First Arctic Safety Conference held

Profiles of Norwegian science

Arctic Safety Conference - polar bear

Nikita Ovsyanikov & Irina Menyushina / The Polar Bear Program
Polar bears are a known danger, so residents of the Arctic are very well prepared to deal with that threat, and no fatal polar bear attacks have occured in recent years in Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Cruel, harsh, and dangerous are often depictions of the Arctic. One mistake or a bit of bad luck and your life ends in the depths of hypothermia or a polar bear’s jaws. To avoid such fates, we can use science to act beforehand.

The first Arctic Safety Conference—held in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, from May 13 to 15—brought together researchers and practitioners to exchange information and opportunities for safe operations in the northern regions. More than five dozen delegates from organizations around the world made the trek to 78° north to be hosted by UNIS, the University Center in Svalbard.

Stein P. Aasheim, known for his explorations on behalf of Norway, gave the opening keynote talk. With photos from his expeditions, he brought to life the exhilaration of retracing Roald Amundsen’s route to the South Pole exactly a century later in 2011 and of being on the first Norwegian team to summit Mount Everest in 1985. His theme was teamwork, epitomized in the reasons and experience of spending a year with his wife and two daughters in an isolated cabin in Svalbard.

The scientific sessions then began, with presentations ranging from engineering systems for operating in cold and icy environments through to individual and management decision-making when people and polar bears cross paths. Speakers detailed natural hazards, including avalanches, snow accumulation, climate change, and ice spraying on ships. Dealing with those environmental challenges involved mapping information, educating emergency managers, international cooperation, and learning how to improvise.

Resource extraction and tourism featured prominently. Risk assessments for mining operations in Greenland were covered as well as challenges and opportunities for oil and gas operations. Recently implemented regulations for ships in Arctic waters aim to keep visitors and crews safe.

Specific search-and-rescue incidents around Svalbard included a solo hiker phoning in when he became lost in the mountains near Longyearbyen, polar bear attacks, and ships sinking. The Maksim Gorkiy tourist ship in 1989 is one classic case, when it hit ice and started taking on water. Hundreds of passengers and crew were evacuated to and saved from ice floes and lifeboats. More recently, in December, the fishing ship Northguider ran aground with all 14 crew members rescued by helicopter.

Arctic Safety Conference

Photo: Ilan Kelman
The real dangers in the Arctic might be more mundane, like hiking in a whiteout near Longyearbyen, Svalbard, without adequate preparations.

The challenges of preparing for the unexpected can be partly alleviated by risk analysis methods and extensive preparation. Many are complicated and require training, while others aim to formalize common sense so that people respect the Arctic environment and understand their options before heading out to the landscape.

Previous experience can skew the statistics. In recent times, Longyearbyen has experienced one armed bank robbery (in 2018) but no fatal polar bear attacks, because those have occurred outside the settlement. Yet bears are an ever-present danger requiring constant vigilance, whereas felonies are so unusual that Svalbard does not even have a prison.

This local flavor was integrated well into the conference and was important for giving external attendees a sense of what their research means for people living safely in the Arctic. Longyearbyen faces numerous safety challenges beyond bears, with floods, storms, melting permafrost, and increased humidity damaging infrastructure. In April and May, the one-week strike by some airline pilots severely curtailed the movement of people and goods, including bringing food to the archipelago.

Several presenters considered the avalanches that hit Longyearbyen in 2015 and 2017. The top session of the conference was a trio describing their experiences during the December 2015 slide, which killed two people.

We were riveted by a spine-tingling, minute-by-minute account from Elke Morgner, a local Red Cross coordinator. Her house was shifted by the avalanche as it buried her, her husband, her two young kids, and a friend inside their kitchen. Through clear-headedness and good luck, all survived with minor injuries.

Her courageously detailed narration encapsulated the conference’s themes of preparation, teamwork, improvisation, and an ever-present necessity for thinking about safety in the Arctic. Even at home, the winter can encroach suddenly, forcing a fight for survival. By combining science with practice, by melding theory with reality—exactly as many peoples have succeeded at for millennia—Arctic life can nonetheless remain beautiful, inspiring, and safe.

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This article originally appeared in the July 26, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.