Thursday, 19 May 2016

Hornsund fjord, Svalbard - a Polish arctic station in total remoteness.

The Svalbard Archipelago extends from 74º N to 81º N, which anywhere else would make it an uninhabited land, like Franz Josef Land or Severnaya Zemlya, or Axel Heiberg in Arctic Canada. There is no reasonable purpose for humans to live there, except for coal mines, but these, which increased mainly on the early 20th century, will soon be closed. There are no ancient settlements, no native tribes, and in fact there is no History there until whale hunters started seasoning at the south of Svalbard since the 19th century, before the coal mine era.

Historic remains of a coal mine railway.

Why are 2 700 people living in Svalbard ? Well, because some scientific stations and a decent little town (*) were created there in recent years, coal miners are well paid, and life can be attractive to some - there is an University dedicated to Arctic studies, good housing, all the basic urban features, subsidies, and great Nature above all - a large Arctic environment with breathtaking mountains, glaciars and fjords, the oportunity to watch spectacular auroras and see polar bears (from a safe distance), all having the comfort of civilization within reach; hazardous all that is, though, and danger is also part of the appeal.

On the western side of the southern tip of Spitsbergen, under a somewhat milder climate, Hornsund Fjord is the location of a polish scientific station, Polska Stacja Polarna.

The 2 kilometres wide fjord's mouth faces west to the Greenland Sea, and it goes as long as deep to 30 km

Calving glaciar Samarinbreen.

Hansbreen glacier, close to the station.

One wonders why does Poland invest in Arctic studies so intensely. And they have antarctic stations too ! My congratulations to Poland's polar research effort.

Polska Stacja Polarna.

Poland carries out research on Svalbard as one of the countries that signed the Spitsbergen Treaty - the international agreement setting the status of the archipelago in 1921.

The polish station: a wooden one storey T-shaped building, plus a few small annexes.

The first Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) expedition to Hornsund took place in 1957, when the station was built. Since 1978, expeditions are organised each year including researchers from Polish and foreign universities, and tourists from cruise ships.

Polish Polar Station Hornsund

Coordinates: 77º 00' N, 15º 33' E
Regular crew: max. 25 researchers

The station was erected in July 1957 by the Polish Academy of Sciences Expedition during the International Geophysical Year. The station is 10 m above sea level, at the shore of Isbjørnhamna bay.

Hornsund got its name in 1610, when a British whaler found shelter here during a storm. The crew that went ashore found some reindeer horns scattered on the ice-packed fjord, which looked like a “sund” (sea strait).

The station sits on a flat marine terrace in Isbjørnhamna bay.

The main building of the station contains accomodation providing sleeping quarters for 25 persons. The main building also contains the kitchen, living room, library, six laboratories, a radiooperator room, a medical bay, two bathrooms, toilets, and a warehouse for food and equipment.

The generators are situated in a separate building. All buildings are heated, and the station is also equipped with additional facilities like boat garages, two houses for geomagnetic measurements, and a separate hut for environment monitoring situated 700 m away at a small lake.

From that lake fresh water is taken in summer time  with a pipeline, while in winter, snow and ice is collected for melting.

The comfortable living room.

Full-year activities at the station include meteorology, seismology, geomagnetism, ionospheric sounding, glaciology and environmental monitoring. In summers and winters, the station functions as a base for research on geology, geodesy, geomorphology, oceanography and biology.

Multimedia room.

Expeditions and international science teams often arrive by ships like the Oceania, a regular visitor to Hornsund.

The tall ship RV Oceania is a research vessel of the Polish Academy of Sciences, equipped with several laboratories.

Twice a year, the supply ship comes from Poland, with the new wintering crew, summer research and technical groups, fuel, and food. The remaining supplies for winter are transported to the station in autumn, usually in September. But in winter, with frozen sea, supplies are delivered by helicopter.

Fruit is the best appreciated in winter.

Supply ships must anchor 1-2 km from the shore.

The MS Horyzont II, a light icebreaker and research vessel of the polish Academy of Sciences, has 50 passanger capacity and is equiped with several laboratories; she is the main supply and crew transport ship.

Pack ice from the Arctic Ocean or ice from calving glaciers may block the entrance to the fjord or access to the shore.

Unloading is organised with the use of two tracked amphibious, assisted if necessary with inflatable boats.

Those two amphibious vehicles help in load transport and dislocation on the area around the station.

First day of spring sunshine

Lucky them polish !

(*) Longyearbyen, see here

The following video, filmed from inside the Horyzont II, shows the valiant ship amidst a tempest in the Greenland Sea:

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Tiniteqilaaq (or Tiilerilaaq), on the Arctic Circle, a small village in Greenland's east coast.

The greenlandic region of Ammassalik has possibly the most stunning landscapes on the east coast. The fjords of Ammassalik and Sermilik, and the small colourful towns of Tasiilaq(1), Kulusuk(2) and Kuummiut compose incredibly amazing sceneries.

Tiniteqilaq is just a smaller and inner village on the Sermilik fjord, rather difficult to access except by helicopter.

Tiniteqilaaq - Tinit colloquially - is just some 40 km North of Tasiilaq, the main settlement in Ammassalik. Tiniteqilaaq has a wonderful location on the shore of the large Sermilik fjord, and at 65º N it pratically sits on the Polar Circle.

A handful of small wooden houses perched on an ice slope overlooking the fjord.

Tiniteqilaaq (=Tiilerilaaq)

Coordinates: 65 ° 53'20 "N 37 ° 46'45" W.
Population : 150-200

Light and snow, the sun and the quiet water surface, all together play constant games like a painter composing new watercolors. Houses are just one more element.

The people in Tiniteqilaaq still live mainly on hunting and fishing; dogsleds are their main means of dislocation and main work tool.

A small improvement to ease daily life was a "Pilersuisoq" shop offering basic food and clothing, as well as fishing and hunting equipment.

Sleds are the main transport on the hard ice.

The village hall.

The village hall (Kalaaleq) is used as a kindergarten for 12 children, and in the afternoon also for leisure like reading or traditional dances.

The deep isolation is overcome only by helicopter, at Tasiilaq heliport, and in summer by thr local ship  MS Johanna Kristina once a week.

Another possibility is the nearest airport at Kulusuk, at 42 km, a distance that can only be covered by private transport. In winter when the fjords are frozen, dogsled or snowmobile can run to Tinit in a several hours trip.

In Summer, people come from far away to see the whales and the narwhals, which are frequent visitors of the fjord.

Some flowering plants and berry fruits help the feeling of  renewal of the warm season.

Wild crowberries are an important source of vitamines.

A very sad note is the highest rate of suicide in all Greenland, one of the highest in the world. No one has a full explanation for that, suicides taking place usually in spring when the sun returns. Tragically, most are male inuits in their youth, who perhaps miss some social life, as they watch on TV in other countries, or perhaps they feel disoriented between tradition (hunting family) and modernity (sad urban life). In some cases chain reaction plays a role too. But why do girls react differently?

Why, with all that sublime beauty?

The Pilersuisoq shop, at left, under the midnight sun.

(1)(2) For more on Tasiilaq and Kulusuk, see here

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Naryan-Mar, a Russian arctic town in the Nenets region by the Pechora river

Most of the Russian arctic ports and towns are industrial nightmares and were only five decades ago in the vicinity of Gulag camps and/or supporting soviet structures. That scar has marked them, it seems, forever. Building quality is usually quite miserable - traditional wooden houses in ruins, horrid decaying apartment blocks, grand stalinist neo-classic monsters, coal and oil extraction plants bringing pollution and ugliness, zero urban design.

It's hard to find some place different. Naryan-Mar, by the Pechora River in native Nenets territory, is just a bit different: not pretty, nor attractive, but for an arctic harbour on the shores of the Barents Sea, under severe -40º winter, born of coal and oil industry, it does have some colour, some signs of modernity and progress, some evident care in recent buildings and street design.

Not much better or worse than its Alaskan counterparts, Naryan-Mar sits like them in native community's territory - Nenetsia, the land of the Nenets, a nomadic people of reindeer herders living traditionally in tents. Maybe their luck was not to suffer prisoner work camps on this corner of Siberia - the dreadful Vorkuta in the neighboring Yamalo-Nenets region is 470 km away.

Anyhow, I like to reveal unknown places, had you ever heard about Naryan-Mar ? It has an Asian sounding name, but it is an European town, since we are west of the Ural mountains !

Pechora river, the main watercourse in the region.

Naryan-Mar was founded in 1931 in connection with the opening of the port in the Pechora river. The city is located 110 kilometers from the coast of the Barents Sea in the lower reaches of the Pechora River, one of the largest of the European part of Russia. In summer, the lower section is navigable, so there is a ferry service during the season.

There is no road access - only in winter an "ice road" allows an hazardous driving. No rail connection either - Naryan-Mar's arctic isolation can only be overcome by plane.


Coordinates: 67° 38′ N, 53° 00′ E
Population: 24 000

Main street in winter rush hour. 

Entrance to Naryan-Mar: the cathedral square.

The Cathedral of Epyphany (2004) and the belfry tower (2006) are modern revivals of the traditional orthodox wooden churches.

Looks like a small arctic 'Kremlin'.

The round church reminds of a Nenets tent

Another smaller temple is the church of St. Nicholas (2008) on Pervomayskaya street.

Few examples of older wooden houses remain, like this one from the 1930's when the first settlement was built.

But the city's hallmark is still the Post Office building of 1952:

The uniqueness of the building gives the angle consisting of five volumes of various shapes: prisms and pyramids, triangles...

A look at modern life, now: some people do live well enough.

The main avenue, a little more handsome than others:

And the colourful new Kindergarten.

The Naryan-Mar Library, 2007.

Nenets children in the open Library during the World Book Day.

The Nenets

The Nenets people of the Siberian arctic had to adapt to inevitable changes: most are still nomadic reindeer herders, the last of their kind; but many others live in villages and towns  like ant other Russians.

There is an effort to value Nenets' traditions.

Their life follows the rythm of an yearly event: the migration of over a thousand kilometres, moving gigantic herds of reindeer from summer pastures in the north to winter pastures just south of the Arctic Circle. Their tent camps move accordingly, sometimes unexpectedly.

Today more than 10 000 nomads herd 300,000 domestic reindeer on the pastures of the Arctic tundra.

A reindeer race among the Nenets.

In the Nenets older village of Andeg, 30 km north of Naryan-Mar, on the banks of the Little Pechora River, much of the 9th and early 20th century building is still visible.

Andeg was founded in the XVIII century. In terms of architecture, it is perhaps the most interesting village in the area.


Aerial view of Naryan-Mar, the Pechora river and the port in the background.

The town center at night on a festive day.