Norway

Sugar Snow

A look into the daily life of the extreme North

On the very edges of the map, between the 74th and 81st parallels, is a place that is both rugged and magical. Where daily life touches on the metaphysical: the Svalbard islands at the far north of Norway are the world’s northernmost inhabited area.

The archipelago, the name of which is ancient Norwegian for “cold coast”, is 60% covered by year-round ice. The tracks of the islands’ few roads are altered almost daily by the extreme atmospheric conditions. The 2600 or so human inhabitants are heavily outnumbered by the polar bear population, so no one ventures beyond the town unarmed.

This place is home to a relatively small number of people who have chosen to live at the very edge of the world, either studying, working, or just pursuing their passions. It is also the site of some of the world’s most advanced radar stations that analyse the phenomena of the magnetosphere, crucial for understanding our planet, and also, housed inside a kind of underground cathedral, examples of all the worlds’ existing seeds are stored in a special location where they can survive forever.

Longyearbyen is the main settlement, where 80 % of the population lives. 50 different nationalities are represented, but no one was born here and no one can be buried here either. In fact, the law prohibits childbirth (the only healthcare structure is poorly equipped and women are sent to the mainland three weeks before their due dates) while, due to the layer of permafrost, the natural conditions mean that it is impossible to dig a grave to bury a coffin.

In these conditions, the inhabitants, who are forced together within the confines of the islands that they have chosen to call home for at least a period of their lives, deep down are unable to feel part of a community. Their relationships resemble what in Svalbard is known as ‘sugar snow’: the snow that lies beneath the surface layer of ice and remains pure and flowery. Just like sugar, it is composed of infinite crystals that due to the extreme dry cold, are unable to form bonds with one another.

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