Monday, May 27, 2013

The Airship Museum and More

The Spitzbergen Airship Museum is dedicated to the history of several airships (dirigibles) that began journeys in Svalbard to explore the Arctic, and try to reach the North Pole. The first airship was the America, run by the American journalist Walter Wellman, who made three different attempts from 1906 - 1909 (each slightly more successful than the one before it) to reach the North Pole. None of them got very far however.

Spitzbergen Airship Museum in Longyearbyen
The most successful venture was an international group including Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian of polar fame, and the Italian Umberto Nobile who designed and piloted the dirigible Norge for an expedition to fly over the North Pole and traverse the polar ice cap in 1926. The group accomplished this goal, dropping American, Norwegian and Italian flags over the pole and then landing in Teller, Alaska, a native village near Nome. The Norge was taken apart to be shipped back but most of it seems to have disappeared. I’m sure the scavenged parts were put to good use in the homes around Teller!

The Norge
This "Rome to Nome" flight was highly touted, but the relationship between Amundsen and Nobile was broken by the end of the journey. It couldn't be that it is hard to contain the egos of these polar explorers in the tight cabin below the airship!

Inside the Airship Museum
Nobile then developed another airship, the Italia, an initiated another polar trip in 1928. They flew over the pole but on the way back to Svalbard, they hit a horrific storm and crashed on the sea ice in the NE part of the archipelago. Many expeditions searched for survivors. Even Amundsen joined in the search, which unfortunately led to his demise when his plane was lost. Most of the crew was eventually found by a Swedish rescue group and the team was taken off the ice. A movie, The Red Tent, was made about the event starring a young Sean Connery as Amundsen and Peter Finch as Nobile. I’ll definitely watch it though it is a highly fictionalized account.

Poster of airship inside the museum
After the museum, I walked back out in the blowing snow again, capturing yet another photo of the colorful houses in Longyearbyen.

More colorful houses (and "scooters") near the museum
I also took a walk that circled to the church on the other side of town, and then walked out to the port where we will catch the ship Polar Girl to see some more of Svalbard tomorrow!

The pretty church in Longyearbyen

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Walk in the Snow...

We woke up yesterday on May 23rd to fresh snow, and it is still snowing!

Darrell headed off to "work" at UNIS and I went for a walk in the snow. First stop was watching the pink-footed geese on the UNIS grounds.

Pink-footed geese both on the ground and flying above
I continued walking up the streets to the east where more colorful houses have a view of the fjord.

Scandinavian color scheme
The view from this area to the end of Adventfjorden

Snowmobiles are the preferred transport in winter
Many people walk and bike here. I haven't noticed anyone that is overweight - maybe because they get regular exercise and because the food is too expensive to eat more than you need!

Letting gravity push the baby stroller into town!
Almost all the houses have bikes, skis, snowboards, and shovels in front of them. Here is a typical example of local toys!

Toys and Transport
I did a double-take on this bike-sled combo. At first I thought the forks on the front of the bike were attached to the sled, but they aren't really connected. Kind of a cool idea though!

A new concept for pushing the kids around!
If you want to keep the kids warm while you are cruising on the snowmobile, you pull these great "carriages".

Snowmobiles, "carriages", and gas cans!

After my tromp through the snow I headed into town and checked out a few of the shops. If you can decode some Norwegian you can see that the post office and the bank are in the same building as the massage parlor!

The hopping shopping district in Longyearbyen
On the way home I finally got a decent picture of a snow bunting.

Snow bunting
Most of the buildings in Longyearbyen have shoe racks where you put your outdoor shoes. Some places even provide slippers or croc's for you to wear after you take off your boots.

IKEA shoe rack at the UNIS guest house where we are staying
Time to put up my stocking-footed feet and relax!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS)

Paraphrasing from Wikipedia (again): UNIS is the world’s northernmost higher education institution offering undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate level courses in Arctic Biology, Geology, Geophysics and Technology.
UNIS was established in 1993 to provide university level education in Arctic studies, to carry out high quality research, and to contribute to the development of Svalbard as an international research platform. UNIS’ geographical position gives it a unique advantage, enabling students and faculty to use nature as a laboratory.
UNIS' new building (2006) on a clear day
The new building was built in 2006 to house both the University and the Museum. The photo above shows the mountains across the fjord and was taken on a clear, cold and windy May 22nd. The photo below was the next day -  snowy and with no mountains visible.
This morning's snowy view of the same building - no mountains!
 About 450 students from all over the world take one or more courses every year at UNIS. The student body is approximately 50 % Norwegian and 50 % international students; therefore English is the official language at UNIS. There are no tuition fees and there is affordable housing (at least by Norwegian standards!).

View from inside the UNIS building
UNIS’ faculty are also about 50 % Norwegian and 50 % international, and consist currently of 20 fulltime professors, 21 assistant professors and about 170 guest lecturers who specialize in arctic issues. UNIS researchers work in collaboration with Norwegian and foreign research institutions and are actively involved in a large number of joint research projects.

Darrell in the Scandinavian style hallway at UNIS
Darrell and Matt are two of the many guest lecturers invited to UNIS. Darrell has been presenting on a variety of geochronologic tools, including amino acid racemization, for an Arctic Quaternary Geochronology course. Matt is mostly presenting on paleomagnetism for the same course. Both of them gave two lectures and then prepared a lab exercise for the students to work on. They also took a field trip across Adventfjorden to see some glacial deposits – but the snow impeded some of the views. It is an amazing opportunity just to come here, and we would have come just for the joy of it, but they also get paid and have housing provided, which makes it much more affordable.

The UNIS building also houses the local information center and the museum. The museum is pretty small but has a good display on the history of the area. There weren’t any native people living here prior to the arrival of early explorers, whalers, and miners, but everything here from prior to 1946 is protected as a historic artifact.

Overview of the inside of the museum
The information on the plants and animals was all in Norwegian so I can’t be too specific on species in the area besides Ursus maritimus, but they did have an artistic food web that I really liked!

An eider's artistic food web!
Next blog - a walk in the snow!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Walking "town"

Longyearbyen has about 2,000 residents, making it the farthest north "town" in the world. According to Wikipedia, the average length of residence is 6.3 years. I took a walk yesterday to see a little more of town.

Colorful row of houses in Longyearbyen

The map of town has marked areas where it is safe to walk without a rifle. Outside of that zone, you need to carry a rifle, or go with someone that is carrying a rifle. So, that means climbing these easily accessible peaks is off-limits unless I find someone to go with!

Coal miner statue in "downtown" plaza
The town itself stretches along both sides of the Longyear River (that receives meltwater from the Longyear Glacier) so there is actually a fair bit of area I can explore.

Meltwater chute from sidevalley
You can see they have plowed out a natural channel, getting ready for spring meltwater that hasn't quite arrived yet! The average summer temperature is only 6° C (43° F) so you see a lot of skis and snowmobiles scattered in yards, but not a lot of barbecues! While less than half of the households have cars, there are actually more snowmobiles than residents.

You can see the kirke (church) in the background
The view from the hills in town shows the reflection of the mountains on the other side of Advent Fjord.

Reflection in Adventfjorden
I crossed the river (presently not flowing) and walked up the dirt road to make a reservation for us at Huset, an award-winning restaurant in town. It has a wine cellar with 20,000 bottles. It doesn't look like much on the outside, but I'm eager to see inside when we take Anna to dinner there on Friday!

The river separates Huset on the right, from Nybyen (New Town) on the left.
I couldn't walk any farther than Huset, because I wasn't carrying a rifle, and I didn't really want to risk running into any polar bears regardless! More adventures tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Longyearbyen, Svalbard Archipelago - 78° North

We went from a balmy 20° C (68° F) in the outskirts of Oslo, to a chilly 2° C (35° F) in Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitzbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago. Darrell is here to teach a class on amino acid geochronology, and I am here to savor a new part of our planet.

We flew separately to Oslo and I met Darrell in our hotel room near the airport. We set our alarm for a 20 minute nap (jet lag...) and then went for a long walk through the woods and circled two different lakes. This was the quiet one!

Why Norwegians settled in Minnesota - it looked like home!

The other lake had runners, bikers, barbecuers, and kids pushing each other off the dock.

Kids and water are a great mix!
We forced ourselves to stay up until 8 pm and then collapsed and slept until 4 am, a typical pattern for us as we recover from changing time and not sleeping enough on airplanes! We caught a morning flight to TromsΓΈ and then continued on to Longyearbyen.

Norway's west coast is incised by fjords. The Lofoten Islands are in the background.
Pancake ice off the south coast of Spitzbergen

First view of Longyearbyen -  Glacier in background!
Longyearbyen is named after an American. After first arriving in Svalbard as a tourist, John Longyear's Arctic Coal Company started mining coal here in 1906. The mines closest to town are all closed, but there is still active coal mining and I sat next to a geologist that is looking for new coal by drilling through the glaciers and overburden to promising sites under the ice. We won't get into the politics and economics of coal right now.

Signpost at the airport
Longyearbyen is the largest town in Svalbard, with approximately 2,000 residents. We took a walk through town and found the local school.

Note the old coal mine on the side of the mountain behind the school!
There seem to be a lot of children in this town. And there are several child care centers. Note the tiny skis stacked outside this center. I remember one of my friends wanting to know how Norwegians got their kids to be such good skiers - and the answer was, "We just let them ski in the yard". Here's proof!

May 20th, with 24 hour sun, and snow on the ground.
After our walk, we met Matt, a Canadian researcher presently working in Stockholm, and Anna, the professor that invited both Darrell and Matt here, and went out for an amazing dinner of Arctic char. I forgot to take a picture of my dinner, but it was delicious. A great beginning to our time in this special place. More on the University, and why Darrell and Matt are here anyway, in a later post!