HOW SVALBARD’S ‘OTHERS’ ARE FARING: Pretty much ‘normal’ at hysterically cool Bjørnøya film fest, two women self-isolating all winter at trappers’ hut, no layoffs in Barentsburg

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While 90 percent of Longyearbyen’s tourism employees are facing layoffs, all of those in Barentsburg and Pyramiden are busy and planning for the summer season. Life in the international research community of Ny-Ålesund continued normally with the obvious health precautions. Those on a research ship frozen in the ice far to the north are going about daily life normally, but anxious about the virus cutting off incoming staff and support.

Then there’s the tiny Bjørnøya Meteorological Station at the southern tip celebrating its annual film festival despite problems caused by “hysterically clear and fine weather” and black-market tickets. And two women well into nine months of “self-isolation” at a remote trapper’s hut who just celebrated a birthday and are blogging sympathies to those elsewhere following their adventures.

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Visitors gather at the Red Bear restaurant and microbrewery in Barentsburg, keeping the required one meter or more of distance between them due to reduced seating. Photo courtesy of .

Headlines locally and globally about the extreme restrictions and impacts due to the coronavirus pandemic almost always refer to Svalbard. But outside the largest town of Longyearbyen and its roughly 2200 people are another 500 across the land and surrounding waters where life is for the most part remarkably “normal” – which of course for those areas means rather surreal in their own unique ways.

The only other real “town” is Barentsburg where the 450 residents, much like Longyearbyen, are employed in government, scientific research and the booming tourism industry. The difference is the smaller settlement about 60 kilometers southwest of Longyearbyen is operated by the Russian-owned company Trust Arcticugol under regulations differing in many ways than Norway’s and to a significant extent draws a different region/range of tourists. Unlike Longyearbyen, Barentsburg’s coal mining industry is also continuing at something resembling its operations before a global price crash five years ago nearly wiped out all of Store Norske’s Norwegian-settlement operations.

The company’s tourism subsidy, Arctic Travel Company Grumant, posted a message on local social media noting it is suffering the same near-total halt of tour bookings as Longyearbyen, but emphasized its vistor facilities and tours remain generally available with the expected range of precautionary health measures. Snowmobile tours are limited to 12 people, for example, while mine and museum tours are limited to five people – although multiple small groups are possible.

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A gigantic Iljuschin Il-76 airplane delivers a new rescue helicopter to the Russian settlement of Barentsburg on Wednesday. Photo by Andreas Styrsell.

More importantly for the residents of Barentburg, as well as the handful in the Russian-operated ghost town of Pyramiden to the north, is while up to 90 percent of Longyearbyen’s tourism workers are facing layoffs that may last many months “we do not plan any layoffs and are preparing for the summer season,” said Sergey Chernikov, the company’s operations manager and a specialist field guide.

“We always have work to do and believe me nobody’s idle nowadays in Grumant,” he stated in an online interview.

Among coronavirus restrictions for Svalbard that are the strictest in Norway is a complete ban on non-residents (and the exile of those already here), but cargo shipments continue as normal including a massive  Iljuschin Il-76 carrying a new rescue helicopter for Barentsburg on Wednesday. It’s both a highly practical and heartfelt arrival given the lingering memories of the 2017 crash of a helicopter that killed all eight people aboard.

“Our life in Svalbard doesn’t stop almost ever,” Timofei Rogozhin the settlement’s tourism director, wrote in a post on his Facebook page. The new helicopter replaces a current one and “it was a very difficult task. Multifunctional and multi-level” with help from their Norwegian neighbors in Longyearbyen.

“But in my personal opinion, the Arctic in general, and Svalbard in particular have a lot of features,” he wrote. “And one of them is common sense. In everything, including in business and relationships.”

Life is also going on almost entirely as normal in the international research settlement of Ny-Ålesund to the north of its two larger siblings. While under Norwegian authority and managed by the company Kings Bay AS, the population is almost entirely subgroups from a multitude of nations conducting Arctic research in stations supervised by their homelands and in state-of-the-art monitoring facilities designed for the uniquely pristine natural elements.

“Kings Bay A/S is following the situation closely and adhering to the guidelines of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health,” a message on the company’s webpage states. “The need for new measures is assessed on an ongoing basis. In the meantime Ny-Ålesund will operate as normal.”

Prominent at the top of the company’s Facebook page is a post seeking applicants for a new administrative director – not literally the only “help wanted” ad in Svalbard of course, but a remarkable impression contrasting the doomsday-like aura of news and social media from companies and residents in Longyearbyen.

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Staff at the Bjørnøya Meteorological Station observe one of the polar bears in the distance that came near the station during the first week of March. Photo courtesy of the Bjørnøya Meteorological Station.

Speaking of contrasts, while large numbers of quarantined or laid-off Longyearbyen residents are binge-watching movies and such during their endless idle days, the nine inhabitants the Bjørnøya station on Svalbard’s southernmost island are going all-at their annual film festival in-between their normal work schedule.

“Of course, there have been no corona restrictions, but it is worth mentioning that some of the program had to be moved due to hysterically clear and fine weather,” the station notes on its official blog. “Festival ribbons are needed to ensure that no one uses last year’s tickets or trades on the black market.”

Much more of concern to the health of the Bjørnøya staff than the virus was the sea ice breaking up enough for the first spring polar bears to begin arriving this month (Norwegian article w/ staff video of bear). Two or three made brief visits to the station before heading north, the blog notes, with clear weather allowing plenty of observation time at a safe distance.

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A polar bear observed the Hopen Meteorological Station on Feb. 28, one day after International Polar Bear Day, is among multiple sightings that allowed the station to surpass 100 total sightings. Photo courtesy of the Hopen Meteorological Station.

Polar bears are also frequent visitors to the Hopen Meteorological Station, including some notoriously viral encounters including an X-rated foreplay-sex-and-afterglow pairing captured on video last year. But the staff there are remarkably chill as chaos breaks out worldwide, with the most recent update on the station’s blog Feb. 29 announcing its celebration of International Polar Bear Day on Feb. 27 with the (belated) observation of the 100th bear at the station.

“Soft cake and coffee were on the menu; this was consumed while we looked out of the windows in anticipation of observation number 100 – the chef had decorated the cake with this number,” the blog notes. “Expectations were therefore extraordinarily high, but disappointment eventually came, as not a single bear was observed that day…The next day, fortunately, more bears passed the station and now we are just waiting for the next centenary, 200!”

At another small remote outpost on the west coast of Spitsbergen, the Hornsund Polish Polar Station, the scant happenings shared with the outside world by the scientific research staff are more somber. The station issued a notice on March 12 it is closing the station to visitors until at least April 12.

“Taking into consideration limited healthcare facilities at the Hornsund Polish Polar Station, in order to ensure safety of the crew residing at the station we hereby inform that as a preventive measure the Hornsund Polish Polar Station will remain closed to visitors for a period of 30 days,” the notice states. “We therefore request all visitors, including Svalbard residents, to suspend their travel plans to the Hornsund Station. Hoping for your understanding, we appologize for all the inconvenience resulting from this decision.”

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Researchers participating in the MOSAiC project north of Svalbard gather on the ice near the Polarstern while one keeps a watch for polar bears. Photo courtesy of MOSAiC.

Another group of researchers in extreme isolation – but very much wanting outside visitors – is the year-long MOSAiC mission aboard a German ship north of Svalbard. Some key projects are on hold and the project itself facing considerable uncertainty after flights between Longyearbyen and the vessel were suspended a week ago when a team member in Germany tested positive for the coronavirus.

But while aereal surveys are on hold, those aboard the ship are continuing a number other climate change-related studies and posting frequent enthusiastic – if technical – updates on MOSAiC’s Twitter feed.

“The formation of leads is exciting for different #MOSAiCexpedition science teams: The exchange of #greenhouse_gases between ocean & atmosphere changes significantly,” a tweet posted Wednesday observes. “In a joint effort this exchange of greenhouse gases was studied at a local lead.”

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Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby take leisure time to learn about “Helfrid Nøis, a 163cm tall badass of a woman that overwintered here in Svalbard with her husband Hilmar Nøis for seven years” during their nine-month Hearts In The Ice overwinter at a trapper’s cabin at Bamsebu. Photo courtesy of Hearts In The Ice.

Much more cheery and less academic sharing is having its own viral moments courtesy of perhaps two of the best-qualified “self-isolation” experts anywhere. Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby are spending nine months 140 kilometers from the nearest civilization at a trapper’s cabin at Bamsebu. Their Hearts In The Ice winterover began last August and is scheduled to continue until the end of May, and they are blogging, tweeting and broadcasting live online streams of their six science projects and other acitvitiies to scientists, youths in hundred of schools and interested others worldwide.

The pair shared the celebration of Sunniva’s birthday in a Facebook post on Tuesday, along with well wishes for the outside world now suddenly sharing the experience of long-term isolation.

“It will be one memorable birthday in -31C where we’ll dance and laugh, but not forget the struggle and hardship people all over the world are facing right now,” they wrote.

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