Studying Permafrost in Svalbard – at the Northernmost University in the World


In June I flew from Edinburgh to Oslo, spent a night sleeping on a bench at the airport, then flew three more hours due north to Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

For a long time, studying Arctic Geology at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) has been a dream of mine. It is the northernmost higher education institution in the world, and is a world leader in polar research. In January this year I decided that since I could now fulfil the application requirements, it was finally time to apply.

The five-week course is tightly packed, with guest lectures given by permafrost experts from all over the world, for example Norway, Canada, Switzerland, and Denmark. In a class with only 19 students, it was easy to approach and have a discussion with these experts. We had a lot of field trips around Longyearbyen to look at geotechnical engineering on permafrost, periglacial environments, geohazards, and also went to Pyramiden – an abandoned Russian coal mining settlement – in our last week! We also had the opportunity to drill permafrost cores, and my group managed to drill 3 metres below ground! In the last week we had to give a group presentation covering permafrost topics, and write a project proposal related to permafrost individually. My project proposal was ‘Building an Airport Runway on Ice-Rich Permafrost’.

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We visited the surroundings of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (currently a construction site because of permafrost issues) with its current geotechnical engineer.

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After working in the cold lab at -6°C for four hours to analyse permafrost cores.

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Cutting permafrost cores the day after drilling to analyse in the lab.

My coursemates and I were all geologists, hence enthusiastic about hiking and outdoor activities, so on the weekends or after class we would go on hikes all around Longyearbyen. 

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From the top of Plateaufjellet, our second hike since the start of the course.

There are a few special things about hiking in Longyearbyen that make the experience totally different from hiking anywhere else in the world. First, summer in Svalbard means 24 hours of daylight, so you can start hiking at any time. Second, since there is still lots of snow in the summer (it snowed in July!), you can slide down the snow instead of hike down, which is really fun and saves a lot of energy. Third, someone in your group must carry a rifle and flare gun to protect ourselves if we see a polar bear.

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At the top of Nordenskiöldfjellet, 1053m. Still a lot of snow in July. This was my last hike before leaving Svalbard.

Since Longyearbyen is such a small town with limited entertainment options, everyone actively initiates group activities. Apart from hiking, we had bonfires near the beach (which is a pebble beach in the arctic, so you can imagine how cold it is), played a lot of board games, went to pubs, and also to the world’s northernmost nightclub – Huset – which opens every Saturday, and is extremely clean and cozy. We even went skinny dipping in freezing arctic waters!

This experience was unforgettable and one of my happiest five weeks- it is rare to meet so many like minded people from all over the world. Thank you to the Go Abroad Fund for making this possible!

Follow my journeys on Instagram @kakaplanet.

The UNIS website: https://www.unis.no/

Categories: Europe, Go Abroad Fund, Norway

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