Presenter: In the High Arctic, floating in the midnight sun and embraced by the Polar night, Svalbard is an archipelago of peaked mountains and imposing glaciers. No other place in the far North offers such an abundance of polar features and wildlife in such a limited area. Today in our programme “Round the World”, I’m pleased to introduce Chris Van Gils, a keen traveller to the North and an expert on Polar life.
[Now listen to the interview]
Hi Chris and welcome to our programme!
Chris: Hello. It’s a pleasure to be here today.
Presenter: Just a week ago Chris was in Svalbard. Well, Chris, first of all, tell us something about this archipelago.
Chris: Probably everybody knows about the North Cape. Well, many people believe this is the northernmost part of the world that is inhabited but it’s not true. Svalbard is a group of islands situated half-way between Norway and the North Pole. This land, the size of the republic of Ireland, is only 600 miles from the Pole. The word Svalbard comes from Norse, the language that people spoke in
Scandinavia in the past, and it means “cold coast”, a good name for a land which today is 60 percent
covered by ice. So Norse sailors knew of it but we don’t know why that knowledge got lost. It was not
till Barens, Willem Barens, a Dutch sailor, rediscovered the land in 1596 that …
Presenter: …Are you telling us that the Norse knew about Svalbard but that then Svalbard kind of
disappeared till 1596? That’s a really interesting part of history.
Chris: Well, … yes. When Barens arrived in Svalbard, he named it Spitsbergen. It means “the peaked mountains”. Today this name is confined to the largest island in the archipelago. Since 1925 it is part of the Kingdom of Norway.
Presenter: And how do you recommend that we visit the islands, by car? By plane? By boat?
Chris: There are no roads on the islands and, in fact, Svalbard is a fragmented archipelago with many
small islands over a large area of 63000 km2 . So the best way to discovery the landcapes is over the
waves. Sailing also offers the best chances, the best opportunities to see wildlife in a limited amount of time. Bearded seals, walruses and, with some luck, a polar bear can all been seen easily within a short distance.
Presenter: And when do you think it’s the best time of the year to visit Svalbard? Must be very dark and cold in the winter!
Chris: Yeah, yeah. It is dark and it’s cold as well. The average temperature in the winter is about 12
degrees centigrade below zero. So it’s cold. But it is also cold in summer when the average temperature is 42 º Fahrenheit, so about 6º Centigrade. And I’m talking about Longyearbyen.
Longyearbyen is the largest settlement in the archipelago, on the Spitsbergen island. In fact there are only three islands which are populated: Spitsbergen , Bear Island and Hopen . And only about 2000 people live there.
Presenter: That’s not many, is it? I mean, it must be lonesome to live there.
Chris: Well, most of them are scientists studying the Polar ecosystem. But yes, not many people are able to bear the cold and the…
Presenter: …and the long winter nights.
Chris: Yeah. The Polar night starts on the 14th of November and it lasts till the end of January. On the
other hand, the midnight sun starts on the 19th of April and lasts till the end of August. It is hard. I had
to take some medicines to get used to that lack of sun for so long.
Presenter: And what about polar bears? Have you been able to see one?
Chris. Well, you won’t believe this but it’s easier to see them today than it was some years ago.
Presenter: How come? I thought they were in danger of extinction.
Chris: The thing is that because polar bears appear very commonly on Svalbard and sometimes
they attack people, everybody needs to take precautions when outside the settlements: this includes
carrying a rifle. Nevertheless, the law protects polar bears and so it is forbidden to harm or disturb
them unless there is considerable danger of injury to a person.
Presenter: Wow! Polar bears attack human beings? Scary, isn’t it?
Chris: Well…, in the summer, some polar bears go ashore, go to the… Their favourite food is seals so
they go and hunt them in their habitat. Climatic change is also affecting polar bears since there is less
food and so they sometimes go hunting in the rural settlements where, of course, people live.
Presenter: I can see it’s an amazing trip. That’s been a very interesting discovery. Thank you, Chris,
for being with us today.
Chris: My pleasure. Thank you.