The University Centre in Svalbard attracts students from all over the world. It offers opportunities for exciting field work and close encounters with glaciers and reindeer.
”There are few places where you can say that you like picking reindeer poo. But here in Svalbard, in beautiful surroundings halfway between Norway and the North Pole, it's amazing. On one our days off, while the other students went skiing, we went out to pick even more, so that we would have more data for our research,” says Jessica Beatty. She is taking a master's degree in biology at the University of Bergen and is attending the course Arctic Winter Ecology at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS).
Jessica is American and normally studies birds in a much warmer climate. She wanted to experience the extreme opposite of her home town of Santa Barbara, California. In Svalbard, she analyses the carbon and nitrogen content of reindeer faeces to find out how an extremely cold winter has affected the reindeers' diet.
“In Bergen, I study biodiversity, evolution and ecology. I take one mandatory course per semester and some courses that I can choose myself. When the chance came up to go to Svalbard, I simply had to seize it.”
“Does this course fit in with your bird studies or is it more like a bonus for you?”
”I would have to say that it's a bonus, but it nonetheless creates more balance in relation to the courses I've taken. The course also touches on global climate change, which is very interesting to learn about.”
Jessica describes the course as intensive and points out that the contact with fellow students and lecturers is quite different at this university compared with what she is used to in California and in Bergen.
“With so much field work, there is little risk of ending up on your own. Here, you hold your lecturer's hand while gliding across the ice. You get to meet people in a completely different way. Longyearbyen is a small town, so you get to know everyone.”
Although she is very busy and has lots of field work to do, the 26-year-old student has also taken the time to get to know the university centre's more relaxing aspects.
“Have you seen the library? They have a hammock, and beanbags! You really feel that you are welcome to hang out there. They even have a sign that says Please don't keep quiet,”Jessica laughs.
Snowmobiles and polar bears
At the opposite side of the UNIS building, some Brazilian students are getting ready for a snowmobile trip. They are in the equipment room, putting on big thermal suits. They find their balaclavas and gloves before stepping into big winter boots and trying on different helmets until they find one that fits. Every group heading out into the field also has to take along a rifle to defend themselves against polar bears.
Mirela Gois Batista from Brazil is taking a bachelor's degree at the University of Nordland, while Angelo Santos and Aharon Saldanha are on an exchange at the University of Bergen (UiB). In Svalbard, Mirela is taking the geophysics courses 'Air-Ice-Sea Interaction I' and 'Snow and Ice Processes', while Angelo and Aharon are taking the geology courses 'The Physical Geography of Svalbard' and 'The Tectonic and Sedimentary History of Svalbard'.
The students found the transition from warm Brazil to cold Svalbard pretty big. But they love the contrast and cannot get enough of the snow.
“I've only seen snow once before,” says Mirela.
“I used to think that snow was soft and fluffy, like a cloud. So you can imagine how surprised I was when I made my first snowball. I had to taste it as well, of course.”
”Have you eaten lots of snow here in Svalbard?”
“Yes! But not because I wanted to. When I was learning to ski, I fell quite a lot, so it wasn't entirely voluntary,” says the Brazilian student, laughing.
Extensive field work
Like Jessica, the three Brazilians also highlight field work as one of the advantages of UNIS.
“The teaching in Bergen was quite similar to what I was used to from my university in Brazil, but here at UNIS, there is much more field work. UNIS takes a very practical approach and makes sure that we actually get to see and experience first hand what we learn about in lectures. That's a big difference. We're often out in the field. Next week, for example, we are going to Barentsburg. The extensive field work is probably the reason why so many people want to study here,” Angelo believes.
The students at UNIS are still affiliated to their exchange universities on the Norwegian mainland.
“We are still UiB students, but have a new campus this semester,” Aharon explains.
One of Longyearbyen's two glaciers is situated right behind the student accommodation in Nordbyen.
“When you study glaciers and there's one right behind your house... Well, you can't really ask for more,” smiles Aurora Roth from Alaska.
She swings her ice pick, plants it in a small raised part of the landscape and pulls herself up to a new small plateau below the mountains towering up on both sides. A snowstorm a few days earlier has covered the spectacular ice formations she originally wanted to show us. The landscape here not only changes with the seasons – the extreme weather can transform it from one day to the next.
A confidence boost
Aurora is a PhD student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is on an exchange at the University of Oslo through the international project and the Glacio Exchange programme (GlacioEx).
“The course in Svalbard is renowned and has very good glaciologists, so I wanted to go here for professional reasons. Norway is not that different from Alaska, and I wanted to find out what challenges people have experienced here and compare them.”
Aurora thinks her stay in Svalbard has given her much more confidence.
“I have many new contacts and have already planned future cooperation with some of them. I have lots of new energy and am very eager to continue my PhD work.”