Our Svalbard

The last two decades have changed Svalbard in our world from once being considered a stable enough place to house the International Seed Vault to one affected dramatically by global climate change, including the loss of polar bear and reindeer habitat, and the growth of tourism with the stress that the introduction of transient humans put on a place.

There has been a human population on the island archipelago for some time now; the first big thrust were Soviet mining operations, long abandoned.

It is home to the University Centre in Svalbard, the most northernly of universities and the Norwegian Polar Institute

Life as as a student on Svalbard sounds fascinating; no one is allowed beyond the school’s fenced parameters without a rifle or being in the company of someone trained in firearms. The threat of bear attacks is taken quite seriously. I recommend browsing the student life handbook for its worst case scenarios before submitting an application.

The Norwegian Polar Institute has extensive resources on problems facing the islands. Good maps are found here. There’s a concise summary of Svalbard essentials at Cittagazze

For more information on the unarmored bears of Svalbard, go here.

When I first started on The Definitive Guide, close to 20 years ago, I had a window open to a real time webcam. It was black and white and trained on a parking lot. Through the winter, I saw no signs of life but the occasional change of car or truck in its place. It was strangely peaceful to tune in throughout the day and night and see nothing happen.

Now there are lots of webcams to choose from.

Svalbard in the Books

Our world’s Svalbard,  NOAA geood 0479:

Edited from The Definitive Guide to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Lyra “asked Iorek Byrnison about Svalbard, and listened eagerly as he told her of the slow-crawling glaciers; of the rocks and ice-floes, where the bright-tusked walruses lay in groups of a hundred or more, of the seas teeming with seals, of narwhals clashing their long white tusks above the icy water; of the great grim iron-bound coast, and the cliffs a thousand feet and more high” (NL 225)

In HDM, Svalbard is the island nation of the panserbjørne (or armoured bears) and the site of Asriel’s exile, where he plans to reveal a bridge to another world by creating a “breach in the sky.”

Its interior is “mountainous, with jumbled peaks and sharp ridges deeply cut by ravines and steep-sided valleys,” and extremely cold. When Lyra arrives, the snow is thigh deep and its perimeter high cliffs are plagued by cliff-ghasts. There is no wood on the island, but coal pits are numerous. Asriel’s lab is south of the frozen sea that reaches to the Pole. To the east and west are “Great jagged peaks thrusting sharply upwards, their scarps piled high with snow and raked by the wind into blade-like edges as sharp as scimitars” (NL/GC 390).

Although they have visited and been imprisoned there, no human settlements exist on the island. Traditionally, the bears live in ice forts and forge iron into armour in fire mines.

When HDM opens, Iofur Raknison, the prince who succeeded the exiled king Iorek Byrnison, has rejected this culture and is determined to impose a human culture in place of the bears’. Mrs. Coulter has encouraged this because “There are human laws that prevent certain things that she was planning to do, but human laws don’t apply on Svalbard” (GC/NL 357). There she can build her experiment stations without scrutiny. In exchange she promises Raknison what he covets most, a daemon. Svalbard is also where she fatefully imprisons Lord Asriel, but Raknison allows him to set up a lab.

With the restoration of Byrnison, the returned king demands a clearance of all things human and the return of human prisoners to their homelands. However, the breach in the sky Asriel makes radically changes the island’s climate: “the mountains lay bare and black, and only a few hidden valleys facing away from the sun had retained a little snow in their shaded corners” (Amber Spyglass). He contemplates moving his bears to the Himalayas until the hole in the sky can be sealed.