Student life at 78⁰ North

By Marjolein Admiraal
RUG, Arctic Centre - master student

It is dark and windy when I arrive on Spitsbergen. Snow sheers by the windows of the plane and I can´t see a thing. We must be close to ground; I can feel the plane descending. At the last moment the little red lights of the landing strip become visible and we touch down. This is the Arctic, even though I can´t see it yet, I can feel its greatness all around me.

Spitsbergen (or Svalbard, as the Norwegians call it) is an archipelago located ±500 km north of the Norwegian north coast in the High Arctic. Longyearbyen is the Norwegian center of the island and has approximately 3000 inhabitants, depending on the season. This exotic place is sometimes referred to as the north pole and one might not expect it to have a university and a quite ´normal´ social life. As part of my Research Master Art History and Archaeology at the University of Groningen, I spent three months studying Arctic geography at UNIS (the University Centre in Svalbard). I arrived in March when temperatures were still low but sunlight had already returned during daytime. To my surprise I immediately got entangled in a busy and fun student life in the wondrous nature of the Arctic.

After a week of my arrival the course Permafrost and Periglacial Environments started with a survival training where students learned to handle 36 caliber big-game hunting rifles in order to protect themselves from the polar bears that inhabit the island. Attention was given to the dangers of crevasses and avalanches. The students learned how to drive a snow-scooter. Spitsbergen has a lot to offer to those who enjoy to explore, it is however very important to be aware of the dangers of the environment as accidents might be fatal.
The Permafrost and periglacial environments course was taught by two lecturers from UNIS and three specialists from around the world. Various characteristics of Arctic geography were discussed, such as: ice wedges, rock glaciers, pingos, several types of ground-ice, avalanches and permafrost. Most subjects were also discussed in the light of climate change. Several excursions were provided in which the students were able to see the discussed landforms for themselves. On snow-scooters we explored the area around Longyearbyen and got a taste of the amazing no-mans-land that Spitsbergen is.
The schedule of the course was intensive. We had long days of lectures combined with excursions and fieldwork. In our free time we planned trips on our own. Some went skiing, hiking or explored the beautiful ice caves that are formed within the various glaciers of the area. During Easter break we rented a number of snow-scooters and made the trip to Barentsburg, the Russian settlement on Spitsbergen, which is quite different from Longyearbyen. In order to get there we had to drive over glaciers, through gullies and over frozen rivers. It is a rough terrain and it requires some guts to concur it with a snow scooter, it is also an amazing experience.

The experience of living in this remote part of the world for a while is priceless and indescribable. It has been one of the most exiting things that I have ever done. It is great that UNIS offers the opportunity for students from all over the world to study in this place and I can recommend it to anyone.

More information about studying at UNIS
UNIS website
Willem Barentsz Poolinstituut

Bundeling van kennis, onderzoek en onderwijs over de Noord- en de Zuidpool

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