Chillingly clueless: Svalbard’s 10 strangest stories of 2015

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Which is stranger: a year where parasitic wasps went on a killing spree or the year that actually happened? Yeah, we’re not sure either.

All we know is both versions of Svalbard will be back – and probably even stranger – next year.

This year’s strangeness was obviously no laughing matter much of the time thanks to the deepening of the coal mining crisis that may result in a quarter of our residents departing by next summer. But since such somber happenings will obviously be part of the “biggest stories” list in the final issue of the year, here – in roughly chronological order – is our annual “Svalbard’s 10 strangest stories” that mostly offer a much lighter look at the archipelago during these dark times:

Fortitude preview

Dumbledore’s revenge: Michael Gambon, above, best known for playing the gay wizard in five “Harry Potter” movies, trades his wand for a rifle to deal with the dark elements of “Fortitude,” a 12-episode TV series based in Longyearbyen (but filmed in Iceland) that debuted in January.

‘Fortitude’ proves bugs are more deadly than polar bears and Doomsday Vault zombies
“Perched on the edge of the Arctic Circle, Fortitude is one of the safest towns on earth. There has never been a violent crime here. Until now.” That synopsis, along with a macho promo photo of Gandalf toting a rifle along the shoreline, was enough to know this 12-episode TV series would offer plenty of fodder for locals when it debuted in January, even if critics and viewers elsewhere loved it. Sure enough, just seeing trees and the police hand their rifle to clueless hikers in the opening episode made us wonder if the producers did most of their research at Karlsberger Pub. Not to mention goofs others caught, such as “there is no daylight at all for several months around Christmas.” As for the culprits of the killings…well, we’ve already done that spoiler. But in our typical clueless pundit fashion, we’ll predict aliens end up being part of season two.

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A human observer watches the “lone inhabitant” of Pyramiden as envisioned by two architectural students who won this year’s “120 Hours” contest, which challenged participants to develop a concept for preserving the abandoned mining town.

Future imperfect: A robot riding the rails in a personless Pyramiden
Then there’s the version of Svalbard where Pyramiden is occupied by a lone inhabitant: a robot on a roller coaster. The gizmo would be a 24/7/365 worker doing things like broadcasting live video feeds of polar bears to the world. Strange as it sounds, that’s the best concept for the settlement’s future out of 2,700 submitted by architectural students in a February contest challenging them to come up with a four-page illustrated flier in five days. The winning project, according to the two students submitting it, was inspired by Soviet-era propaganda in which “increasingly efficient work was portrayed as the means of deliverance.”

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An eclipse tourist tries to sleep on a cramped couch in a trashed apartment that cost twice what a premium hotel would during the summer. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / icepeople.

‘Blackout dates’ get new meaning with the rush for rooms during the eclipse
History’s full of boom-and-bust speculators: tulip bulbs during the 1600s, bird poop during the 1800s, internet stocks, etc. Longyearbyen got its chance with housing and room rentals during the March 20 total solar eclipse. All of the major hotels sold out years in advance and major tour companies arranged for blocks of large tent spaces well beforehand, leaving indie travelers at the mercy of locals renting their apartments, cabins and rooms. Not that “mercy” is the right word, since some local homeowners ended up raking in more than 20,000 kroner a night from TV crews and others who had to book a space no matter what. But others willing to wait to until literally the last second – despite government warnings not to come without a reservation – could find relatively great deals upon arrival at the airport from panicked locals realizing they’d missed the mother lode. Not to mention the Soviet-era Russian-ruled settlement of Barentsburg, which staggeringly few tourists knew about, was offering its regular (and incredibly cheap) rates in its refurbished hotel and new hostel.

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Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen, left, leads a Climate Mass in June, which included prayers for both meaningful action to combat the problem and for mining to continue in Svalbard. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Svalbard takes lead in calling for climate change action – by others
Our local priest is no stranger to controversy – as a furor about his call this year for a boycott of all Israeli products showed – but one of the stranger moments even for a guy who’s appeared fully nude in his own book had to be a hillside Climate Mass in June. Standing next to an old mining trestle and a short distance from the coal-fired power plant, Leif Magne Helgesen offered prayers for both action by world leaders to combat climate change and for coal mining to continue in Svalbard. “Some coal mining in a valley in Svalbard is not going to affect climate,” he said afterward. Not that he was alone in the hypocrisy, locally or nationally. The Norwegian government voted to rid its oil wealth fund of all coal-related holdings, yet during the year ended up approving nearly a billion kroner in assistance to keep Store Norske alive in some form.

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A map notates three locals in Spitsbergen with names that could be considered politically incorrect.

A bunch of white locals say there’s no need for a ‘niggardy’ debate
Kudos to The Local Paper of Racebaiting for sparking a debate with few grey areas. Svalbardposten noted in July that three locations in the southern part of the archipelago have names starting with the Norwegian equivalent of “negro” (or the even more pejorative “n” word, according to some). The head of the Norwegian Polar Institute’s naming committee – yes. there’s such a thing – said there were no plans to discuss renaming the locations, although obviously they’d have to discuss the issue if someone filed a formal complaint. Didn’t happen: an internet poll by newspaper resulted in a 92-4 vote against changing the names and a lot of “why the hell did you write about this” snark. Of course, the enormous reaction, which spread nationwide, pretty much speaks for itself.

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Jon Aars of the Norwegian Polar Institute fits a polar bear with a transmittor during a survey of the species in Svalbard. Photo courtesy of The Norwegian Polar Institute.

Russia leaves Norway with a bear of a counting problem
(Oops. This got even stranger just days after the paragraph below appeared in the print edition. The population count, released eight days after the article appeared, did indeed turn out to be worthy of our most-important list due to a large increase in the number of animals that completly contradicted what climate scientists have been predicting for years. Not that they were completely wrong – the population has been generally rebounding since hunting was outlawed – but it’s still a weapon climate skeptics will be able to use for years or decades).

The first full census of the area’s polar bears in 14 years would probably be on our “other” list had it happened, but the Russians – for reasons never made all that clear – decided at the last minute not to authorize the long-planned count on their side of the border. So Norwegian scientists did their best to count the animals on this side in July and August – except that went badly astray as well due to horrible weather that blocked views and access.

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“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” Um…just shut up and get me to the airport.

‘Rod Stewart’ becomes a celebrity cabbie in Longyearbyen
Locals and visitors alike started doing the whisper-and-point thing en masse in July in the firm belief that Rod Stewart had moved to Longyearbyen and taken a job as a taxi driver. Turns out Nils Engen, 65, has been constantly mistaken for the singer since changing his hair style 20 years ago and, while he often gets request from customers to perform the legend’s songs, “it is difficult to imitate the voice of Rod Stewart. I have to take some nips of whiskey to do it.” Not good if you’re behind the wheel.

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Syrian refugees actually are fleeing to Arctic Norway – at one point entering on children’s bicycles via Russia because vehicles and foot traffic was prohibited. Norway is now sending refugees without visas back to Russia – where their presence is also illegal – leaving them in an ending limbo.

Two totally opposite political parties suggest Svalbard sanctuary for Syrians
Not to do the liberal MSM thing, but we’re not exactly going out on a limb by saying only one of the political parties had the interests of people fleeing their war-torn homeland at heart. The anti-immigrant Progress Party first suggested sending the thousands of refugees Norway is scheduled to accept during the next two years to a camp in Svalbard, arguing there’s no room on the mainland for them. Then the Green Party joined the cause for very different reasons, stating “our values and ethical standards are being put to the test” – and, by the way, a refugee center would provide more environmentally responsible jobs than coal mining. Either way, it’s not going to happen since Svalbard, aside from being a rather cold place to camp in the dark season, lacks the legal, medical and other basic need of many refugees.

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Sval and Bard raise a toast for all ages after they burn down their tent in winter weather in the first epiosde of their series.

‘Sval and Bard’
Geeze we hate self important public-service campaigns. Seriously. The more noise they make, the less worthy of coverage they tend to be. And it’s likely we gave more space to these two claymation clods than any other campaign in 2015 because…the concept is utter comic brilliance. These ten short videos showing the consequences of Sval and Bard violating all of the “common sense” rules of exploring Svalbard may be mostly amusing to locals and YouTube fans for now. But it would be interesting (and probably impossible) to see how many clueless tourists see the videos at the airport or a gift shop next year and end up not doing something totally idiotic (this year’s contenders included a guy carrying a frying pan as polar bear protection and lots of folks taking a wee in outdoor public places in town) as a result.

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The skeletal remains of the rubbish hut stand on a Longyearbyen beach after the “decorations” were stripped away. The rest of the cabin was dismantled shortly afterwards. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Longyearbyen’s trashiest house finally wins over the haters, only to be scraped
“The infamous rubbish hut.” We’re going to really miss writing those words, which we got to do frequently since August of last year when Solveig Egeland and some volunteers built the tepee-like structure on the beach next to the Svalbard Sailing Club. Consisting almost entirely of debris collected from a cleanup cruise along the north coast of Spitsbergen, the hut was immensely provocative from the start. Critics wondered why a bunch of environmental protection funds were being spent on a ugly piece of “art.” One guy glimpsing it via a webcam claimed it was proof UFOs were in Svalbard. And then this October – soon after its harshest critics had given their hearts to the shack kids kept playing in and on – it was torn town at Egeland’s insistence since the project was meant to be temporary.

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