Arctic explorers locked in a small hut in the Svalbard archipelago in Norway

Arctic explorers locked in a small hut in the Svalbard archipelago in Norway

(CNN) – When Hilde Falun Strom and Sunniva Sorby started a long planned expedition to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard last September, their main goal was to encourage the conversation about climate change in the polar regions.

After spending nearly nine months collecting data and samples for researchers in remote Basembu, located 140 kilometers from the “nearest neighbor”, adventurers were ready to say goodbye to the tiny wooden hut they had called home since the beginning of their journey. .

However, as with many people around the world, their plans have been abruptly put at risk due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Now the couple have no choice but to be cut off from civilization just for company, together with their dog Ettra and various polar bears, reindeer and geese, until a ship is able to cross to bring them home.

“We were very cold,” Strom tells CNN Travel via satellite phone. “There is no electricity. No running water. It was a challenge, but it is the most beautiful area imaginable.”

Strom and Sorby spent two years planning the project known as Hearts in the ice, who saw them become the first women in history to winter in the Arctic without a male team member.

During their stay in Basembu, the two collected meteorological and wildlife data, monitoring clouds, sea ice and organisms for international agencies such as the Norwegian Polar Institute and NASA.

The two, who have known each other for about six years, have also lived in total darkness for three months, which they describe as an experience “not for the weaker heart”.

“None of us lived so close, 24/7 in a small space [their cabin was built for whalers in the 1930s] with anyone, “says Sorby.

“So he had his learning opportunities and challenges. But nothing happened here that we didn’t understand together.

“Then in March, the earth started spinning off its axis and everything started to change.”

‘We are most useful here’

Hilde Falun Strom and Sunniva Sorby are stuck in remote Bamsebu in the Svalbard archipelago in Norway.

Courtesy of Hearts in the Ice

While they have poor access to technology in Basembu, Strom and Sorby, who both work in polar tourism, have been kept up to date on Covid-19 developments by their social media team.

But they had no idea how serious things were until their four-day “gathering trip” became clear, in which family, friends, sponsors and scientific partners would arrive on a ship to collect them in the beginning in May, they couldn’t go on.

“There have been many tears,” says Sorby, who lives in Canada. “It was really difficult. The same ship that left us in September would have come to pick us up.

“We haven’t moved from this position in nearly nine months and some of the same people we got up with and greeted us with a greeting would have been there.

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“But the rest of the world has witnessed many tragedies when it comes to health and so many other disappointments about everything that has been canceled. So we were all in the same boat as it were.”

Apart from disappointment, the couple, who wrote a book about their experiences, are determined to make the most of the situation they are in now and have decided to stay in Basembu until September to continue their work.

“We had a goal when we left and will continue to do it,” says Strom.

“We feel more useful here than at home. But it’s difficult, because we’re not with our family and friends.”

Sorby shares this sentiment, stressing that somehow they are in a better position, as they have not been “contaminated” by the despair that the coronavirus pandemic has accumulated around the world in recent months.

“We will stay in the good news department,” he adds. “To abandon this project would mean to sacrifice our purpose and what we value and represent as women.

“So, it has never been an option for us to stop this. Regardless of the cost to us emotionally and financially.

“Honestly, we have done a lot of research in the soul. We are both over 50 and we care about our values ​​and the way we present ourselves in the world.”

Arctic tourist conflict

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Strom and Sorby are the first women in history to “winter” in the Arctic without a male team member.

Courtesy of Hearts in the Ice

The fact that tourist ships are unable to travel to Svalbard, located midway between Norway and the North Pole, due to global travel restrictions, means that less data samples are currently collected.

“Tourist ships provide great value to scientists by collecting salt water and cloud observations,” says Sorby.

“Tourists get involved in citizens’ science programs on board the ship. But this year there is none of this.

“Last August we had a ship here every day with between 60 and 80 guests. Small ships start coming in May and larger ships in June.”

As a result, the two found that they were the only people in their field to actively collect sea ice or phytoplankton at this time.

“It makes sense for us to keep going so there is no shortage of data sets,” Sorby adds. “We believe there is great value in this.”

The Arctic tourist season runs from May to September, which means that if restrictions remain, there will be little or no tourism in the region this year.

“The entire Svalbard community has been seriously affected by Covid-19 and all travel restrictions,” says Strom, who has lived in Longyearbyen, the main settlement here, for several years. “It is really evident and a great thing for the tourism industry.

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“But they started to open for guests from Norway from June, so we’ll just have to see how things develop.”

In recent years, there has been much discussion about the environmental risks associated with Arctic tourism, largely due to the increase in the number of expedition ships built to navigate Arctic waters and the dangers that ship emissions could pose.

Last year, the Norwegian government released a press release indicating that it is considering a ban on heavy fuel oil (HFO) as well as a limitation on the size of passenger ships in Svalbard in an attempt to manage growing tourism and protect local wildlife.

However, as Strom and Sorby have indicated, the area also benefits greatly from tourism.

Hilde Kristin Rosvik, editor of the local newspaper Svalbardposten he recently spoke of this conflict, explaining that while locals appreciate the money and awareness that this tourism generates, the number of people arriving can be overwhelming.
“Now that coal mining is much less than once, education, research and tourism are important elements of the economy,” Rosvik he said in Forbes last year.

“The problem is that too many tourists come from a ship at the same time. It creates friction in such a small community.”

Involve a global community

Images from

The duo used solar energy and windmills for electricity and collected logs for fires during the winter.

Courtesy of Hearts in the Ice

Svalbard are also among the regions on Earth most affected by climate change.

Average annual temperatures here have increased by four degrees Celsius since 1970, while winter temperatures have increased by more than seven degrees, according to a report published by Norwegian Center for Climate Services in 2019.

Strom and Sorby were forced to launch Hearts in the Ice following these events, with the aim “to involve a global community in dialogue on climate change and what we can all do”.

Between collections, they host live video “hangouts” with students and teachers from around the world to spread the news. They also have a blog that provides updates on their progress.

Both women claim to have difficulty grasping the enormity of what is happening beyond their very remote location.

“It’s a strange turn of events,” adds Sorby. “We could never have imagined when we started this voluntary self-isolation, that the whole world would be in involuntary isolation.

“It’s still very difficult to wrap your head.”

The two, who have used solar energy and windmills for electricity, are very aware that they will return to a new world once the ship finally enters, and many of the things they have taken for granted in the past will have totally changed .

For example, their job – Strom as a product manager for tour operators Hurtigruten, and Sorby as director of global sales for Polar latitudes – It no longer exists.

“The way we cultivated meaning in our world is through travel and connecting people across countries and cultures and creating ambassadors for the environment,” says Sorby.

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“It is very strange that this has stopped and we find ourselves out of work, like many people out there.

“We are not returning to the same world. We are not returning to our work.

“So, we will continue to stay here to be relevant in the other crisis that our world is facing, which is the climate crisis.”

A “silent” spring

Images from

Both feel “more useful” where they are and have decided to stay in Basembu until September.

Courtesy of Hearts in the Ice

However, they hope that some good will come out of this situation, linking it to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book “Silent Spring”, which tells how bird populations in the United States have been affected by the widespread use of pesticides.

“The world is in a very different ‘silent spring’, where it is taking a very large and deep breath, and we must look and observe,” says Sorby.

“And I think many people are re-evaluating how they work, how they live and how they travel.

“It is very interesting for those of us in the polar tourism sector.

“How do we introduce people to different landscapes, different cultures and different specially protected areas?

“How we do what matters. We have to try to figure out how to redefine it. So, it’s an interesting moment.”

Strom hopes that sustainable travel, already a hot topic before the pandemic, will become a way of life rather than a simple movement.

“We as travelers will have a different view of how we travel [in the future],” she says.

“We will find sustainable operators and other ways of traveling to avoid having an impact on environments as much as in the past.

“I think it will be a new direction for all of us.”

While both women are looking forward to seeing their family and friends, in addition to taking a hot shower and a cappuccino, they are currently at peace with isolation and are looking forward to a very peaceful spring (although not entirely silent).

“There is no traffic,” says Sorby. “No static in the air. No plane. No ship traffic. When we go out, we only hear the sounds of moving ice and the wind.

“We find a lot of strength in our goal and in our vision, but also in the nature that surrounds us.

“It is something that everyone can relate to. [We can all] go outside and feel the power of nature. Take a walk, run or bike ride. Mother nature has a lot to offer. “

Strom and Sorby are currently raising funds through a GoFundMe page to contribute to “expanding technology, citizens’ science collection and educational dissemination” to schools around the world.


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