May 30, 2013 / 3:33 PM / in 4 years

Polar bears complicate life for world's northernmost residents

A sign warns residents of the arctic Svalbard islands in Norway of the danger from roaming polar bears, May 26, 2013. Svalbard in Norway's high Arctic, is home to 2,500 people and about 3,000 polar bears. Picture taken May 26, 2013. REUTERS/Balazs Koranyi

OSLO (Reuters) - Ole Oeiseth doesn’t like leaving his house without a gun.

“A polar bear can come anytime and from anywhere; the hungry young males are especially unpredictable,” he said.

Oeiseth runs Ny-Aalesund, the world’s northernmost permanent settlement in Norway’s high Arctic, the launching point for many North Pole expeditions, including Roald Amundsen’s 1926 Zeppelin flight, the first undisputed reach for the pole.

“None of the buildings are ever locked so you can take cover in case a bear comes,” said Oeiseth, a former military officer, who lives in the villa built by Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole in 1911.

A former coal mining colony, Ny-Aalesund is a quiet research outpost of 30 to 40 people about 2,100 km north of Oslo, growing to over 100 from June, when scientists from around 20 nations arrive for its short summer. It is owned and run by the Norwegian state firm Kings Bay.

“There’s no mobile phone, I can’t be reached. It’s wonderful. I can live for the moment and not worry about tomorrow,” community worker Nina Weseth, 34, said.

Ny-Aalesund’s residents arrive on two-year contracts and even with extensions, must leave after four years to save their sanity from the isolation, cold and extremely long and dark winters. But for now it’s 24-hour sunshine for the summer.

The sun will next set on August 25 and within two months, darkness sets in, lasting until the next sunrise in February.

“The winter is when you can slow down, contemplate life and live in harmony,” said 24-year-old polar scientist Marta Karoline Jansen. “Then the summer comes and the sun beams down 24 hours a day, so you’re rushing around and can’t even sleep, even when the blinds are pulled.”

To pass the time, residents play gym hockey twice a week, hang out in the communal TV room or go to “knitting and drinking” night every Thursday. A bar, open twice a week and operated by everyone taking turns running the tap, serves some of the cheapest alcohol in all of Norway.

And if residents feel they need to get away from the hustle and bustle, the town maintains about a dozen cabins around the snow covered peaks.

“You have a lot of single people here living in isolation, so you can imagine all the romances that start and end here,” says one resident. “Those huts come in handy.”

Residents can also keep dogs, rent out the town’s boats or go skiing among the Arctic’s wildest peaks as long as they take their guns.

The world's northernmost post office seen in Ny-Aalesund May 27, 2013. A former coal mining colony, Ny-Aalesund is a quiet research outpost of 30 to 40 people about 2,100 km (1305 miles) north of Oslo, growing to over 100 from June, when scientists from around 20 nations arrive for its short summer. REUTERS/Balazs Koranyi

CHANGED HISTORY

Summers can be pleasant, with temperatures rising above freezing for several weeks, wild reindeer grazing around town and Arctic foxes hunting for eggs near the settlement’s bird sanctuary. Winters are also relatively mild with the Gulf stream warming the island’s waters.

Ny-Aalesund may be remote but it’s not forgotten. A mining accident there in 1962 which killed 21 people brought down the government and changed how Norway runs its biggest state firms, including the then-named Kings Bay Coal Company.

Facing accusations that politicians placed incompetent cronies on the mining firm’s board, the government resigned and the state resolved to keep an “arms length” distance from its own companies like Statoil and Telenor.

Slideshow (6 Images)

To this day the Norwegian government stays out of state company boards, electing independent board members to maintain its interests.

The coal mine closed and the government handed the town over to science. Its residents now study the atmosphere, with instruments so sensitive they can detect forest fires in Siberia, study glaciers and measure the movement of continents.

The only disturbance is the occasional cruise ship, a necessary nuisance, as the port tax pays for 10 percent of the town’s budget.

Getting out is not easy though. Longyearbyen, the only real town on the island, is an 8 hour snowmobile ride away. So, the only viable exit is on a 14-seat turboprop plane that flies in twice a week, bringing mail and fresh vegetables.

Everything else has to come by boat with food getting stored in massive freezers for the winter, when the bay freezes over, leaving the town even more cut off.

Unlike the South Pole, where scientists are locked in for several months during the winter, Ny-Aalesund residents can fly out even during the coldest and darkest times of the year, getting to Oslo in just 4 hours.

Mobile phone coverage may be absent, but the town does have a lightning fast internet connection, so the research stations can upload data in real-time.

“It’s quite wise to leave every once in a while and go to a place where you have to lock your car and look around before you cross the street,” Norwegian Polar Institue scientist Christiane Huebner said.

“We live in a bubble and it’s quite easy to lose touch with the real world.”

Reporting by Balazs Koranyi, editing by Paul Casciato

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