Thursday, September 3, 2009

Svalbard Arctic Adventure!

"The ability to adapt, and the art of resignation, are some of what is needed most by those who shall live in Svalbard."

-Nord for Det Ode Hav, Liv Balstad 1956

Svalbard, Norway. One of the Northernmost settlements in the world, right up there with Greenland, climbing way past the arctic circle. Human Population = 2100. Polar Bear Population = 3000+. Not a single tree to speak of. The highest vegetation goes up to about your shin and firewood must be shipped from the mainland. 60% Glaciers. Howling, biting winds. Annual air temperature below freezing (-5C). Permafrost at 6 inches below ground. One of the most inhospitable places in the world. Why is anyone living there? Why did I travel there would be a better question...

Well, there are a lot of answers, but the short history of Svalbard is that it was almost always considered a "no-man's land". Meaning no one had true possession of it. If you came out here you were on your own. It wasn't until Norway declared sovereignty over it in 1925 that it was formally recognized as part of a country. Even as recent as the 1990's if you got off the airplane at Longyearbyen (the main settlement) and didn't have the necessary means of survival (tent, sleeping bag, rifle, etc...) you would be turned away and sent back on the same plane you landed on! It is a land of explorers, trappers, miners, whalers, and of course, polar bears. The huge, furry, teethy true owner of the area. The image of the polar bear is everywhere in Svalbard. On signs, coffee mugs, pamphlets, even greeting you at the baggage carousel when you get off the plane (see above...). There are more bears than people, and anytime you leave the main settlement, you are required by law to carry a gun, or have a guide with a gun, in case you have to defend yourself! It is a place where those that would stay have to bunker in against all of the forces that would expel them back to where they came from. It is almost impossible to meet someone born on Svalbard, though the locals that have been there 30+ years are by far the most stress free human beings I've met.

The reason I was there though... Sure it was probably some of the subconscious promise of adventure that lead "The Wanderer" to climb the mountain in Friedrich's painting, or Ogilvie to come out on an expedition to the ends of the earth. But really it was to understand how people were able to exist (and thrive) in an environment that so eagerly wants them gone. How do people build when there is quite literally almost nothing to start with, and how to respond to the climatic challenges involved?

Permafrost is one of the biggest deals up in the northern reaches, meaning frost that never disappears year round. Permanent frost if you will. If the buildings were built with normal foundation systems like the mainland, by resting on or under the earth, the heat generated from the buildings would start to melt the frost, causing the earth to start shift and become unstable. Indeed many of the buildings built by trappers long ago have slid many meters just from their own produced heat alone. To combat this ultimately impossible battle with mother nature, the buildings of Svalbard have learned to raise themselves up on stilts in order to get enough distance from the earth that the difference in temperature does not affect the permafrost. Some of the pilings (such as the research centre below) are drilled as deep as 15m below ground. The building above is an extreme example of the floating structures, as it was used to house funiculars going up and down the hills for the coal mining operations.

One building though, the "Global Seed Vault", is in Svalbard for precisely the reason of permafrost. The ground is always kept at a constant freezing temperature, there is no real earthquake danger, and the location is above sea level (by 120m). All of these factors mean that seeds from around the world can be stored free of the danger of fire, seismic activity, and floods due to icecaps melting. There are over 1.5 million different types of seeds housed in the vault already and it burrows over 150m into the mountain. Its actually just what you would expect a post apocalyptic bunker to be like, stark gray concrete with only one large metal entrance to the depths underneath. When we hiked up and stood before the portal, I could imagine the door creaking open to release a man in clothes from the 1950's, bleary eyed and confused... "What year is it?" he would say. And just to mess with him I would reply "No one knows, we are the last of our kind...".

The biggest building in Longyearbyen is pretty recent, the Svalbard Research Centre, designed by the Norwegian firm JVA based out of Oslo. Before that one of the largest structures was the Radisson hotel, that was part of the Olympic games in 1998 and then shipped out piece by piece to its new resting grounds (many buildings are built in chunks in the mainland and then shipped out to site). But the research centre was too big to be built in chunks, though the majority of all the structure was prefabricated to allow for ease of use putting together on site. The period of construction in Svalbard is short, and as the winter approaches it becomes too cold to continue, so building must be done as quickly and efficiently as possible. In the case of the Research Centre, one of the main conditions was actually wind. To protect against the harsh environments, it was to function as a sort of arctic university campus, though inside-out. Anders Granli over at JVA says one of the main factors leading to them getting the project was their philosophy of what a campus could be. Since its impossible to wander around sunny tree-lined boulevards flanked with maples, the parks and sidewalks of the campus are inside, along the wood lined warm corridors. The interior form is meant to recall the distorted mind shafts that are borrowed into the hills, with colors placed to psychologically recall the hues of the small amounts of flora that exist in Svalbard.

On the outside, the building had to be able to react to the extreme winds and storms that would be coming its way. Extensive computer modeling was down to cant the forms and elevations, allowing snow drifts to go through rather than around the raised building. Eva, the lady that was giving me a tour explained that the interior courtyard still traps some of the snow and trash from the city, though proudly pointed out that they have the last bit of summer snow in Longyearbyen every year. Copper was chosen on the outside of the building because of its material properties relating to cold. Where other metals get brittle and break, copper was able to be manipulated by a worker with heavy gloves on even in the very low digits. It also allowed for less seams, with the roof wrapping down to the sides and slightly underneath, with less chances for wind swept snow to pierce to the air gap inside the wall cavity.

I was drawn to Svalbard and its architecture precisely because of this stubbornness to exist. Not a single tree on the entire island means everything, and I mean everything ('cept coal) has to be imported from the mainland. Many of the buildings, like the Radisson hotel, are "chunked", built in bigger pieces in Norway and shipped out to be placed down in the settlement. A downside of this seems to be the buildings look and react the same way they do in other places, not native to Svalbard. Besides the bedroom windows being tiny (midnight sun), they are almost identical to houses you would typically see around Oslo or other places. I asked one of the professors at UNIS about insulation levels, thinking they must be gigantic compared to houses in milder climates, but surprisingly he answered they were almost identical in section, with an air gap in between the sheathing and relatively thin depth. The way they get around this is coal. Cheap King Coal. The entire settlement of Longyearbyen is heated by giant hot water pipes coming directly from the local coal plant a long stone's throw down the road. There is plenty of power to go around so the radiators just get turned up a little bit more and everyone is toasty. It turns out that the wind is the big thing you have to protect against. It is one of the few places that I know of that the separation of power produced and home use is completely abandoned, with everyone walking or driving by their source of livelihood almost every day. The fossil fuels are so abundant on the island and all other power sources so hard to ship that it might be one of the few cases where coal is the more sustainable option, I'm still torn on the subject. In a funny/sad side note, they add chemicals to make the smoke from the plant grey instead of black, which looks better, but then I'm imagining all of these more harmful chemicals floating around in the air b/c of it.

Thoughts on Traveling #24 :

Legally, I have to add that I had been joined in Svalbard by the rough and very tough character of Shawn "'Stache" Nee. He's a law student and has threatened numerous times to sue me unless I say he saved me from a polar bear. It's true, it's all true.

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