Svalbard's rich environmental memories

A new research project with a focus on stories of change in Svalbard.


Svalbard’s environment is dear to many. Old-timers, guides, visitors, hunters, trappers and many others know a lot about this archipelago. They have been travelling, observing and experiencing the seasons, when the weather was good or bad, when animals migrate into the fjords and the bird cliffs become alive with calls. Observations of that kind are a unique resource! Researchers have also been active for decades, gathering scientific data on different aspects of the environment and how it has changed over time.

These types of knowledge are highly valuable but rarely rub shoulders. Imagine if we could change this and connect what we know from long-term monitoring with knowledge that has come about through first hand experiences with Svalbard’s environment. Such experiential knowledge is without limit! For example, people with a long personal history on Svalbard know in depth the valleys they have moved through so many times. Similarly, those who hunt, watch birds, sail, hike or spend time outside otherwise have a close relationship with «what is out there» and cultivate a fine-tuned understanding of the places they visit. Tour guides can tell valuable stories about Svalbard’s dynamic ecosystems. Others who return to the archipelago year after year remember places, processes and events, and see change, or stability. We ‘SVALURians’ believe that such experiential knowing is of great value and importance, both to Svalbard and the international community.

SVALUR is the acronym of a new project with the impossibly long official title «Understanding Resilience and Long-Term Environmental Change in the High Arctic: Narrative-Based Analyses from Svalbard». It aims to document personal observations, stories and memories to link these to scientific data, and in this way work towards an environmental memory of and for Svalbard. We use other sources too, such as public and private archives, images, videos, cabin notebooks, place names etc. By trying to bring these different knowledge systems together, we can search for connections, overlaps, gaps. We believe these will help us to find answers to our key question: how is Svalbard’s environment changing and what does that mean for those connected to this archipelago?

SVALUR (meaning «cold» as well as «cool» in Icelandic) is a project funded by the BELMONT Forum and runs until 2023. It has researchers from 8 institutions in 5 countries, forming an international and interdisciplinary team.

An array of opportunities to engage with SVALUR will take place this October in Longyearbyen, when SVALUR members will finally, after more than a year of lock-down, be able to come and meet you. A key component of SVALUR is its online ‘maptionnaire’ through which people can report (in English, Norwegian or Russian) on observed changes in Svalbard’s environment. To make it social and fun, two maptionnaire workshops will be held at the library. We also hope to learn from various groups through organized discussions at the Svalbard church. Together with other partners such as SIOS and SSSI, who have done a lot of groundwork, we hope to widen perspectives on environmental monitoring and scientific knowledge and their relevance to people’s lives. Our plan is to eventually reach out to all Svalbard communities, including Barentsburg, and develop an attractive and free online tool that can be used to support Svalbard’s environmental memory. There is still a long way to walk, and we are excited to do so with institutions and individuals both on and outside Svalbard who share our passion for an environment we value highly. Stay tuned!

Zdenka Sokolíčková, Esteban Ramirez, Maarten Loonen, Annette Scheepstra (University of Groningen, the Netherlands); Jasmine Zhang, René van der Wal, Annette Löf, Lars Hallgren (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden); Vera Hausner, Ann Lennert, Linn Bruholt (UiT The Arctic University of Norway); Astrid Ogilvie, Martin Miles (University of Colorado, USA); Virve Ravolainen (Norwegian Polar Institute); Rasmus Kløcker Larsen (Stockholm Environment Institute, Sweden); Steven Hartman (University of Iceland); Sam Saville (University of Cambridge, UK)

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