You guys know that I’m madly in love with the Arctic, right? I mean, I might had to give up living there after 3 years but if the name of this blog is any indication, I still am a sucker for snow!
Even though I’ve been living in Tromsø for several years, I never felt as much appreciation for the region as I did when I visited Svalbard. Suddenly, the Arctic felt the way I’d always imagined it to be: remote, majestic and different from anything else I’ve ever experienced!
While tourism in the Arctic Circle and specifically places like Finnish and Swedish Lapland, as well as Tromsø, booms at the moment, these regions just don’t really feel like the Arctic anymore. Sure, depending on where you’re from, they might still feel very remote, but in my opinion, they also feel quite touristy, crowded and, at times, highly artificial.
This post was written in collaboration with Prityazhenie, Moscow.
All opinions, however, remain my own.
You know, when I first moved to Tromsø, I would always tell people that I was moving to the “Arctic” and while that was technically true, it didn't feel very true. Tromsø is a city with amenities like any other city in Europe and except for that one storm that left the entire region without electricity for 5 hours in the middle of winter, it never really felt very “arctic” to me.
The “real” Arctic
Apparently, I’m not the only one feeling that way, though. Back in the day of the real Arctic expeditions, people who would come to Tromsø for the first time all seemed surprised by how modern and sophisticated it was that far north. The city already had pretty architecture to show off back then and people dressed as fashionably as they did in Central Europe, hence why the city got the nickname “Paris of the North”.
So, the “real” Arctic explorations didn’t take place in Tromsø - that’s just where they started. Roald Amundsen, for instance, who was the first to sail the entire length of the Northwest Passage in the Arctic Ocean, bought and restored his famous ship Gjøa in Tromsø in 1901. It was also in Tromsø where Amundsen was last seen before he died in a plane crash on the way to Svalbard, trying to rescue his fellow explorer Umberto Nobile.
These were the real Arctic explorations. Going dog-sledding and watching the Northern Lights in Tromsø today can hardly be described as an Arctic expedition - even if tour operators would like you to believe otherwise…
Either way, Tromsø has never felt quite like the real Arctic to me, however, I did get a glimpse of what that place I had imagined in my head for so long would be like when I spent a couple of weeks in Norway’s northernmost village, Gamvik.
With only one road leading to the village, which would be closed for most of the winter when you could only leave and enter the village at set times of the day by means of driving in convoy, I couldn’t possibly image anywhere more remote.
The vastness of the landscape and the endless horizon, which would disappear somewhere far out on the Barents Sea, managed to absolutely enchant me and it wasn’t until I visited Svalbard that I had this feeling a second time.
Situated between 74 and 81 degrees North and only to be reached by plane or cruise ship (if you don’t happen to own a boat yourself, that is), Svalbard truly is the High (and “real”) Arctic. The Arctic you would picture in your head where there’s only few people living, polar bears roaming the area and most importantly, a whole lot of nothing around.
Of course, Svalbard has invested in tourism as much as the rest of Northern Norway and the European Arctic in recent years, and on days where there’s a cruise ship in town, it suddenly doesn’t feel like such a lonely and remote place anymore after all.
However, standing on top of a mountain overlooking Adventdalen last summer, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly tiny and insignificant as a human being, surrounded by all this beautiful and impressive nature.
And that, mind you, is the feeling why I think everyone should visit the High Arctic at least once in their life!
On thin ice
While dog-sledding and Northern Lights safaris are all fun and games, there’s a lot at stake in the Arctic at the moment and I don’t think we fully realize this until we head up there ourselves.
Now, I’m not a fan of horror scenarios of a dystopian future where cities like New York and London will be completely underwater and we all need to relocate away from the coast and up the mountains. I don’t really want to tell you to visit the Arctic “before it’s too late” either. Truth of the matter is, though, that the Arctic is changing rapidly and you don’t need to be a scientist to see these changes.
This winter, much like 2016, the first proper snowfall of the season didn’t arrive until late November in many places in the Arctic Circle, causing for outrage among tourists who saw their dreams of going dog-sledding in a winter wonderland crushed.
Well, boo-hoo, is all I can say.
Did you know that, according to the head of the Moscow Bureau of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Vladimir Moshkalo, global warming in the Arctic happens at twice the speed it does for the rest of the globe?
Glaciers all around Svalbard have been melting rapidly as summer temperatures become warmer and thus, melt more ice than can be build up again during the winter.
But why should the melting of glaciers somewhere in Svalbard concern you? Well, the Arctic has a huge effect on the climate in the rest of the world and is thus also called the “weather kitchen”. If polar ice caps melt, not only will sea levels rise, but the globe will become much warmer, thus changing our climates everywhere.
The last game
To raise awareness of how important the Arctic really is for the rest of the world, UNEP hosts “The Last Game” in the upcoming spring. On the 24th of April 2019, the so-called last ice-hockey game at the North Pole will take place - not at the actual pole for obvious reasons, but at the research station Barneo, which is located about 80km from the geographic North Pole.
Now, you won’t be able to visit and watch - that would just be an organisational nightmare - but the game will be broadcast world-wide. It is being organised and led by the famous Russian hockey player and Olympic champion, as well as State Duma Deputy and Goodwill Ambassador for the Arctic and Antarctic at UNEP, Vyacheslav Fetisov. Apparently, Fetisov won’t be the only celebrity at the games, though.
At the plenary session of “The Arctic days in Moscow 2018” Federal Arctic Forum last month, UNEP’s head of the Moscow Bureau, Vladimir Moshkalo presented that Pope Francis I had blessed the game, while Prince of Monaco Albert II and Leonardo DiCaprio are supporting the initiative and have expressed interest in participating as players themselves.
At the end of the day, there won’t be any winning or loosing team of the ice hockey match. However, as the game has the goal to demonstrate the importance and fragility of the Arctic, it is the region itself that will come out as a winner.
How visiting the High Arctic helps
Now, while you can’t visit the North Pole yourself (thank Goodness, though - I think we’ve already created far too many overcrowded tourist destinations and the Arctic doesn’t need to become one of them), I would still urge you to visit the High Arctic at least once in your life - in a responsible way!
Not for the dog-sledding or Aurora watching, but mainly to just experience the region itself and get a better understanding of what it would mean for the rest of the world if the Arctic glaciers and polar ice caps melt.
While I, of course, also took part in organized activities on my own visit to Svalbard, my fondest memories of the place are from the plane - when I saw glaciers and ice floes from above for the first time - and being at my accommodation and looking up at the enormous mountains that surrounded us, feeling ever so tiny in comparison.
So yes, please do visit the High Arctic one day. It might be more expensive than visiting Lapland - which, already is quite a costly endevour, I get it! It might also be even more difficult to get there - I completely understand! But in the end, visiting the true wilderness of the High Arctic will have a much longer-lasting impression on you than any Santa Claus village in the world ever could.
I believe that you see the world and climate change with different eyes once you’ve been to the High Arctic yourself.
Plus, places like Svalbard make it pretty easy to visit in a responsible way as literally the first thing you’ll be greeted with at the airport is information on how you should act as a visitor in order to not damage the local environment by you being there.
So please do us all a favour and go if you have the chance. And once you’ve been there, tell everyone you know about your experiences and what you’ve learnt on your journey - whether they want to hear it or not!