The Global Seed Vault undergoing emergency repairs
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago that lies within the Arctic Circle, approximately halfway between Norway and the North Pole. At 78 degrees north, it is home to the northernmost town on earth, Longyearbyen, where polar bears outnumber people and its estimated 2000 inhabitants must carry a gun for protection whenever they leave the settlement.
Located on top of the world, it contains sweeping areas of unspoiled, raw Arctic wilderness. There is a tension between the purity of nature in the far north and the legacy of our attempts to tame and exploit it. Originally discovered in 1596 by Dutch whalers, Svalbard (meaning ‘cold coasts’ in Norwegian) was repurposed by northern European hunters and trappers in the 18th Century. Coal mining began at the beginning of the 20th Century, and several permanent communities were established, though only one remains operational today.
Custom-built in Alaska, the Polar Permaculture dome has been a prominent construction on the landscape since its commission in 2013 by American chef and entrepreneur Benjamin L. Vidmar. The environmental and financial costs of importing fruit and vegetables to the archipelago are substantial. With an emphasis on sustainability, Vidmar currently grows microgreens for local restaurants and hotels, then collects the waste to compost with worms. Each year, Longyearbyen School is allocated four reindeer. The teachers take the schoolchildren on a hunting expedition at the start of term to learn the value of survival skills and living off the land. The pupils, who represent multiple nations, are taught about animal biology while observing the cultural traditions of deer hunting.
Many derelict coal mines still stand alongside newer structures on the mountainsides like ghostly monuments, looking down on civilisation as a reminder of the formerly thriving industry. Taubanesentralen, sometimes referred to as ‘The Spider Building’ because of its elevated presence, serves as the main mining ropeway station for the last remaining coal mine operational in Longgyearbyen - Mine 7 (Truve 7). Pyramiden, a once prosperous coal mining town under the administration of the Soviet Union, has become a tourist destination in itself where satellite phones serve as the only means of communication and visitors can stay overnight in the former guesthouses under the supervision of armed guides.
Svalbard is not typically a place people spend their entire lives or where families are continued through generations, although a few family generations do reside there. People have generally come and gone, contributing to Svalbard’s distinctive history. The history of the islands is rich in tragic events, and graves are common relics of culture.
Founded in 1909 by American mining businessman Munro Longyear, the main settlement of Longyearbyen is home to one small hillside cemetery, which dates back to 1918 following the death of seven Norwegian miners during the Spanish Flu epidemic making it of cultural and environmental interest to researchers. The cemetery is still used for urn burials, despite claims that it is ‘forbidden’ to die in Svalbard. However, record rainfall has triggered some of the worst landslides to hit Longyearbyen. This has forced local authorities to seek alternative locations for the hillside cemetery to prevent obliteration.
With global warming being one of the most important issues of our time, research and tourism have become important supplementary industries in Svalbard, featuring among others the University Centre and the Global Seed Vault, which houses seed samples from all over the world should we need them in the event of large scale human-made or natural disaster. The latter underwent major renovations in 2018 after the entrance to the Vault was breached by melting permafrost following continuously rising temperatures.
With plans to close its sole operational coal mine, Svalbard now finds itself in a confused identity: part hub of pioneering scientific research on the front line of climate change, part otherworldly tourist destination at the end of the earth.
An image from this series was awarded the British Journal of Photography's inaugural Decade of Change Award, exhibiting at Hong Kong's Museum of Climate Change and New York's Javits Centre during Climate Week NYC 2021.
Climate Week NYC, September 2021 © Michael Synder
This project was made over two visits to Svalbard, with funding assistance from Newcastle College's Michael Ormerod Travel Award.