At home in Svalbard

An artist’s dispatches from Norway’s land of ice bears

Longyearbyen - silver bear

Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
A sculpture of a silver “ice bear,” as they’re known in Norwegian.

Elizabeth Bourne

“Congratulations. Now you live here,” said the librarian at the Svalbard folkebibliotek as she handed me my new purple and white library card. While most of the library is devoted to Norwegian books and books translated into Norwegian, there is a small, carefully curated English-language section. I made my selection, brought it back to the librarian, and soon was on my way with the book in my backpack, along with a few groceries, to start the 2-mile walk home. Home. Because for now, I live in Svalbard.

How did I get here? A year ago almost to the day of my trip to the library I washed up in Longyearbyen as part of a photography expedition that traversed the east coast of Greenland, and then crossed the Greenland Sea to Svalbard. On that journey, I was bitten by the arctic bug, and knew I had to come back. I discovered that there are artist residencies available in Longyearbyen. I applied, and was fortunate enough to be selected. And now I live in Svalbard, at least for September.


Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
Longyearbyen as seen from the artist’s (temporary) home.

In most places staying somewhere for a month wouldn’t mean you lived there, but here in Longyearbyen where everyone is a transient, I am considered a resident. A few people already know me by sight (this is not a big town). The tour bus drivers have started waving at me as I walk back and forth from my apartment on top of the Galleri Svalbard to town. The walk is about 2 miles each way. It will be good for me. It will be an adventure, and one I hope you will enjoy hearing about.

The big dangers in Longyearbyen are avalanches, mudslides, and polar bears. Longyearbyen extends along the shores of Adventfjorden, and then up Longyeardalen, which lies between the two mountains Platåberget and Gruvefjellet. In December 2015, an avalanche destroyed 40 homes, killing several people and causing a large section of town to be evacuated. In 2016, there were several avalanches on the outskirts of town. People were evacuated, and fortunately, no one was harmed. In 2017, a mudslide destroyed the road to Longyearbyen’s historic cemetery, which is still closed to traffic, including foot traffic, as the mountain remains unstable in this unseasonably warm and rainy weather.

Now the local government is considering moving the cemetery to a safer location, and building avalanche walls along the base of the mountains, which will be a major undertaking. The Norwegian government has done a study on avalanche danger, and all of Longyeardalen is at risk, with many houses and two tourist buildings lying in the “red zone.” My apartment lies in the red zone. As I watch the rain come down, and the temperatures remain unseasonable (upper 30s to low 40s), I am more worried about mudslides from melting permafrost than I am about polar bears.

Longyearbyen - polar bears

Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
Signs throughout Svalbard warn of the danger of polar bears.

But polar bears are a real risk. Most people know that you are not allowed outside the town limits without a gun. There’s a shooting range as part of the local gym, and if you’re a licensed guide, you’re required to use it. Though to be clear, the purpose of carrying weapons is not to kill the bear unless you have to, but to frighten them away. Killing a bear (and they aren’t easy to kill) is always a last resort.

I had coffee with friends who lead expeditions into the wilderness, and we talked about polar bear danger. Ice bears, as they’re called here, do wander into town looking for food. As the arctic melts and the pack ice grows thin, the bears search everywhere. My friends said that one morning when they went outside their house, they found polar bear footprints up to the front door. Fortunately, that time the bear chose not to go in. But like elephants, bears don’t forget, and once they find food in a location, they will return to it every year.

Longyearbyen Library

Photo: Elizabeth Bourne
Nothing says “resident” like having a library card. The library in Longyearbyen has a small but well-curated English-language section.

But bears aren’t the only inhabitants of this beautiful place. Birds—so many birds—live here. The geese are starting their migrations south, arctic fox and arctic hare are putting on their winter whites. Every morning when I go out, I find fresh reindeer tracks beside the road into town. The grass growing in the valley is still lush, and wildflowers are still blooming. The air feels so pure it seems to have more oxygen than elsewhere on the planet. Right now, the days are long and it doesn’t get dark, but at midnight the light is turning blue, the first sign that Polar Day is ending. There’s a wild beauty here that speaks to me, and I am proud to be a resident of Svalbard, even if only for a month.

Elizabeth Philotera Bourne is an artist, photographer, and writer. Her photography has been shown nationally, and her short stories have been published in the genre magazines Fantasy and Science Fiction and Clarkesworld. She currently lives in Seattle, where trolls really do live under bridges—or at least she lives there when she’s not wandering across the Arctic. You can find her at and on Instagram as @philotera.

This article originally appeared in the September 21, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.