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Svalbard at 3AM

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Late night sun over Svalbard. © Brutus Östling / WWF-CanonLate night sun over Svalbard. © Brutus Östling / WWF-Canon

From April 11 to 21, 2014, join a Norwegian Polar Institute and WWF-Canon scientific expedition to collect critical data about Europe’s most westerly polar bear population. The population on and around the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is facing a future without summer sea ice. See all posts from the expedition here.

3 AM…that’s my new wake up time when I travel to Europe or Russia…right on time…3 AM. This is new to me, a champion sleeper for most of my life and I can only assume it relates to getting a bit older, regardless, it is usually unwelcome. Today though- I remember where I am, Longyearbeyen on the Svalbard Islands well inside the Arctic at 78 degrees latitude. My Swedish colleague Tom is happily asleep across our purposefully rustic looking bunk room at the Basecamp Lodge. We are fortunate to stay in this unique place built to resemble the original trapper cabins and filled with old photographs and bits of Svalbard history.

While I’ve had the privilege to see much of the Arctic through both work and leisure, this is my first time in Svalbard. We were treated to a glimpse of the striking landscape last night when the clouds cleared to the West unveiling a beautiful scene of steep snowcapped peaks rising from the sea across the fjord. As I try to fall back asleep, my thoughts drift towards a far more fanciful description of this distant place- the Kingdom of the Ice Bears in the book “The Golden Compass”.  My eyes quickly grow heavy as I look around my “cabin” and the clear daylight still sneaking through the window blinds- land of the midnight sun indeed.

When I re-awaken at a more reasonable hour, the team meets for a classic breakfast of cheese, breads, herring, smoked salmon, tomatoes, and cucumber- and there is always plain yogurt and granola it seems. Our partners at the Norwegian Polar Institute run us down to the awaiting Research Vessel Lance where we will spend the next 12 days at sea. She is a remodeled and repurposed coast guard vessel designed for the ice. With a crew of 11, she is fully kitted out and will be a comfortable home. The only downside, her skill in the ice is due in part to a fairly flat bottom that can challenge for passenger comfort in rough seas- which we encounter just before dinner!

As I write this at 8 PM, we have sailed out of Bellsund into the open Atlantic (nothing now between us and Greenland), and have turned north towards Prince Karls Forland. The snow and low clouds we had on our departure have become sun and blue skies- revealing once again the stunning physical beauty of this land of snow and ice.

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