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Liveblog: ‘Svalbard: Life on the Edge,’ Episode 5 from Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg

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9:30 p.m.: Welcome to the show that will bring us to the halfway point in the series, although in the timeline of the show (late October until the end of May, we’re already in mid-March). Judging from the preview, it looks like this might be an episode that focuses on a topic rather than a progressive narrative, which is something the producers indicated during filming they were planning to do all along.

It seems pretty clear environmental issues will be a major focus tonight since Benjamin Vidmar’s Polar Permaculture/greenhouse project looks like it will get major airtime, and Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen and myself will likely be seen discussing reducing destructive human-related impacts at an outdoor Mass we both reach by snowmobile. Alex Pilditch (a SvalSat employee and tour guide who has not been seen since his scant scenes in Episode One) makes an interesting comment during what appears to be the obligatory snowmobile group trip about Svalbard not being the environmentally friendly place it’s perceived to be. And Chris Borstad, UNIS professor and avalanche expert, is seen doing some more snow pit digging – it’s not unreasonable to guess he’ll be shown discussing climate change and how it affects the risk of avalanches in the future here.

That said, I’ll add the usual disclaimers that almost every prediction I’ve made so far has been wrong. And that this liveblog will be full of typos and other glitches while I’m doing it in real-time. I’ll fix the goofs and fill-in some details once it’s over.

9:40 p.m.: Interestingly, a reality show airing on BBC Earth just before this one based in Alaska is focusing on how climate change is affecting life in the villages there. It seems a stretch to think channel executives coordiante stuff like across shows, but you never know. Something to watch for during the last five episodes.

9:45 p.m.: I’m liveblogging this from Mary-Ann’s because it was up in my regular rotation between places showing it publically, although it’ll be interesting to see if anyone who watched it here last week is here again this week. For those who read last week’s liveblog, saw the fishwrapper or checked out a certain local Facebook page, Mary-Ann stirred up an on-air shitstorm with a new chef who was fired rather quickly. I then stirred one up by asking on Facebook if she came off as a heroine or bitch. Anyhow, I’m not here because I was hoping to ask her about the whole thing (I did that days ago and she just left for a month-long holiday today after hiring a better chef). But there is one other “celebrity” from the show since Chris the avalanche guy just walked in. So it’ll be interesting to see how we both feel about how “real” the scenes we’re in are.

10:01 p.m.: Hmmm…getting a bit sloppy in timing? Show starts a minute late for first time.

10:02: p.m. Title: “Good Tracks or Bad Tracks.”

10:03 p.m.: Narrator talks about 2,000 adventurers living on the edge of a pristine and fragile place. Yup. Gonna be the Greenie show.

10:03 p.m.: Ben is the first guy up, says he wasn’t that impressed when first got here…no trees or other stuff he was into. Also mentions tough to get supplies for his work as a cook.

10:04 p.m.: “I guess I was the only one stupid enough to do it,” Ben says, introducing his permaculture project.

10:05 p.m.: Shows his basement greenhouse. “I felt I was Noah trying to build the ark. People were saying ‘What is he doing? He’s crazy.” It’s a line repeated from Episode Two.

10:06 p.m.: Narrator mentioned Ben’s spent 100,000 pounds on this during the past four years. He talks about needing to earn money now to make it sustainable (gee, that sounds very familiar). But his plan is better than mine: he’s planning to build an outdoor greenhouse as place to grow food “for the whole of Svalbard.” (Real-life spoiler: I stopped by the outdoor greenhouse with some visitors and it looks like it’s off to a nice start as a tourist attraction. But it looks like his plans to have pigs, chickens and pheasants in there isn’t going to happen given the strict species laws here).

10:07 p.m.: Ben: “Nothing’s going to stop me. I feel very determined and feel it’s my destiny.”

10:08 p.m.: Chris preparing for trip out of town with students to study climate’s effect on glaciers. Woman sitting next to him at Mary-Ann’s a bit startled to find out he’s a “star.”

10:09 p.m.: Narrator says something about making sure nothing is forgotten…”we hope.” Chris here in the room: “And I did forget something. I’m sure that’s why they mentioned it.”

10:10 p.m.: Nice snowmobile scenery as they stop where an avalanche occurred and Chris explains the potential dangers. They set off again, with the narrator uttering an inane jibe about the perils of gong on due to the risk (Chris and party are far from the hills on a wide plain…overhyped crap like this, along the non-funny quips – are one of the things thos filmed find rather annoying).

10:12 p.m.: Group shown stopping to peeing and trying to stay warm while doing do (at least it’s a nice day…try peeling down all those layers and not drenching them in a swirling blizzard. And God help anyone who ate the wrong thing the night beforekr. Chris mentioned temperatures have been well above normal and that affects sea ice, glacier shrinkage, etc.

10:13 p.m.: Alex picks up group for snowmobile trip. He talks about cultural barriers when tourists don’t speak English or think guide’s job is all that important. A bit frustrating that this is only his second episode and both involve tourist trips, considering his job at SvalSat. Among other things, it supplies most of the world with weather and climate data. That would seem hugely relevent for this episode.

10:14 p.m.: Group gets their clothes and other gear before setting off. Big group with two guides. Alex at back to keep an eye on everyone. Trip to Barentsburg (OK, that’ll be kinda cool to get a first look at a Russian settlement). The group stops. They notice someone is missing. It’s Alex. WHOA…scene of snowmobile overturning. You go GoPro. Narrator: “Alex is on his own” and other nonsense about the danger (although, in reality, that’s definitely a situation that can become serious quickly for various reasons, although in the show it’s obvious Alex is OK and just needs to get his ride back in order). He shows up 15 mintues later. Bascially a key piece came out when his snowmobile hit a bump.

10:18 p.m.: Me sitting at a table outside the public library (sort of the branch office of my global coporate headquarters in the cafe downstairs. I camp there when the cafe’s crowded or I want to work with a constant stream of visitors. “Super Sleuth Mark” is hunting for stories, according to narrator. Um, at least he doesn’t mention L.A. Shows me heading out of town to cover story about trapping history here. A bit of background on that history presented. Nicely done given the brevity of it.

10:19 p.m.: Wow…show touches on something very controversial: I don’t have a gun. Normally I “hitchhike” with other groups, but the BBC folks had guns when they were filming me so I didn’t bother most of the time this trip. Very interesting how that played out. They left me behind on the return trip and I had to stop a few times due to whiteout conditions. While bears nearby were unlikely, it was not the most relaxing experience I’ve had here. (Post-show note: how can a journalist who needs to go places here not own a rifle? I did for a time early on, but for various reasons ended up getting a rental permit instead. But I let that lapse when my situation here got so perilous I lapsed into depression, which is kinda where I was when this was filmed. Anyhow, I’ve essentially resumed the rental thing, simply because it’s cheaper – a.k.a. it means you can borrow a rifle from somene with their written permission. And it’s not like it’ll matter…as the old joke goes, if I see a polar bear I figure the only better-than-even-odds plan is to shoot myself so that at least everyone else gets away.)

10:20 p.m.: I get to the trapping station where I talk about how it was moved to save it from erosion damage. I’ll link the to fishwrapper article I wrote tomorrow since it’s a good example of such projects now happening here.

10:21 p.m.: I interview a person who helped move the station. Then I talk about how there’s no sea ice on west coast this year. “This not normal.”

10:22 p.m.: And Leif is here to conduct Mass with message of hope for the future. Actually, in reality he got here well before me. And he should have been given more time talk about his large-scale involvement in climate change issues.

10:23 p.m.: Alternating shots of me and Leif (him talking, me writing and shooting the Mass). I talk about how climate change has affected me drastically, such as losing my apartment because thawing permafrost made it unsafe. “Climate change, like evolution, is a fact.” Which will immediately have every wingnut branding me as just more of the ultra-liberal media. And to all of the wingnuts I say with as much kindness and calmess as I can muster: fuck off. I may not be a climate scentist, but I’m the guy who edits the theses and journal articles they write, and I’ve been writing about and watching it happen in real time in every polar area on Earth for the past 15 years. I’m happy to debate causes and effects. Some heated exchanges, so to speak, have been among my more entertaing and enlightening conversations here. But you better show up with more than the typical ammo about moneygrabbing  scientists faking results (almost as big a howler as suggesting journaliam is lucrative), natural cycles and the like.

10:24 p.m.: Ben goes to Mary-Ann’s to get stuff to feed his worms. Lots of molding veggies, etc. Fun but short scene. Picks up bucket of stuff from Fruene. He puts up signs on his indoor greenhouse. Then hosts an open house in his apartment upstairs.

10:26 p.m.: Guessing roughly a dozen people listen to him talk about his plan and look at his plans. He talks about how growing up his family was very serious about food, avoided fast food, etc.

10:27 p.m: People at seminar interviewed, call what they see so far a good start.

10:28 p.m.: Narrator: “It looks like his revolution is well underway.” As with Chris and his packing everything, I’m pretty sure I know where this is going before the end of the show.

10:29 p.m.: Chris and group checking a snow slope on top of the glacier. Basically digging and installing a new stake to measure the lowering of the glacier since old one likely to disappear soon.

10:30 p.m.: Narrator: “The drill is a really important part of this process. Who’s got it?” Yeah, everyone watching at Mary-Ann’s, including Chris, cracks up knowing what’s obviously coming. Some back and forth looking through all the boxes. Chris takes the blame on-screen: “something was bound to go wrong.” Meanwhile, they check melt of glacier since last time they were put in (227 centimeters, if I heard right).

10:33 p.m.: Alex and group gets to Barentsburg. Obligatory bit of history. Narrator: now that mining is seriously waning it “welcomes tourists…sort of.” Mentions lots of places you can’t go. But you are allowed into the local brewery, but they’re not allowed to drink. Group gets fed sorta traditional Russian meal for lunch. Ouch…oh, so close to what could have been a great segment. Another 30 secinds and the narrator could explain why the restrictionsare so severe. Hopefully it won’t be the last footage from there.

10:34 p.m.: Tour group heads back. Alex mentions Svalbard not eco-friendly with all the snowmobiles and dogs not native species. He talks about climate change impacts he’s seen. Narrator mentions 2,000 snowmobiles here, which each emit the pollution of ten cars.

10:36 p.m.: Alex takes a strong stance saying if you don’t live here, you don’t have the right to criticize what’s going on here. Damn. He and I might have a lively chat about that, but 1) I totally agree a lot of criticism from Greenie groups is totally misguided here (sorry, but snowmobiles, coal power and whale hunting aren’t going anywhere for a while), and 2) the ways this place is polluted are dismaying. Chris and I participated in an annual cruise this summer to clean up trash along Svalbard’s shores, and it was astounding to see how many look like municipal waste dumps due to debris from everything to trawlers to stuff drifting up from London.

10:37 p.m.: Out to Lara at Green Dog Svalbard and their primative conditions, including no flushing toilets. And every day someone has to clean the outhouses. Today it’s her turn. Narrator: “It’s really important to get it done before the guests arrive. Opps. Too late.” She tells them it’s bags of food, which I guess is technically accurate. The “other” Ben, featured way back in Episode Two, also shown feeding the dogs. Narrator talks about 175 dogs at kennels, and Ben collects and disposes of dog poo. Says he doesn’t know what local council does: “We don’t know what they do with it, but once a week it disappears.”

10:39 p.m.: Lara drives the poo to town.

10:40 p.m.: Narrator mentions 4,000 tons of waste produced on Svalbard every year. No landfills on island.

10:41 p.m.: Lara talks about working for British fashion designed in early 2000s. Did 13 years of that and decided there was more to live than living in a big city. Here you forget all the things like phone contracts, rental contracts, bit like head-in-the-sand from rest of world.

10:42 p.m.: Narrator mentions flushing toilets in town go straight into sea. This really deserves more than a passing reference. Also, WHERE THE HELL IS ANY MENTION OF COAL MINING/BURNING?

10:42 p.m.: Chris and group back to measuring glacial melt. Chris says about three or four meters of glacier melted at the edge since last year, which obviously is a lot. And the rate may be accelerating.

10:44 p.m.: Narrator does a nice job of explaning why the ice melt rate is accelerating so fast in the Arctic.

10:45 p.m.: Chris talks about how those effects will affect places elsewhere in the world in terms of temperatures, extreme storms, etc.

10:46 p.m.: Chris: “If we act boldly, strongly and quickly we may mitigate some of the drastic changes ahead. But we can’t wait long.” Awesome closing line…if it is.

10:46 p.m.: Apparently not as, whoa, fire engine is shown and then Ben V. after a fire affecting his indoor greenhouse. Stuff gets covered with soot and toxins. He’s going to have to get rid of everything he’s grown so far. Definitely a bit of a cliffhanger but, since unlike me when I hit a similar snag he’s not talking about leaving in a matter of days, I’d have flipped the final two scenes given the overall theme of the series.

10:48 p.m.: Next time: Grace and Christine really getting away from it all me talking about seed vault and the insane conspiracy theories it has inspired, Ben and his greenhouse woes (pretty sure it’s when I covered the fire for the fishwrapper).

10:50 p.m.: Chris (afterward) says so far he’s feeling decent about the show because the reason he signed up was because he was hoping to get the word out about the issues he discusses in shows like this one. I’ve heard that from others who were filmed, and at the halfway point I’d say there’s more yeas – call it a 70-80 percent acceptable verdict – among those filmed.

About Post Author

Mark Sabbatini

I'm a professional transient living on a tiny Norwegian island next door to the North Pole, where once a week (or thereabouts) I pollute our extreme and pristine environment with paper fishwrappers decorated with seemingly random letters that would cause a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters to die of humiliation. Such is the wisdom one acquires after more than 25 years in the world's second-least-respected occupation, much of it roaming the seven continents in search of jazz, unrecognizable street food and escorts I f****d with by insisting they give me the platonic tours of their cities promised in their ads. But it turns out this tiny group of islands known as Svalbard is my True Love and, generous contributions from you willing, I'll keep littering until they dig my body out when my climate-change-deformed apartment collapses or they exile my penniless ass because I'm not even worthy of washing your dirty dishes.
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