Monday 19 January 2015

Hilsen fra Longyearbyen

78°13'N. This is the geographic latitude of Longyearbyen, the main human settlement on Spitsbergen, where the University Centre on Svalbard (aka UNIS) provides first-class teaching for Bachelor, Master and PhD students in Arctic-related topics. The teaching and research carried out at UNIS are divided into four departments: Arctic Biology, Arctic Geology, Arctic Geophysics and Arctic Technology. Each year, a few hundred students from all around the world come to take part of their degree in this very peculiar environment, where unique opportunities to carry out field work in the extreme Arctic are provided.

I am presently enrolled as a student at UNIS in Arctic Geophysics to take two courses (The Upper Polar Atmosphere; Radar Diagnostics of Space Plasma). The courses include practical sessions at the Kjell Henriksen Observatory (KHO, auroral station) and in the EISCAT on Svalbard Radar (ESR) next month. 

Eventually, the sun will rise. Someday. Or so we hope.

The whole last week was dedicated to the Arctic Survival and Safety course, mandatory for all the spring semester students and aimed at providing them with the necessary knowledge and skills to carry out field work safely on Svalbard.

The extreme Arctic is full of hazards due to weather conditions and the remoteness of most of the regions of the archipelago. The students who are part of an expedition outside Longyearbyen must therefore be aware of the risks they may face and be able to act efficiently if in a difficult situation. Besides the polar bears — which although dangerous do not represent the most serious threat —, the deadly hazards awaiting for human beings are numerous: crevasses in glaciers, weak sea ice, avalanches, fragile ice caves, walruses... without mentioning the cold, the wind and the absence of resources.

The lessons included a lot of practical training, especially to rescue victims of an avalanche or fallen in a sea ice hole or in a crevasse, including first aid techniques and building of an emergency camp. Another session was dedicated to telecommunication and navigation, as in most cases the only way to call for help is to use an emergency beacon and/or a satellite phone.

On Saturday, the students were taken to Longyearbreen, a glacier very near Longyearbyen, for a full day of practice. Fortunately, it was not windy on the glacier, which helped withstanding the cold and setting up the camps. After rotating over five rescuing and survival tasks, all the students were invited to observe a demonstration of a rescue operation by a Super Puma helicopter. Pictures of that day were taken by Stefan Claes, who was one of the instructors during the week; see here.

After this very busy and intense week, the regular courses can now start. And I guess for all the students this safety course was an amazing experience and a fantastic training for both their field work expeditions and their private excursions.

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