Svalbard, 78 to 81 degrees North, lies halfway between Northern Norway and the North Pole. Its population of around 2,500 people is distributed between Norwegian and Russian coal-mining settlements and research stations. Yet, Svalbard attracts more than 100,000 tourists a year. A surprising number of these visitors to Svalbard hail from Aberystwyth University, a connection dating back over 50 years. Every year the Departments of Geography and Earth Science (DGES) and Physics both send a handful of students to study glaciology, geology and astro-physics at the university centre there (UNIS). Research biologists from Aberystwyth investigate ice microbes, geographers explore glacial processes, physicists study the aurora, while still other researchers are interested in adventure tourism.
My own work is in the fields of cultural and environmental geography. During three field trips I have investigated human relations with this stunning arctic location. Historically, these relations have been largely extractive, starting with whaling and hunting in the 16th century and coalmining from the beginning of the 20th Century. Indeed, coalmining is still part of Norwegian and Russian activities in Svalbard. In the last couple of decades, however, the focus has partly shifted more towards the value in protecting Svalbard’s natural and cultural heritage. The effects of climate change are more noticeable and the economic and environmental case for coalmining is increasingly difficult to make. Norway’s goal to make Svalbard one of the best managed wilderness areas in the world presents a number of interesting tensions over ideals of wilderness and environmental decision making. My research has posed questions such as who should have access to where, which sites and species ‘deserve’ protection, and who gets to decide? Greenpeace’s intervention on dredging should attract much-needed attention to the environmental consequences of climate change in this area.
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