(CNN) – When Hilde Falun Strom and Sunniva Sorby started a long-planned expedition to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard last September, their main goal was to encourage conversation about climate change in the polar regions.

After spending almost nine months collecting data and samples for researchers from Basembu, 140 kilometers from the “nearest neighbor”, the adventurers were all ready to say goodbye to the tiny wooden cabin they have been calling home since the start of their journey.

However, as has been the case for many people around the world, their plans were brutally put on ice due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Now the couple have no other choice but to remain cut off from civilization with only one for the other for the company, with their dog Ettra and various polar bears, reindeer and geese, until a ship can cross to bring them home.

“We were very cold,” Strom told CNN Travel via satellite phone. “There is no electricity. No running water. It has been difficult, but it is the most beautiful area you can imagine.”

Strom and Sorby spent two years planning the project known as Hearts in the ice, which saw them become the first women in history to winter in the Arctic without a male team member .

While in Basembu, the duo collected weather and wildlife data, monitored clouds, sea ice and agencies for international agencies such as the Norwegian Polar Institute and NASA.

The two, who have known each other for about six years, also lived in total darkness for three months, which they describe as an experience “not for the weakest heart”.

“None of us lived that close, 24/7 in a small space [their cabin was built for whalers in the 1930s] with anyone, ”says Sorby.

“So it had its learning opportunities and challenges. But nothing happened here that we didn’t understand together.

“Then in March, the Earth started to spin off its axis, and everything started to change.”

“We are more useful here”

Hilde Falun Strom and Sunniva Sorby are stuck in the remote region of Bamsebu, in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

Courtesy hearts in the ice

Although they have little access to technology in Basembu, Strom and Sorby, who both work in polar tourism, have been kept informed of Covid-19 developments by their social media team.

But they didn’t know how serious it was until it became clear that their four-day “pickup trip”, during which family, friends, sponsors and scientific partners would arrive on a ship to retrieve them in early May, could not proceed. .

“There were a lot of tears,” says Sorby, who lives in Canada. “It was really difficult. The same ship that dropped us off in September would have picked us up.

“We have not moved from this place in nearly nine months and some of the same people we got up and said goodbye to were said to have been there.

“But the rest of the world has experienced a lot of health tragedies and so many other disappointments with everything that has been canceled. So we were all in the same boat, so to speak.”

Disappointment apart, the pair, who have written a book about their experiences, are determined to make the most of the situation they find themselves in now and have chosen to stay in Basembu until September in order to continue their work.

“We had a goal when we left and we will continue,” said Strom.

“We feel more useful here than at home. But it is difficult because we are not with our family and friends.”

Sorby shares this sentiment, noting that they are in a better position in some respects because they have not been “tainted” by the desperation that the coronavirus pandemic has accumulated around the world in recent months.

“We will stay in the good news department,” she adds. “To abandon this project would be to sacrifice our objective and what we value and defend as women.

“So it was never an option for us to stop this. Regardless of the cost to us emotionally and financially.

“We have honestly done a lot of soul searching. We are both over 50 years old. And we care deeply about our values ​​and how we present ourselves to the world.”

Tourism conflict in the Arctic

Strom and Sorby are the first women in history to “winter” in the Arctic without a male team member.

Courtesy hearts in the ice

The fact that tourist vessels are unable to travel to Svalbard, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, due to global travel restrictions also means that fewer data samples are currently being collected.

“Tourist vessels bring great value to scientists by collecting saltwater and cloud observations,” says Sorby.

“Tourists participate in citizen science programs aboard the ship. But there is none of this this year.

“Last August, we had a ship here every day with between 60 and 80 guests. The small ships start arriving in May and the larger ships in June.”

As a result, the duo discovered that they were the only people in their field to actively collect sea ice or phytoplankton at this time.

“It makes sense for us to continue so they don’t miss any datasets,” adds Sorby. “We think there is great value in this.”

The Arctic tourist season runs from May to September, which means that if restrictions persist, there will be little or no tourism to the region this year.

“The entire Svalbard community has been hit very hard by Covid-19 and all the travel restrictions,” said Strom, who has lived in Longyearbyen, the main settlement here, for several years. “It’s really noticeable and it’s a big thing for the tourism industry.

“But they started opening up to guests from Norway from June, so we’ll just have to see how things go.”

There has been much debate around the environmental risks of tourism in the Arctic in recent years, mainly due to the increase in the number of expedition ships built to navigate in Arctic waters and the dangers that emissions from ships can present.

Last year, the Norwegian government issued a press release indicating that it was considering a ban on heavy fuel oil (HFO) as well as a limitation of the size of passenger ships in Svalbard in order to manage tourism growth and protect local wildlife.

However, as Strom and Sorby have indicated, the region also benefits greatly from tourism.

Hilde Kristin Rosvik, editor-in-chief of the local newspaper Svalbardposten, recently spoke about this conflict, explaining that if the inhabitants appreciate the money and the awareness that this tourism generates, the number of people entering can be overwhelming.
“Now that coal mining is much lower than it used to be, education, research and tourism are important parts of the economy,” Rosvik told Forbes last year.

“The problem is that too many tourists arrive at once from a ship. This creates friction in such a small community.”

Engage a global community

The duo used solar energy and windmills for electricity and collected newspapers for fires during the winter.

Courtesy hearts in the ice

Svalbard is also among the regions of the Earth most affected by climate change.

Average annual temperatures have increased by four degrees Celsius since 1970, while winter temperatures have increased by more than seven degrees, according to a report published by the Norwegian Center for Climate Services in 2019.

Strom and Sorby were forced to launch Hearts in the Ice following such events, with the aim of “engaging a global community in the dialogue on climate change and what we can all do”.

Between data collections, they host live video “meetings” with students and teachers from around the world to spread the word. They also have a blog providing updates on their progress.

The two women say they have difficulty understanding the enormity of what is happening beyond their very remote location.

“It’s a strange turn of events,” adds Sorby. “We could never have imagined, when we started this voluntary self-isolation, that the whole world would be in involuntary isolation.

“It is still very difficult to cover your head.”

The pair, who used solar energy and windmills for electricity, are very aware that they will return to a new world once this ship has finally arrived, and that many of the things they hold for acquired in the past will have totally changed.

For example, their jobs – Strom as product manager for tour operator Hurtigruten and Sorby as global sales manager for Polar Latitudes – no longer exist.

“The way we cultivate meaning in our world is through the travel and connection of people across countries and cultures and through the creation of environmental ambassadors,” says Sorby.

“It is very strange that it stops and we find ourselves unemployed, like many people there.

“We don’t come back to the same world. We do not return to our jobs.

“So we continue to stay here to be relevant to the other crisis that our world is facing, which is the climate crisis.”

A “silent” spring

The two feel “more useful” where they are and have decided to stay in Basembu until September.

Courtesy hearts in the ice

However, they hope that good results can be drawn from this situation, in connection with the 1962 book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, which recounted how bird populations in the United States were affected by the widespread use of pesticides.

“The world is in a very different” silent spring “, where it takes a very deep breath, and we have to watch and observe,” says Sorby.

“And I think a lot of people are reassessing how they work, how they live and how they travel.

“It is very interesting for those of us in the polar tourism industry.

“How can we make people discover different landscapes, different cultures and different specially protected areas?

“The way we do it is important. We have to try to figure out how to redefine that. So it’s an interesting time.”

Strom hopes that sustainable travel, already a hot topic before the pandemic, will become a way of life rather than just a movement.

“As travelers, we will have a different vision of how we travel [in the future],” she says.

“We will find sustainable operators and other means of travel in order to avoid environmental impacts as much as we did before.

“I think it will be a new direction for all of us.”

While the two women are eager to eventually see their family and friends, as well as having a hot shower and a cappuccino, they are currently at peace in isolation and looking forward to a very calm spring (but not all is silent).

“There is no traffic,” says Sorby. “No parasites in the air. No planes. No maritime traffic. When we go out, we only hear the sounds of ice and wind.

“We find a lot of strength in our goal and our vision, but also in the nature around us.

“This is something that everyone can understand. [We can all] go out and feel the power of nature. Go for a walk, a run or a bike ride. Mother Nature has a lot to offer. “

Strom and Sorby are currently raising funds through a GoFundMe page to help “extend technology, citizen science collection and educational awareness” to schools around the world.

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