All of a sudden I found myself in the Northernmost settlement of mankind: Ny Ålesund, maybe the world’s most significant polar station on the arctic archipelago of Svalbard. From here, the scientific world is looking into the past and future of the Earth, in hopes of finding solutions to save mankind from extinction due to climate change.
I am a filmmaker and TV journalist by profession and it is in the DNA of that craft to be thrown into new worlds. One of those worlds is at 78° 55’30" N, 11° 55’20" E, just before the North Pole. Ny Ålesund is quite a special destination. Let me rephrase – it is actually a forbidden zone. Eventually only mad scientists and journalists are allowed on the island and come by strict invitation only. I got cosy with the German polar institute AWI, which is running the polar station AWIPEV, together with their French polar friends. With a little bit of zigzagging, I had my ticket. The support of Innovation Norway Hamburg and the Norwegian embassy in Berlin was also vital for one of my most exclusive journalistic endeavours ever.
Svalbard is a series of islands.Their geological origin can be traced around the equator and it wandered over time to the most Northern tip of the planet. Its past is quite essential, but I will get to that in just a bit. The archipelago was mostly neglected by men over the centuries, because it was just a collection of rock and ice. It’s been said that Scandinavians have discovered the islands as early as the 12th century and called it Svalbarð, which literally means cold shores. In 1596 It was rediscovered by the Dutch sailor Willem Barentz and hence it also bears the name Spitsbergen (or in German – Spitzbergen), which means pointed mountains.
Trappers started to hunt and whalefishers started to have their outposts on Svalbard. In the Svalbard treaty of 1920 the islands were put under Norwegian rule, but it is rather more the administration. Their is a Russian mining town called Barentzburg (named after the Dutch who discovered Svalbard) which I would love to see on my next trip. That Svalbard is politically its own entity and visa free. Despite the cold temperatures many immigrate to Svalbard to have a better life. Ny Ålesund was founded in 1917 by the mining company Kings Bay. Because the landmass originated around the equator it has very valuable coal in the ground. But after an accident 1962 mining became to dangerous and it was abandoned. Bit by bit the town became a research area. In 1992 it became the scientific settlement it is today!
It is already a little adventure to get to Ny Ålesund, the worlds most Northern settle. First you have to fly to Svalbards biggest settlement Longyearbyen. From there you have to jump on another cute 14 seat plane. This little sucker only flies twice a week to Ny Ålesund and costs around 500 Euros per person for a 45 minute flight. Because of customs we almost missed two of our flights, which would have brought the whole mission to a stop. When we arrived in Longyearbyen it was first said, that the Ny Ålesund flight was postponed for two days, because of a frozen landing strip.
But after a short pit stop in a hotel, we had to rush to the airport and Ny Ålesund was go go go. You have direct sight of the cockpit and the passengers and weight has to be perfectly balanced. We had a limit of 20 kilos each, which was a real challenge for shooting equipment. You really start to limit your shampoo and clothes to little packages. If you would have too much weight, it is kept at the airport. After that, we soon dipped into complete darkness, floating in the sky. While flying to Ny Ålesund it was too hectic for taking pictures, but on my flight back I had some time, especially for the polar bear warning signs at the Airport in Longyearbyen..
A very important figure for Ny Ålesund is Roald Amundsen. This Norwegian adventurer looked like a rock and was possible the first ever human who reached the South Pole and North Pole. He is a Norwegian hero. While it makes instantly sense while Svalbard is under Norwegian sovereignty in the Northern hemisphere. It is only due to Amundsen’s mission at the South Pole that there is also a territory under Norwegian control in Antarctica.
Amundsens started his two missions for the North Pole from Ny Ålesund. As the North Pole is basically frozen ice that is in constant movement, you can never be 100% sure that you hit target. He failed 1925 on his first mission to fly over the geographical North Pole with a plane, which he had to abandon due to a malfunction. He succeeded on his second attempt with an airship called Norge in 1926. And Ny Ålesund is also connected with his death. In 1928 he started a rescue mission for his Italian friend and co-pilot Umberto Nobile. The plane probably crashed due to fog in the Barents sea and his body was never found. His achievements are celebrated with a central statue on the main square of the village of Ny Ålesund.
My mission in Ny Ålesund was to depict the life on the polar station as it is preparing for wintering. That meant to show typical research routines. While in the summer are up to 120 scientists from all over the world in the research town (there are even South Korean, Chinese and Indian polar stations), there are only engineers and station leaders who remain during the winter months. The German-French polar station AWIPEV stays with three people over the winter. The engineers control and repair measuring devices and send data back to the scientists home. One daily routine is sending a weather balloon. The meteo data goes into the worldwide weather forecast live onto your telly.
The balloon always starts at a certain time internationally (I think, between 10 a.m. and 11 a.a. CET) and can never be late. The sonde, which the balloon lifts, is one use only and ought to rise up to 15 kilometers, depending on the weather. It is dropped wherever the balloon bursts due to the expansion of air in the higher atmosphere. Because of the temperatures in the wintertime the cloth of the balloon is soaked in oil to protect it from the piercing cold. Before the helium-fueled balloon is released you have to call the airport control in Longyearbyen, so they are not confused by the flying object.
Every few weeks the engineers send special probes into the sky. For instance for the measurement of the Ozon in the atmosphere above Svalbard. I was there when they also checked a CFH probe, which is only utilized every two months. It’s awfully complicated with a tiny engine and a mirror for detecting the moisture in the stratosphere. There was quite a tense atmosphere before the start, because the functionality and connectivity has to be a-ok. All mistakes could be fatal. All the data the probes are collecting are send via radio transmitter to the computers on base in Ny Ålesund. All these data is important to help scientists all over the world to hear our earth breathe. All over Ny Ålesund are very sensitive measuring devices for all kind of studies. Because the atmosphere is cleaner and free from most influences of civilization, the results are also clearer. But eventually even in Ny Ålesund you can see trace of a fire in Indonesia, because streams of air end here from all kind of origins.
Ny Ålesund is run by the same Norwegian company, that once did the mining here: Kings Bay. A handful of employees have contracts for a few months or years. They keep all the houses in shape, keep the electricity production running and take care of the food. There are rich three meals every day and snacks in between. The food is fantastic, and as every pirate knows: if you want to avoid a mutiny, you have to keep the moral of the crew in high regards.
The meals start as early as seven in the morning and dinner is already at 4 p.m. But honestly, without daylight everything seems the same. It’s like living in outer space. Kings Bay also runs the planes going back and forth to the polar station. The only way in and out! In the settlement are also a few buildings, that are remainders form the vibrant mining times, with bars and tobacco stores. I think some of the are repurposed or are just waiting for a new purpose.
The people working in Ny Ålesund have a similar working day like everywhere else. Monday to Friday work and the weekend mostly off. Meals on the weekend start a little later and the Ny Ålesunders try to dress nicely for Sunday"s dinner. Social events are important to differentiate the days in the winter, when everyday seems to be the same. Christmas is a very intimate gathering with a candlelit dinner. One of the hang out places for me in Ny Ålesund was the blue house, which is the center of the German polar station. You can go there to rest and read. Some of the German scientists also live there.
Journalists like me live in special accommodations (roughly 150 Euros per person and night including meals), which where also close to the sauna, cinema room and the gym. Regular Innebandy matches also make the people come together, sweat together. Innebandy is a sort of cage hockey with a plastic ball. Quite fun and intense, also beginners can cope with the rules and it´s really fun to play.
I also liked the washing room. Quite an essential place for such a crowd of people. For me it also had a feeling of modernity and future with it. It’s really important to know that all houses in Ny Ålesund, whether they are for living or for laboratories, are always open. In case you have to hide from a polar bear it’s important to keep everything open, so you can hide in the nearest building. It’s also a rule to remove your shoes, whenever you enter a building. In the winter you would carry snow into the houses and in the summer mud and dust. So basically all people are on socks in any building.
The general atmosphere in Ny Ålesund, especially during the polar night, is like a scientific youth camp. You know, that the village is far away from the rest of the world and that makes you think a lot. The darkness, the ice and polar lights are unique things to experience, even if they are hard to capture on film. It’s these kind of adventures that ignite your imagination. Still you are very safe and everything is done to make you feel comfortable. I didn’t have to sacrifice anything, but now I am part of the unique club of Ny Ålesunders.
Well, Ny Ålesund is a landmark of records and among them is certainly the Northernmost post office of the world. Postcards can be purchased in a little shop, which is open twice a week (as visitor you can buy booze there, too) and stamped with the Northernmost post stamp. I reckon this is quite a thing for philatelists. For me it was mainly a cute house on ice with a lot of projection. In the summertime cruise ships also stop briefly in Ny Ålesund. For two hours the maritime tourists walk through town and surely there is a big queue at the post office.
You can see my reportage about the life in Ny Ålesund in living colour and in German here.