Our flight took us to the city of Longyearbyen ("Longyear City"), named after John M. Longyear, an American businessman who began mining operations in 1906. We took a bus tour of the world's most northern city with a year-round population of over 1000 people.
In the winter, the region is cloaked in darkness day and night and temperatures are often below zero, but this time of year, the town is bathed in sunlight at all hours and temperatures range in the 30-50 degrees F. The climate in Svalbard is moderated by the warm North Atlantic current that continues the Gulf Stream northeast.
We visited the Svalbard Museum and got introduced to the local arctic ecology, as well as the human history of the region. Though there were no indigenous people in Svalbard. In 1596, Dutch expedition led by Wilhelm Barentsz arrived in Svalbard and named the region "Spitsbergen," a name that meant "sharp, pointed mountains." Today, Spitsbergen is the name of the largest island.
During the 400 years after its discovery, Svalbard was a whaling and hunting ground for the Dutch, English, Russian Pomors, and Norwegians. Whales, walruses, arctic fox, and polar bears were hunted in large numbers. Longyearbyen has been used as a whaling base, a mining town, a polar research outpost and, most recently, an Arctic tourism destination. The homes are almost exclusively owned by companies, which provide housing to workers and their families.
I stood on the bow with Aimee and she turned to me and said, "Wouldn't it be cool if the glacier calved right here in front of us." Minutes later a large piece of ice calved and splashed into the ocean...splash! Witnessing that event was quite powerful.
Remember most of the glacier lies below the water level. The naturalist Michael Nolan told me that sometimes chunks calve underwater and then shoot up through the surface because the solid water is more buoyant.
Unfortunately, I did not get any sleep. I am not sure if I was still on Hawaii time or perhaps coursing with adrenaline, but I was up writing and wandering the ship most of the night. I saw the midnight sun, and the 1am sun, and the 2am sun, and the...well, you get the idea.
Looking forward to the journey ahead...let's explore the Land of the Ice Bears!