Returning to Svalbard after three years hasn’t just been about climate change but also an enormous cultural change. The small chaotic “shed” that was Longyearbyen airport, passengers battling for sight of hoped for suitcases, now replaced by a vast and new building which is more efficient, modern and stress free than any the UK can proffer. A modern coach delivers us along smooth roads to Base Camp, a luxurious but ersatz update of the genuine lodge that once provided shelter for expeditions setting out across the wilderness. As we emerge the following morning, the one street town I remember from past voyages is now a thriving tourist centre. Hotels, a new museum, and boutique shops full of fashion from around the world compete along side the more traditional seal skin hats. There is even a kebab shop! No longer hanging out of hotel bathroom windows to pick up remnants of a mobile phone signal, broadband mobile is omnipresent, even 50km offshore.
Arctic tourism is thriving and providing a substantial boost to the economy of Svalbard. This brings one to a quandary about the high Arctic. Should we be preserving it as a reserve, a museum for people who have never been, or likely to go to the Arctic, so they can sleep soundly in the knowledge that change doesn’t happen? Or should it be developed for people to appreciate and understand this fragile environment which could in turn destroy that very realm? This is the perfect illustration of Schrodinger’s cat. People can talk about climate change and know what needs to be done in their mind, but they will only ever act from their heart. Tourism is monitored and evidently sustainable in this remote location – and an essential source of income which is perceived to be preferable to whaling and seal hunting to western sensibilities. As we sail from Longyearbyen on Friday evening I sleep soundly in the belief that this change is good.
This positive mood of cultural evolution is dashed Saturday morning as new evidence of climate change rears its ugly head. Three years ago this fjord we had dropped anchor in on the first night had three (moderate) glaciers coming down to the water’s edge, today there is one. Same place, same time of year, different environment. It is not the culture of Longyearbyen that needs to change to preserve our Arctic – it is the culture of London, Washington, Delhi, Beijing, Paris and Sydney (to name but a few). Change would be good but we need to engage people’s hearts on this voyage as well as their minds to make this one a reality.BACK TO TOP