Most people can hardly imagine that it is possible to enjoy life up in Northern Norway, in Tromsø for example where I once stayed and studied at the northernmost university in the world for one year: Too cold, too remote, too boring - these are conventional misconceptions.
But Northern Norway is nothing compared to the fieldsite that anthropologist Zdenka Sokolíčková has chosen: Svalbard, an island that is located two plane hours north of Tromsø in Northern Norway, halfway on the way to the North Pole. An island that consists 60% of ice, where the sun disappears for more than three months below the horizon and where you always have to be prepared to meet polar bears (and therefore carry a gun).
Nevertheless, after two years of fieldwork, anthropologist Zdenka Sokolíčková tells in an interesting interview with Radio Prague International: “It will be quite painful to leave” - and - this is about the need to de-exoticize - “It’s just an ordinary town very high up north".
Svalbard and its only town Longyearbyen with 2300 inhabitants (from 50 nations!) is popular among researchers. One reason is that it is a good place to study climate change. It is the fastest-heating place on earth. Since 1971 the average temperature has risen by 4 degrees in summer, and 7 in winter.
Climate change has for a long time been a topic not only for natural sciences, but also the social sciences,including anthropology. One of the first studies “Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions” by Susan Crate and Mark Nuttal was published already 12 years ago.
How do people cope? What changes have they observed? How does it affect their life and and their relation to the environment? These are some of the important questions to ask. As anthropologist, she explains, she is interested in peoples' stories about these changes, Zdenka Sokolíčková explains in the interview.
We get more details about her findings in two conference presentations she uploaded on her Youtube channel.
One of the many good things with the global pandemic is that we get videos like these ones. Instead of standing in a boring conference room the researcher is taliking utside directly in her fieldsite, the buildings and mountains of her current home town Longyearbyen nicely visible in the background. Due to the pandemic the conference was held online only. (But as she explained in another video she would anyway not have travelled such long distances for environmental reasons).
As outsider one might be tempted to think that climate change also might be a good thing. This is only partly true, she explains. -20 instead of -35 degrees are easier to adapt to, but the problem are the more unstable weather conditions that have become more common. Higher temperatures mean less sea ice, it becomes more difficult to move around with snow scooters. Even in winter there are sometimes periods with rain or even strong rains. "Our worst nightmare is dark season with rain, you know no sun, rain, dark soil, nothing to do becasue you can't go outside. This does something to you. You think this is not the place to be", one of the inhabitants, who has been living there for a long time, told her. "Also when it rains and then frost comes back, the tundra gets hard and icy and that makes grazing for reindeers difficult", the anthropologist adds. "Seing the starving animals coming to the town is heartbreaking."
Also interesting: While of course not all inhabitants care for climate change, there is a widely shared notion of the inappropriateness oif human settlement. Living there is unsustainable and has a high ecological footprint - even after the end of coal mining was announced that has been the key industry at Svalbard ever since Norway won sovereignty over the archipelago in 1920. Tourism has become more important instead, which also has a huge negative environmental impact. The impact of the researchers themselves, no small number either, should also not be neglected.
I was surprised to see that Zdenka Sokolíčková is part of the research project Overheating. The three crises of globalisation at the University of Oslo where I took part as journalist. I interviewed several anthropologists who researched climate change. See "We still know too little about the human dimensions of climate change".