Dispatch from the Ends of the Earth

It was about two and a half years ago that I first resolved to visit Svalbard. (Go check a globe if you don't know where this is. Hint: start looking at the North Pole.) I put that resolution into action this month. It took somewhat more effort and money that the typical overseas trip, but was well worth it. All the time I was there I had a sense that everyone should see this. Herewith an assortment of images from the trip.

This is the view from our room at the Radisson Blu in Longyearbyen, Svalbard's largest settlement.  (Click this image and others for a wide view.) I guess this might be the northernmost hotel in the world, since it is located at the north end of town. I found 24-hour sunshine together with jet lag pretty disorienting.

Beautiful vistas in every direction.


As soon as you step off the plane, you know you've stepped out of the ordinary. The (mounted) polar bear on top of the baggage claim doesn't hurt either.

A road runs from Longyearbyen for about ten miles in either direction before dead-ending in the wilderness. At one end is this mountaintop installation. Our guide claimed it was for studying solar plasma. 

Although the community of Longyearbyen is surprisingly commonplace in many ways, special engineering adaptations to the environment are needed. Coal mining is one of the local industries. They also burn coal for to generate the town's electricity. The heat from the coal is used to boil water, and the steam powers turbines. The hot water from the turbines is pumped throughout the town, as a bonus utility service. This is the middle pipe. Cold-water and sewage pipes run along either side of the hot-water pipes, to keep from freezing. 

We took a day cruise to Barentsburg, the nearby Russian settlement. Svalbard is administered by Norway but is an international territory, maybe something like Antarctica. Barentsburg is rather run-down-looking compared to Longyearbyen (although perhaps the buildings are nicer on the inside). This might say something about Russian versus Norwegian attitudes, or it might be a reflection of different standards and arrangements for living in the two communities.  

Our Russian guide in Barentsburg seemed rather peeved when I asked him about this sign, which says "Our goal is Communism!" According to him, it dates from the 50's and is kept around purely for sentimental reasons.

A spooky location: the entrance to the doomsday seed vault, down the road from Longyearbyen. Here are kept samples of seeds from the world's crops against the possibility of a disaster that would wipes out entire strains or species. It is placed high above the water to protect against rising sea levels, but embedded down below the permafrost to maintain cold in case of power failure. 

One last vista of Longyearbyen. The white animal is a reindeer, which is about the size and proportions of a really big dog.