Svalbard Science Conference

Profiles of Norwegian Science

Svalbard Conference

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Three hundred scientists gathered near Oslo for the opening of the Svalbard Science Conference 2019 the first week of November.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Three hundred scientists gathered near Oslo in the first week of November to discuss their research on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. The occasion was the second Svalbard Science Conference, titled “Svalbard in a pan-Arctic setting.”

The idea was to showcase the wonderful diversity of current scientific research about Svalbard, without neglecting the rest of the Arctic. So much can and should be learned by comparing Svalbard with other Arctic locations and by exchanging ideas and approaches from around the Arctic. As scientists, we can bring Svalbard to the world and the other way around.

The two-day conference began with a full day of plenary sessions. The welcoming speeches and four overview talks provided a solid foundation for understanding the history, present, and future of Svalbard, from physics to archeology.

Climate change provided the basis for the next session, “Svalbard above 0°C,” which considered what could happen to snow, ice, cultural heritage, and life as temperatures above freezing become more common. The discussions continued with a panel of scientists from five countries exploring the implications of this science for society.

The discussions were oriented around several key questions: How do we deal with reporting science compared to activism? How do we balance and communicate personal and collective responsibilities to the environment, given what the science says about environmental degradation? How should scientists themselves behave based on the advice which we generate from our research?

All the sessions were punctuated by audience members submitting questions online to be read out by the moderator. Some queries related to clarifications or extensions of the basic science. Others pushed forward possible implications, with several interventions requesting more information about what the research means for people living in Svalbard and elsewhere in the Arctic.

The human side of science emerged in the final main session of the conference’s first day: “A bear ate my zodiac” with three-minute summaries of what can go wrong while doing field work in Svalbard. The anecdotes ranged from a polar bear trying to eat a camera to different instruments giving completely different readings to colleagues promising but failing to deliver equipment.

Delegates then mingled in the hotel’s lobby while chatting with those who had produced the more than 140 posters. Light pollution and the acoustic environment within Svalbard’s settlements were displayed alongside data on biology, chemistry, and physics. Several posters covered the people in Svalbard, exploring identity, tourism, heritage, and dealing with change.

The conference’s second day began with a main session on monitoring Svalbard during the months of 24-hour darkness, known as the polar night. So little is known about how the Arctic’s ecosystems and physical systems function with little light, but the researchers who presented are making significant strides toward filling in the gaps.

Then, we had to select one of four sessions running simultaneously. Attendees split into groups to see presentations on technological tools, long-term data sets, plastics, and geological time.

We reconvened for reports back from these parallel sessions, a talk on fostering “the next generation of polar scientists,” and closing remarks. A key element pushed in the discussions was thinking beyond the natural sciences, toward considering impacts on people and ensuring that we understand and work with those directly affected by the ongoing changes in and around the Arctic.

In fact, the Svalbard Social Science Initiative collected the researchers working on the people, places, and heritage of Svalbard. The day before the conference, social scientists held an extra event supported by the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center and funded by the Svalbard Science Forum. By recognizing the importance of people, their lives, and their livelihoods, studying social sciences and the humanities ensures that understandings of Svalbard and the wider Arctic have meanings for various peoples, especially when it is their home.

Other events alongside the conference included research flagships focusing on Ny-Ålesund and a workshop for early career scientists. The Arctic Institute and the Fridtjof Nansen Institute then ran a public networking event to bring the science to anyone with Arctic interests.

In the public events, extra events, and main conference, connections beyond Svalbard and the Arctic were always highlighted, because knowledge about the Arctic is important for rest of the world.

But we must never forget that “Svalbard in a pan-Arctic setting” includes people who are affected, who must deal with each other and the environment, and who must work and live with each other. Ultimately, Svalbard’s science must serve pan-Arctic societies and beyond.

This article originally appeared in the December 13, 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.