Sunday 13 March 2016

Ny Alesund

The ice front of the impressive Kongsvegen glacier taken from the flight into Ny Alesund. 
The rain hammers at the window. The ground is frozen and flat, so the water readily pools to form expanses of slush in and around town. Inevitable the temperature will drop, minus fourteen is forecast in a couple of days time, and saturated snow will turn to ice. That will make getting up to our research site on the glacier interesting.

I am in Ny Alesund, a small town on the west coast of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. Ny Alesund is just a small place, with a population of about 35 during the winter, rising up to around 180 during the summer.  At 79ºN it is also the most Northerly permanently inhabited settlement in the world.  Until the late nineteen nineties it was further North than the North Magnetic Pole (the latter has been drifting closer the actual pole over the past few decades).
An arctic fox, as the sun becomes visible in town for the first time in about four month. This picture was actually taken from the dining room. Most mornings the fox jealously watches everybody having their breakfast. 
Being so far North the polar night is long, the sun does not above the horizon between the 24th of October and the 18th of February. However, due to the mountains to the South, the town itself does not see the sun until the 8th of March. I had just arrived on the 8th, and so was lucky enough to catch that first few minutes of sunshine in town this year. The following Saturday night the Norwegians organised a pretty good party to celebrate the return of the sun.

The town of Ny-Alesund.
Ny Alesund is an interesting place. It was set up, as many of the town in the area originally were, as a mining town. However, due to it's location, being just over 1200 km from the North Pole, it was also used as the launch site of the Zeppelins Norge and Italia on their attempts to fly over the Pole. The latter crashed on the return voyage. The famous polar explorer Ronald Amundsen (first person to reach the South Pole) then took off from here on a rescue mission for the Italia, and was never seen again. There is a memorial to him the centre of town.

Three of the team; Paula, Jane and Steven, armed to the teeth due to the hazard of polar bears. It is illegal to go outside the limits of town without at least a rifle and a flare gun in the group. 

As well as a memorial to Amundsen there are also various memorials to the large number of miners who, over the years, were killed in the local coal mines. In just 12 years of operations around the middle of the twentieth century 71 miners being killed. An explosion in 1963 killed twenty one individuals. As well as stopping mining in the area, this had significant political ramification and the Norwegian Cabinate actually resigned over the affair. There remains a lot of abandoned mining detritus sticking out of the snow in the nearby hills, slowly rotting away. This adds to the desolate atmosphere of the place.

After the mining had all closed down the town changed it purpose, it slowly turned into a research village with fifteen permanent research stations run by ten different countries including Britain. I am working for BAS on the British Station with a team from Aberystwyth University who are mapping the glacial drainage system of on of the local glaciers, but more about the science in a latter blog post.
A Norwegian lad enjoying some lovely arctic sunshine and good snow a few days ago before some very "Scottish" weather arrived. It looks like great terrain of ski touring  

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