When the days and nights in Estonia are not long enough

Observing the Arctic landscape. Photo from the private collection

I think there might be a number of people who think I am a bit odd, due to my wish to voluntarily spend a few months of my life in the world’s northernmost higher education institution, the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), situated in the Arctic at 78º N.

Spending 1.5 months studying biology and underwater robotics during the polar night, as well as learning about Arctic microbiology for 1.5 months during the polar day, has given me a chance to experience quite a bit.

It was during the polar night in January 2017 when I first landed in the Arctic. There were absolutely no noticeable differences in the illumination levels between the night and daytime.

Clouds and snow blending into one on Foxfonna glacier. Photo from the private collection

I found it quite easy to get used to it, as the hours of sunlight during the Estonian winter are not really noteworthy either. However, it is much more extreme in the city of Longyearbyen (the capital of Svalbard), as sun does not reach the city before March. Being there, I really understood the impact of light pollution, or rather the effects of the absence of it – the darkness is totally different compared to what I was used to in Estonia – the night really was pitch black, making it feel mysterious.

As everything around us was constantly dark, noticing the first glimpses of light returning at the end of January was not complicated. What I found to be humorous was that there were some mountains near our student housing that I had not noticed during the first weeks of my stay, due to the darkness.

Longyearbyen and the northern lights. Photo from the private collection

I spent most of my days in the city of Longyearbyen. The city had around 2000 inhabitants who were mostly commonly associated with science and education or tourism. It is the most northern region that has a regular flight connection. The flight from Oslo takes 3 hours. The city itself is just like any other. It has grocery stores, a school, a kindergarten, a hospital, a pool, a sport centre, bars, a cinema, and even a nightclub (called Huseet or “The House” in English). Even Radisson Hotel and a few taxi drivers have found a purpose in the city of Longyearbyen.

Svalbard is special for many different reasons. There are different rules and regulations that match the extreme nature that it’s situated in. For example, there are no cats allowed, in order to protect the birds living in the region. Every citizen has a monthly quota for alcohol purchases. Dogs are allowed with a special permit, and many of the residents own sled dogs that are used for dog sledding tourism, which is quite popular among tourists.

Testing if the safety suit is water-proof. Photo from the private collection

It is also noteworthy that the people cannot leave the town without carrying a rifle. The students taking courses need to pass safety and firearm training in order not to sit idly by in case of danger. The necessity of the course is understandable, as the polar bear population is quite noteworthy in the region, and every now and then the town might be in the way of the white bear. There have been some unfortunate cases where some people have died due to polar bear attacks; however, these cases are rare, as safety is the number one priority in the city and during the expeditions.

People are not buried in Svalbard, as the bodies do not decompose in the cold ground. Therefore, the people are sent to spend their final days in Oslo. Even the utility pipes have to be placed above ground due to the permafrost. The climate also affects transport. It is visible from empty food shelves in the store if the weather has been bad and the shipments have not reached the town.

Inspecting the sample of cyanobacteria with professor Øvreås. Photo from the private collection

The daily life in this wild north was diverse. I got used to walking to school side by side with reindeer, observing polar foxes running by my window, as well as a pod of whales that came to spend some time near the beach. There were times when the temperatures were warmer in Svalbard compared to Estonia (a few degrees above zero in the north and -10 degrees in Estonia).

They even had some similar celebrations to us. For example, they also celebrate St. John’s Day (Jaanipäev), which they call Sankthans Day. The residents eat hot dogs and drink beer at the beach next to a fireside that has been put up next to the fjord. The fire is made out of wooden pallets, as there are no trees in Svalbard that could be used for fire. One could poetically say that they party till the sun comes up, but since the sun is up the whole time, it is not really applicable.

The previously mentioned experiences give only a short overview of what I saw in Svalbard. The nature, the climate, the people, and the university are all different due to this remote, special location. The only thing that still haunts me is that I didn’t see the polar bear in its natural habitat. I guess I’ll have to go back.

Kertu Liis Krigul is a first year doctoral student of genetic engineering at the University of Tartu.

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