The Climate Heats up

How the war in Ukraine upsets the northernmost lands of the planet

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, whose name 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.

Longyearbyen is the main settlement, where 80 % of the population lives. Fifty 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.

Norwegians, Ukrainians and Russians have been used to living side by side for decades in this extreme context where isolation strengthens relations between people and makes nationality irrelevant. But the balance has been compromised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is undermining old personal and professional relationships, cultural interaction, even sports. The Svalbard tourist board has called for a boycott of Russian state-owned enterprises in the Barentsburg mining settlement, while the Russian consul general, widely considered a moderate, recently provoked bitter controversy after accusing the Norwegian media of primarily spreading fake news in their coverage of the conflict in Ukraine.

( 2019 )