ceaseless, polar-summer sun. Now aloft in the clouds, diffuse sunlight fills the fuselage, isolating us from the world below. The dull humming of the twin propellers echoes in my head, easily cutting though the flimsy foam earplugs handed out before takeoff.

Glacial blue waters of the Kongsfjorden near Ny-Ålesund.

As we begin our initial descent into Ny-Ålesund, my eyes scrutinize each small opening or darkening in the clouds, straining to glimpse mountain peaks or glaciers. But no luck – the dense cloud cover hangs like a thick veil obscuring all features below.

When we finally drop through the clouds, the sky opens onto a field of sinuous, glacial-cut ridges erupting from the sea. An epoch of erosion has gouged parallel sets of gullies, with the remaining cliff faces standing like chiseled pillars marking the entrance to Ny-Ålesund. Flying level with the mountain peaks, the jagged edges imbue a sense of raw, untouched wilderness that leaves me with an awe not felt since my family visited Alaska when I was 11. Suddenly, the jolt of the plane touching down snaps me back to Ny-Ålesund: “We’re here!”

Landing at Ny-Ålesund (07/04/2022).

The town of Ny-Ålesund

After collecting my bags from the reception area of Kings Bay, the not-for-profit company that operates the town, I step outside and watch reindeer lazily graze on grass and lichens growing on the beach toward the Kongsfjorden. I feel transported into an enchanted land. Marching down the gravel roads and foot paths, I pass the town store selling colorful shirts, coffee mugs, and hats all proudly proclaiming, “Ny-Ålesund, 79°N” – heedless of the fact the town is 5 miles shy of 79°N. This slight stretch of the truth does not seem to bother the ever-increasing number of tourists who arrive by cruise ship and buy up souvenirs and tool around town for a few hours. The town store is only open when cruise ships or airplanes land.

A group of reindeer enjoy the summer’s day behind NERC Arctic Research Station.

Shortly after leaving the store, I recognize the worn, red wooden siding of NERC Arctic Research Station, our home for the next week. Operated by the British Antarctic Survey, the station is one of 19 in Ny-Ålesund run by 11 different countries. Svalbard is a VISA-free zone that allows all signatories of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty to operate scientific research stations on the archipelago. Exhausted from travel and worry, I sink into the chair in my room and begin dreaming about the adventure that awaits.

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