Profiles of Norwegian science: Northernmost conferences

Dr. Adam Grydehøj speaking at his Island Dynamics conference.

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Dr. Adam Grydehøj speaking at his Island Dynamics conference in Longyearbyen.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Longyearbyen, Svalbard, boasts numerous northernmosts. Kindergarten, school, and higher education institute. Blues, rock, and jazz festivals. Tourist office, dentist, and police station.

Scientific conferences do not sit on this list. But in terms of creativity, diversity, and pushing forward scientific thought, a series of research meetings organized by Island Dynamics deserves the “northernmost” label.

This one-person Copenhagen-based company has enlivened the northernmost town (with a population over 1,000 people) through a series of January symposia, starting in 2013. Yes, always in January. Attracting prominent scientists from North America, Australia, Taiwan, and South Korea means dosing them with the best winter experience Norway could offer.

Innovation arises from the conference topics, especially aligned to Longyearbyen and Svalbard. The inaugural 2013 event explored how non-sovereign jurisdictions influence global diplomatic action. The internationally unique Svalbard Treaty is prominent.

Next came this year’s meeting called REMOTE: Rethinking Remoteness and Peripherality. What better place to analyze isolation than among the world’s northernmost church, roundabout, and swimming pool?

The realities of rethinking the meaning of “remote” encroach on Longyearbyen. How will businesses and residents cope with cruise ships disgorging more passengers than people who live in the town? As perhaps the easiest high-latitude location to reach, how does Svalbard’s peripherality compare with settlements lacking commercial transport?

The answers to these research questions have significant implications for anyone thinking of starting a business in Svalbard. They inform governance of the islands under the Treaty and how to deal with the major, ongoing environmental and social changes.

REMOTE was held back-to-back with another workshop on folk beliefs and the supernatural in literature and movies. Tropes of darkness, hostile nature, and adversity in weather have long provided a backdrop for ghost stories, murder mysteries, and thrillers.

The founder and leader of Island Dynamics, and the brainchild behind these conferences, is Dr. Adam Grydehøj. Despite his Danish fluency, residency, and surname, his origins are far from the Arctic climate, in Florida.

Having spent November 2001 to February 2002 living in Longyearbyen, three months under a vow of silence as part of his undergraduate degree, he maintains close connections with Norway’s northern latitudes, seeking to gift Arctic experience to others. Many delegates attending the Island Dynamics events have never before seen snow, much less been north of the Arctic Circle.

Grydehøj also retains links with other northern isles. Shetland became the location for his PhD research and is the setting of his folklore fantasy novel I Have Not Answered.

Through Island Dynamics, he melds his scientific disciplines and non-scientific work, encouraging others to do similar. Rather than just researching supernatural views from the north, he writes fiction about it. Rather than just organizing gatherings in Svalbard, he researches and publishes on the archipelago.

Island Dynamics conferences are not just about presenting world-class science from any discipline. The Longyearbyen community is also integrated into them.

Through visiting the northernmost art gallery and hearing talks from some of the northernmost entrepreneurs and politicians, Longyearbyen’s flavor permeates the days spent in the town.

The next Island Dynamics conference in Longyearbyen will be this coming January. EXTREME: Rethinking the Limits to Community, Architecture, and Urbanism again uses the locale of the world’s northernmost church, hospital, and shopping mall to illustrate what the scientists discuss.

Attending one of the world’s most creative northernmost conferences means learning by experiencing. Scientists present and debate their investigations and gain from visiting a place that epitomizes what they study.Svalbard tests theories developed elsewhere. Examples from visiting Longyearbyen colorfully illustrate what scientists document in other study locations.

This ethos spawns a collage of ideas. The meetings are always limited in numbers, ensuring that attendees get to know each other. This fosters exchange, crosses scientific boundaries, and encourages research innovation.

And while Island Dynamics cannot guarantee it, few conferences have failed to witness the magic of the aurora dancing across the island’s mountain tops.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 22, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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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.