Svalbard (1) is a barren, rocky, ice-crusted chain of large islands at the top of the world, cut through by fjords with striated mountainsides, jagged glaciers forged over centuries, and waters that are frozen for most of the year. Despite the ice and cold, Svalbard, like the rest of the Arctic, is melting under a heat that the planet has not experienced in 125,000 years. In October of 2017, I traveled to this remote part of the globe to witness this meltdown first hand.
I had been invited to participate in the Arctic Circle Residency, a program that places artists, scientists, and educators on a Barquentine sailing vessel for two weeks with the stated goal to collectively explore the high-Arctic Svalbard Archipelago and Arctic Ocean, with the hazy prospect of allowing participants to “engage in myriad issues relevant to our time.” On some level, we were no more than a group of tourists given the opportunity to explore the Arctic. Yet being a diverse group of artists, photographers, and writers, we were expected to engage with the landscape on a deeper level than a typical tour group. This tension, between visiting a fragile ecosystem as literal sightseers, with the expectation that we act as sight seers, would add a challenging element to the experience.
On a map, Svalbard appears as one of the most remote places one could travel to. But from Europe, it is a surprisingly quick journey. Flying non-stop from Oslo, it’s only a three-hour flight to the airport in Longyearbyen.
Proximity, however, does not equal familiarity - Svalbard does not make you feel welcome.
Like all Arctic environments, it is a desert, and like all deserts, inimical to life, but even in death it provides little comfort. Between the temperature and the permafrost, the ground does not let the dead return to the earth.
"It is observable that a dead Carkase doth not easily rot or consume" wrote the German naturalist Friderich Martens, who visisted Svalbard in 1671, "for it has been found, that a man buried ten years before, still remained in his perfect shape and dress; and they could see by the Cross that was stuck upon his Grave, how long he had been buried."
Not that it matters - you are not allowed by the authorities be buried on the island, or give birth. From November to February, there is no sunlight. In the fall, dusk and dawn rotate interchangeably throughout the day, creating a disorienting sense of expectation and finality. Roughly sixty percent of the archipelago is covered by glaciers. Polar bears are known to roam the edges of the main town of Longyearbyen, so a certain awareness is needed when straying off the main roads. It’s not, however, all bad. Food and housing may be expensive, but alcohol is mercifully cheap. And despite how precipitously far north the archipelago sits on the globe, its west coast is warmed by the Norwegian branch of the North Atlantic Current, keeping the temperature on the main island of Spitsbergen an average of ten degrees higher than anywhere else in the Arctic. Despite these perks, Svalbard is intimidating in its austerity. But when the sky is clear and blue, full of purples and pinks that reflect off the surfaces of glaciers as the sun rises and sets, or when the moon hangs full, low and yellow over an ocean out of which singular mountains rise, its beauty is crippling. If you look carefully and quietly in those moments, you can see beneath the static appearance of the world, to the vibrating, intensely alive being that it is.
Millions of years of geologic activity have to come rest there. The oldest rock is over 410 million years old. The archipelago is an admixture of geologic elements that were once part of every continental landmass that has ever existed, drifting northwards across millennia, meeting, grinding together and over one another - a slow process of mineral coupling that formed the mountains and rock that compose Svalbard. Time appears frozen in a perpetual past. In almost no other place that I’ve visited has the raw appearance of geological formation felt so present.
When we look on almost any landscape, we see the result of processes we know took thousands or millions of years. We see mountains, rivers, forests, grasslands and we feel we are looking at the end result of a process. In the American West, at sites like the Grand Canyon and Canyonlands, I’ve experienced a similar feeling of process made present, but the landscapes are distant, always admired as a horizon and with the impression, it is the landscape and not us that is out of time. In Svalbard, this sense of spatial separation does not exist. There is a feeling that it is us, and not the landscape, that has somehow stepped back millions of years. With feet planted on its rocky shorelines, mountains appear to have just ruptured through the earth, casting off rubble and boulders, creating a cloud of hardened minerals that have only just fallen back to the ground. Jagged mountains rise out of Arctic waters as if the land around them suddenly flooded only days ago. Without the weight of tourists found in the Southwest, the landscape makes itself heard in a unique way. It is easy to feel stripped of agency and bearing there, but that feeling is balanced by the intense sense of being present in the world that develops.
Perhaps befitting a place so hardened to human survival, Svalbard is a land defined in equal measures by desire, failure and obstinate, sheer, endurance.
Devoid of human life until the 16th century and only then sparsely populated by adventurous and desperate men from the margins of society who sought to claim their own slice of wealth the emergent force of capitalism unleashed, it is a landscape open to the subjective projections of its visitors more than most wild places because it offers no resistance, however quiet, from people long acquainted with it. Its jolting blue glacier surfaces and dull sea green waters offer up a mirror to whoever looks. Like Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, it molds itself to ones desires and fears, allowing it to become a sanctuary of the sublime, a kind of living, organic monastery in which to peacefully lose oneself, or a landscape of opportunity and freedom, an escape hatch from civilization, or, a cold, heartless Other that terrifies because of its complete indifference to humanity.
“These mountains and the landscape I see around me is a landscape of beauty,” said Iveta one evening, “but they’re really more like a landscape of guilt…they are really cold and senseless, and they really don’t care about us, they can exist without us.”
It is, of course, all these things, and none of them. Like all objects our minds come into contact with, Svalbard is defined by projections and narratives yet nakedly empty of inherent meaning. There are mountains. There are glaciers. There are animals. There is ice, water, and wind. There is life, and there is death. Then there was us, and there was me.
In my own mind, Svalbard is partly a landscape of failure. I came to see it as a place that represents the failure of people throughout history who came seeking something from it, and I include myself here, however positive I thought my intentions. It is a landscape that so often refuses cooperation, that it appears filled with a desire for absolute acceptance from whoever comes into contact with it. More importantly, I began to see it as a landscape that embodies a collective failure. The innate inability of civilizations to manage resources effectively can be seen in the whale hunting that first opened Svalbard to Europe. The arrogance with which Europeans have approached the natural environment, while more visible in elsewhere in the Arctic, is present in its history as well. Svalbard illustrates contemporary societies inability to confront the massive dimensions of the forces we have unleashed against ourselves if we want to continue to inhabit this planet with any semblance of comfort. Its melting glaciers and thawing permafrost act like solemn hourglasses counting down the amount of time we have left until all sense of normalcy has passed, their surfaces reflecting back the heat we have let out into the world.
1. Svalbard is technically the name for the archipelago, of which each island has its own name. We spent our time exploring Spitsbergen, which is the largest, and most hospitable of the islands, along with being the only one open to the public. I will use the term Svalbard interchangeably, to describe both the island chain, and the main island we sailed around. When needed for context, I will clarify between Spitsbergen and Svalbard.
2. I’m comfortable using the universal, as anthropologists and historians have documented sufficient evidence that civilizations - state based, agricultural societies, vs. nomadic societies, are historically incapable of managing their natural resources in a sustainable way. China is the rare exception, although its rural population has suffered enormously throughout its history as it ran against the natural limits of agricultural states.