Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Barentsburg, Svalbard

by Dariusz Hareza and Lauren Ceckowski

Our third day in Svalbard began our adventure to Barentsburg, a Russian mining town.  To get there, we were split into two groups to journey across the arctic waters by zodiak! Our adventurous tour guides at Spitsbergen Travel suited us up in survival suits and lifejackets for the ride of a lifetime. On our way out of the dock we got our first glimpse of a seal basking in the sun beside the boats. Our two hour boat ride was exciting, but also full of learning experiences. We stopped along the coast of Spitsbergen to listen to a lecture on the history of Grumant City. It was a Russian mining settlement established in 1912, and abandoned in 1965, leaving behind an eerie ghost town of the Soviet Era.  Also along the way, we paused along a massive outcropping to observe hundreds of Arctic Puffins who had built nests precariously perched on the cliffside.  Then we were off again with the wind and the spray of the salty Arctic Ocean in our faces!

Wind burned and wet, but nonetheless exhilarated, we docked in the small port of Barentsburg, Svalbard. Barentsburg was established in 1932 by Arktikugol, a coal company, which still controls the settlement to this day. As we walked up the steps from the dock we first felt as if we were transported back in time to Soviet Russia, a much different feeling than arriving in Longyearbyen.  The center of town held a statue of Lenin as well as vacant buildings of a time past.  A single road cut through town connecting the school, hospital and sole hotel and restaurant.  As we looked past our initial impressions we realized that Barentsburg was not only a town of the past, but looking towards their future. Buildings were under construction, the hotel was remodeled and new murals were beautifully painted.  Barentsburg seemed to see a future outside of just a coal mining settlement.

After making our observations of Barentsburg, we got together as a group and prepared for another hike. This time we were planning to explore the shores for possible tidal pools so that we could get a better understanding of the abiotic and biotic factors involved in such a unique ecosystem where organisms had to be able to survive in both a marine and terrestrial environment. As we walked out of Barentsburg we arrived at our first sign that warned us that we were leaving the Safe Zone and that is when the threat of meeting a polar bear became chillingly real to us. As true tourists, we stopped to take a number of photographs with the sign. As we neared the end of our hike, Dr. Avango pointed out the Russian helipad off in the distance. He told us that it was built in response to the airport that had been built in Longyearbyen. Yet, though the Russians say that its purpose is solely for helicopters, we were driven to think that they may have had other intentions for its use since the runway was much longer than a helicopter needed to land. We will leave the political intrigue for another time.

After a thorough talk about the effects of erosion, we turned back since it was about time for dinner. When we arrived to eat, we saw our tables at the Barentsburg Hotel covered with a great assortment of Russian cuisine. The tables were covered in foods we had never seen before and after such an excellent feast we all broke into songs from our various backgrounds and had a most jolly evening. We could hardly wait for what Barentsburg still had to offer us the next day.

Dariusz Hareza is a junior studying Molecular and Cellular Biology with Honors Concentration, minoring in Chemistry, and is Pre-Med. He is from Oak Lawn, IL.

Lauren Ceckowski is a senior studying Earth, Society, and Environment with a concentration on Society and the Environment.  She is from Gurnee, IL.


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