The cold bites and the wind lashes your face. And out there in the Arctic wilderness hungry polar bears are lurking. This is where Rune Ryen and his colleagues work in one of the world’s northernmost construction firms. Wearing balaclavas and protective goggles, they are converting a disused coal-mining village on the border with the North Pole.
From the aircraft window all that is visible is an uninterrupted vista of ice and mountains. Down there not a single tree grows and any flowers that do bloom poke up through the ice, flourish intensively for a couple of months and then disappear down below the ice again. This is an Arctic wilderness as far as the eye can see.
Beware of the polar bears
Svalbard is on the border with the North Pole and when we get off the aircraft we see a sign alerting us to watch out for local polar bears. A little guide book warns that we are not under any circumstances to leave the village unaccompanied or unarmed. This is a cold, desolate and dangerous place.
And as though that were not enough, Longyearbyen – which is Svalbard’s biggest township with a population of a couple of thousand people – is a former coal-mining settlement.The winter landscape has an industrial touch, and scuttling back and forth to mine number seven, the last mine still in operation here, heavy trucks carry coal in a never-ending stream of traffic. It’s as though someone transported an entire dirty northern English mill town from a couple of centuries ago, froze it in ice and then framed it between stunning mountains and dangerous wildlife.
“When we work outside the village, we’re always armed,” says Rune Ryen, construction supervisor at Sandmo & Svenkerud, the biggest construction firm in town. “It isn’t particularly often that bears enter the town, but when it happens they are quickly sedated and flown away by helicopter. Outside the town, however, you have to be constantly on your guard. Even so, it isn’t the polar bears that are the biggest problem.”
Changes results in increased hotel construction
Svalbard is undergoing change. From a mining town to a tourist wilderness paradise. Adventurers make their way here to witness the amazing blue light, the icebergs and the polar bears. Last spring 1500 solar eclipse enthusiasts made their way here (one of them was devoured by a bear) and the local hotels were fully booked so early that Japanese travel agents were offering tourists the opportunity to sleep on board the aircraft that brought them there. A lot of the construction in Svalbard is therefore related to hotels and in the future the island group will stand on two legs – tourism and research.
Behind the beautiful natural surroundings, however, lie the long days. Working in construction here is not like working anywhere else. Last winter Svalbard had its harshest winter in modern times. When it was blowing its hardest the effective temperature was 66 degrees below zero. Walls broke apart, the wind even carried away the huge container crane down in the harbour.
“That was the worst I’ve ever witnessed,” says Almar Gregersen, who has worked on the island since the 1970s. “It was blinding white mere centimetres in front of your nose, it was blowing a hurricane and you just couldn’t stand upright. We seldom stay home away from work, but that was one of those rare occasions.”
An ordinary working day = Minus 40 degrees
On more normal work-days the temperature hovers between thirty and forty degrees below zero, and the winds are admittedly not always of hurricane strength but seemingly building up speed all the way from hell before bursting onto the open expanses of Svalbard.
“The Gulf Stream flows just past here, so it’s warmer here than elsewhere on this latitude, but it’s the wind that’s sheer hell,” says Rune. “In Tromsö for instance they can erect huge tents over their building sites; that makes it warm and cosy while working, but here a tent like this wouldn’t last many days. Sometimes we work in balaclavas and protective goggles. When it’s minus 40 we go out and work for an hour, after that your fingers simply can’t grip your tools so we have to go in and warm up for an hour, then go back out to work.”
“There’s only one guy who stays out the whole day,” says Almar. “We have a Ukrainian who paints, he sits on his stool, with a cigarette hanging from his lips, and sits there painting until it’s time to go home. We take him hot drinks every now and again. He’s a real extreme survivor! We others would pile on the clothes until we look like Michelin men, but if we did that we wouldn’t be able to work.”
Strong winds can come incredibly fast
The wind on Svalbard comes out of nowhere. Rune talks about a construction firm on the island that worked with small, thin roof slates and forgot to secure them. It was a lovely day, but then the wind came and in mere seconds it was raining sharp, lethal roof tiles all over the town.
On many days the construction teams can only work on small jobs, they have to carefully consider whether or not they can work with large gypsum panels, they don’t want to risk transforming them into dangerous projectiles cast about by wild winds. On one occasion, the wind lured a Russian aircraft straight into an ice wall that protrudes not far from the landing strip.
Extreme light in summer and coal black in winter
“And of course we have fairly extreme light conditions,” says Rune. “In the summer the sun glares round the clock, and in the winter it’s the exact opposite – genuinely black as coal. People in northern Norway talk about the dark, but they don’t really know what real darkness is. In the winter we have to set up huge floodlights pointing in every direction to illuminate our work-sites. At home people sit and stare straight into large lamps to trick their bodies.”
We drive on the island’s only road, which runs from the airport in to the town and continues a couple of kilometres in the other direction to the last coal-mine. In Longyearbyen the colourful houses are arranged in a couple of rows (apparently there’s some sort of minister in charge of colour schemes in Bergen who decides the colours), there are a couple of pubs and a few shops on the pedestrian road, and snaking all over the ground are the electrical cables that deliver power to the town.
“It isn’t possible to bury them underground due to the permafrost,” says Rune. “There’s a lot that’s special here. As summer approaches, for instance, the upper layer of soil thaws and becomes mud, and that freezes again in the winter. It isn’t easy to construct building foundations that can withstand this. We’ve adopted a method that they use in northern Canada and Alaska, using adjustable pillars on which the buildings stand, so it is possible to alter each building to match local changes in the ground.”
Testing Snickers Workwear in extreme climate
Thanks to the extreme climate Sandmo & Svenkerud serve as test pilots for Snickers Workwear and they have put many of our winter workwear products to the test. Rune laughs when he thinks about it.
“I guess the idea is that if it works here in Svalbard, it’ll work anywhere.”