Voyage to the North Pole

Last week I got the opportunity to go to Spitsbergen, an island in the Svalbard archipelago only a few hundred miles from the North Pole.


The trip was a pedagogical cruise sponsored by the UT Jackson School of Geosciences and Norwegian oil company, Statoil. In all, about 80 faculty and students in geology, geophysics, and petroleum engineering made the trek along western Spitsbergen to learn about the “economic geology” (as it’s known in this business) in the Arctic.



(GPS tracking of the trip courtesy of Julio Leva)

Visiting both the Arctic and Antarctic circles in one year might not have explicitly been on my bucket list before, but it’s certainly made this a year to remember.

Spitsbergen is the biggest island of Svalbard in the Barents Sea, east of Greenland and north of Scandinavia and Russia. Spitsbergen is the only permanently populated island in the archipelago and mining, tourism, and scientific research are pretty much the only industries. Below is a pile of old rock cores that were the byproduct of drilling wells in the ground, looking for oil or water.


Technically, Norway has sovereignty over Svalbard according to the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, but it’s a bit of a no-man’s land. There are few taxes and not all Norwegian law applies there. The main town is Longyearbyen, which was our point of entry and where we boarded the ship.


Longyearbyen is the northernmost town in the world. There are only about 1,000 people who live there, but it seems to be a fairly vibrant community. We counted 5 beverage establishments, no doubtedly serving the market of a small Norwegian university outpost which boasts about 400 students. That’s understandable; while the sun never sets in August, it never rises in February.


Our ship departed just a few hours after we arrived at the Longyearbyen airport. We were at sea for 6 days, visiting to a new location every day. A typical day would include small boats taking us to shore where we would hike for several hours and make several stops to talk about the local geology.


Luckily there was no snow this time of year, the only few weeks when Spitsbergen is snow-free and plants get a chance to germinate.


While we were on shore, there was a constant threat of polar bears, which are one of the few animals known to actively hunt humans for food. Polar bears often hunt for seals around sea ice, which retreats in summer, so August is one of their hungriest times. For safety, we were herded around en masse and surrounded by armed guards.


After our hike, we would get back into the boats and head back to the ship. Usually after a shower and delicious dinner in the ship’s dining room (with plenty of dessert!), we would meet with pre-assigned student groups to work through assignments and prepare presentations on our results.


In the evenings, the ship would get underway to our next destination as student groups presented their projects or faculty lectured on topics ranging from geology to drilling mechanics. There weren’t any lectures about ice or glaciology, but there was plenty of that around to see, too.


One of our stops was Pyramiden, a Russian mining town that was abandoned in 1998. It’s been a veritable ghost town since then, though as of the late 2000’s a handful of people have come to live in Pyramiden in an effort to clean the place up (so we were told).


The trip was an incredible (even luxurious!) experience and I’m very fortunate to have been a part of it. I learned a lot about geology which I’m already putting to use as a teaching assistant for an intro geology course this semester. Not to mention, the view is pretty good from the top of the world:


For the next couple of weeks I’ll be sharing my experiences on the trip and bombarding you with pictures. But in case you’re already sold, here’s how you can book your own trip to the North (or South!) Pole.


5 thoughts on “Voyage to the North Pole

  1. What an adventure! Most people circumnavigate the globe east to west, west to east. You nearly did it south to north! I didn’t expect the ship to be so big or for you to be at sea the bulk of the time. Time well spent, obviously! Love, Mama


  2. Amazing experiences and sights. Your photos are terrific. I imagine you are seeing things both stunning and eerie. Your days sound full but also exciting and interesting. Glad the food is good!


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