Posted by: henrymcghie | April 5, 2016

A visit to the Arctic

I was very privileged to be invited to take part in a workshop in Spitzbergen last October. The workshop was organised by Tromso Museum and Tromso University (funded by the Norwegian Research Council), to explore ideas of how the Arctic is related to ideas of gender. My contribution was based on work I’d done for researching a book on 19th century bird collectors and ornithologists. Virtually all of these were men, as shooting was a manly activity (ie. one mainly done by men). We were an interdisciplinary group, which made for very rewarding discussion, even if it wasn’t always easy to find common language and approaches. Spitzbergen was the star of the experience. I flew from the UK and stayed overnight in Tromso, gateway to the Norwegian Arctic. A quick walk around Tromso early in the morning found lots (c.1,000) of Common Eider in large rafts among the surf in the fjord in front of the hotel. There was a particularly fine statue of Roald Amundsen there too, looking very distinguished. Other birds I saw included Hooded Crows, which fed on the shore on sea urchins; I saw Great Tits and a White Wagtail. The next day I flew to Spitzbergen, about three hours’ flight. This was about the roughest landing I’ve ever had: people were crossing themselves, as we were hurled about by the updrafts. The landscape was completely amazing, if very strange. No green to be seen. Strangely shaped mountains, like a pyramid with a good chunk of the point removed, to give a flat table-top shape. The other extraordinary thing was that there was a repeating fractal shape in the mountains: they were self-similar, meaning that they looked the same close up as they did at a distance. This wasn’t entirely tied to the bedding of the rock, but I don’t know what caused it. Longyearbyen, where we stayed, was set up as a mining town in the early 20th century. Coal was still extracted and used to power the town’s heating plant. We weren’t allowed to venture from the town, as there are Polar Bears all over the islands. The town was small, about 500-1000 people, who are not supposed to be born or to die on the islands, but to move to the mainland. We stayed in abandoned coal miners’ cabins. There weren’t many birds around, but some Purple Sandpipers were still around, as were some Barnacle, which were very tame and fed near us, and Pink-footed Geese which flew overhead. I saw a beautiful Arctic Fox running along near houses early one morning; apparently many of the locals feed them.


longyearbyen cliffs.jpeg

View from the cabins where we stayed, showing a fractal image in the mountain

longyearbyen cliffs 2.jpeg

Another view from the cabins, after the snow

polar bear in shop.jpeg

There were lots of warnings about Polar Bears


svalbard museum.jpeg

Svalbard Museum had a fantastic exhibition that had a lot of free space around it


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