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The Land of the Midnight Sun, Polar Bears, and Reindeer

JULY 2014 - This summer I was privileged to lecture on astronomy while on a cruise to North Norway and Svalbard, (Spitsbergen). It was rather a surprise as the only celestial body in the sky was the Sun, but this did not deter the interest. We sailed along the Norwegian coast and crossed into the Arctic Circle at a latitude of 66 deg 33 min North on the 24th July, for which we were given a certificate. The next day we visited Tromso, the most Northerly city with a university. The day after we arrived at Honningsvag, the port close to North Cape, the most Northerly point on the Norwegian mainland at 71 deg 10 min N. Here we were expecting to see reindeer and the midnight Sun. We saw neither but not such a disappointment as the same thing happened two years ago when we were on a summer solstice trip and it was foggy and the reindeer herd were in the wrong place at the time. We did see some metallic frame globes that the Norwegian’s kindly erect to tell us that we are inside the Arctic Circle.

After North Cape we pressed on Northerly until we reached the island of Spitsbergen. On the 28th July we arrived at the small township, and scientific base of Ny Alesund, (78 deg 56 min N).  This is a magical place and we were privileged to be allowed to land there. We were lucky; as this is the last year that the authorities are allowing cruise ships in. All passengers had to give an undertaking that they would keep to the marked pathways, and would not go outside the settlement area.

 One of the first things we saw when going ashore in Ny Alesund was the old steam train and coal wagons, a reminder that coal mining was carried out on the island in the last century. If it had not been for this activity there would have been nowhere to berth our ship, as the train used to bring coal to the ships on the jetty.

At the most inland point on our pathway was a statue of Roald Amundsen. Amundsen had several associations with Ny Alesund. He trained there supposedly to go to the North Pole. The deceit was that he was secretly training to go to the South Pole, which he reached on 14th December 1911. In 1926 he left Ny Alesund to fly over the North Pole by airship.The flight was successful and he landed in Teller Alaska. Two years later, in 1928, he was killed in an air disaster rescue.

It soon became clear to me that we were not going to see Polar Bears on this trip. Every time we reached the outskirts of Ny Alesund on any of the paths we were confronted with signs saying “STOP Polar Bear Danger.  Do not walk beyond this sign without your firearm”. We had a most spectacular view of a glacier at Ny Alesund where the blue ice could be clearly seen.

After leaving Ny Alesund on the 28th July, because the weather was good the captain headed further North to see how close we could get to the Polar ice sheet, which as shown below, was on the distant horizon.At this time I checked our location on a GPS receiver and discovered that we had crossed the latitude of 80 deg N, the picture shows this. Not too many people have crossed this circle. It might have been a more appropriate certificate than one for crossing the Arctic Circle. That evening the weather remained fine and sunny. There was the prospect of seeing the midnight Sun, and the picture below shows the sunshine on the ship’s deck about half an hour after midnight. This is confirmed on my digital watch where it was now early Tuesday morning of 29th July.

The ship had now changed direction and heading South from the most Northerly town in Spitsbergen towards the capital Longyearbyen. We arrived in Longyearbyen, (78 deg N), after breakfast on the 29th July. The capital of Spitsbergen was more like a town, with shops, supermarkets, a library, and two museums. However, the view of pipes on the outskirts of Longyearbyen looks a little wild. The pipes are above the surface because of problems with the permafrost.  You may be able to see two walkers on the right hand side by the pipes. The walker on the left is a young lady, and she is carrying a rifle on her back.

In reflection although we did not see Polar Bears or Reindeer we accomplished some remarkable achievements, we saw the midnight Sun, we saw the Polar Ice Cap, and we ventured across the 80 deg North circle, and along the way we had some magnificent views.

(Report and pictures: Dr Geoff Towler)


Top left: Metal Globe to signify being inside the Arctic Circle.

Above: The old steam train with coal wagons.

Top right: Statue of Roald Amundsen.

Left: Polar Bear danger sign.

Right: GPS confirmation that we crossed the latitude of 80 deg North.

Below: The North Polar ice sheet seen from above 80 deg North.

Bottom left: Glacier at Ny Alesund.

Bottom centre: The Midnight Sun, actually just over half an hour past midnight.

Bottom right: Pipes at Longyearbyen.

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Wednesday, 03 January 2018