Dr. Louise Archer and Larissa Thelin in Svalbard

Photo: Hilde Fålun Strøm / Hearts in the Ice

Dr. Louise Archer and Larissa Thelin in Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

Outreach in Svalbard, Norway



08 Sep 2023

For a brief six weeks in July and August this summer, Polar Bears International piloted the concept of a pop-up interpretive center In Longyearbyen, Svalbard, in partnership with the Svalbard Museum: the Polar Bears International Ice House, the most northern interpretive pop-up in the world. We chose Longyearbyen because it’s a popular stop-off for Arctic cruises, providing us with an opportunity to engage with visitors and inspire them to become involved in action on climate change.

We caught up with the two scientists who staffed the pop-up—Dr. Louise Archer and Larissa Thelin—to talk about their impressions of the pilot season and the experience of sharing a conservation message  in one of the most remote locations on Earth.

Ambassador Larissa Thelin with guests at the Ice House in Svalbard

Photo: Hilde Fålun Strøm / Hearts in the Ice

Larissa Thelin speaks with guests at the Polar Bears International Ice House.

What do you think the impact of the Polar Bears International Ice House was? 

Dr. Louise Archer: Although we had hoped that the unusual, light-filled dome would draw in many inquisitive visitors, I never expected that by mid-August, more than 4,000 people would have stopped by to hear about polar bear conservation. Visitors included tourists, local workers, researchers, and tour guides, along with many other curious community members. All were interested in the lifestyles of polar bears around Svalbard (part of the Barents Sea population), and in particular wanted to know, “Where in the Svalbard archipelago are they?”

As we discussed the crucial role of sea ice in the polar bears’ life cycle, the conversation often shifted to what polar bears eat, and the threats they face from climate change and loss of their sea-ice hunting habitat. Almost all visitors were keen to hear actions they could take to support polar bears and tackle climate change. I left feeling hopeful that those who visited felt empowered to leverage their influence in their communities and to advocate for the Arctic when they returned home.

Larissa Thelin: I have helped staff the Polar Bears International House in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, a few times and thought I would know what theIce House in Svalbard would be like based on those experiences. But it was wildly different. Being just a quick flight from Europe, Svalbard brought in an array of international tourists we don’t often see in Canada. Aside from North Americans, I spoke with visitors from all over Europe, Africa, and Australia, many of whom had never heard of Polar Bears International before. Many of them, also, did not understand the complexity involved with how the Arctic is influenced by climate change. 

The Ice House offered an opportunity to reach a much broader audience. It also allowed us to talk to many more people in general. We spoke to an average of 100 people per day, more than we would typically see during one day in Churchill. To reach that many people from so many new places means that the story of melting sea ice and polar bears has spread farther than we could have hoped. I left Svalbard confident that a new wave of world travelers will take this information home to their friends and family, thereby helping us all work towards mitigating climate change for future generations of polar bears and people.

A glacier at the base of the mountains in Svalbard

Photo: Larissa Thelin / Polar Bears International

What was your experience working in the Ice House? 

Dr. Louise Archer: As Longyearbyen sweltered in temperatures hotter than Paris during the opening week of the Ice House, the knowledge that this part of the Arctic is the fastest-warming region on Earth took on a decidedly visceral edge. This was certainly the place to be to highlight threats to Arctic ecosystems from our malfunctioning climate. 

After six whirlwind weeks, I left Svalbard feeling in awe of this gorgeous place and inspired by the people I met from all over the world—their individual stories that brought them to the Arctic, their hopes and concerns for our planet, and our shared desire to play a part in protecting this unique place. I feel more assured than ever that our success lies in engaging people from across the world to participate in reimagining and reshaping our future. Most of all, I remain stubbornly hopeful in the power of connecting with others and deepening our connections with the natural world to impel us to act.

Larissa Thelin: I left 30°C temperatures in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada, at the beginning of July to head to Svalbard. As I made my way to the Arctic, my bags packed full of clothing for fall and winter temperatures, headlines across the world spoke of how we were reaching almost 5 days in a row of record heat. I expected icy Arctic air when I stepped off the plane in my flannel, but quickly removed some layers realizing that those headlines also applied to this part of the world. 

My research focus in my career is to understand how climate change is affecting vulnerable species and ecosystems, but this was my first time really seeing these impacts first hand. It is impossible to visit the Arctic and not receive an influx of information about how it is not quite the same anymore. It is impossible to be there as a scientist and not wonder how much we still have yet to learn here, how many of these changes we do not yet understand. Aside from gaining new friends and colleagues and falling in love with a part of the world unlike anything I had seen before, I left Svalbard with an invigorated sense of purpose in my own work. I left with a deeper understanding of the urgent importance of climate advocacy.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard from on top of the mountain in summer

Photo: Larissa Thelin / Polar Bears International

What was your impression of Longyearbyen and the parts of Svalbard you saw?

Dr. Louise Archer: With old coal mining infrastructure punctuating the landscape and the midnight sun spotlighting the rolling glaciers just visible across the fjord, Longyearbyen was a stunningly unique place. The laid-back town could transform into a bustling hub with impressive speed at the arrival of a cruise ship, but I fairly quickly grew used to both the rhythms of the summer visitor season and the uninterrupted daylight.  

Watching reindeer walking the streets, walruses on the beach, and puffins just a short boat-ride away, it was easy to see why Svalbard is a magnet for people eager to see the wildlife that are attracted to the archipelago and its productive surrounding waters.

Yet, from receding glaciers to record-breaking July heat, I found it impossible not to be struck by the alarming pace of environmental change that the Svalbard region is experiencing, and the threats to this spectacular place. 

Larissa Thelin: Being far from the mainland and in the Arctic, I expected Longyearbyen to feel a lot more remote than it does. But the settlement has everything you need and then some. In the summer, daily flights and cruise ships bring in tourists from all over, so the town has learned to cater to its visitors. 

Longyearbyen is rapidly moving away from a history of trapping and coal mining and towards a future of tourism and Arctic research, including the presence of the University Center in Svalbard and the Norwegian Polar Institute. There are various indoor activities for colder days, including museums, an art gallery, and shopping. The food scene was fantastic, with small cafés serving homemade treats, pubs with local beer, and up-scale eateries plating everything from reindeer sausage to saffron risotto (my favorite). But it’s the outdoor activities that draw in the majority of Svalbard’s visitors. 

Numerous tour companies offer single- to multi-day boat, hiking, or camping trips. The landscape of Svalbard is so unique that even if you don’t catch a glimpse of a polar bear or an Arctic fox on a tour, the mountains themselves are picture-worthy. I found myself often wandering through town looking at the scenery, completely forgetting I was in polar bear country until I passed a local with a rifle on their back or saw one of the many danger signs on the edges of town. Each time felt like a culture shock – it reminded me that locals must live on edge every day, prepared to protect themselves from an encounter with the very animal I was there to talk about. It’s one thing to study polar bears, or to visit the Arctic in hopes of photographing one, but it’s quite another to live alongside them. Even though it may not feel so remote, Svalbard is a truly wild place. A month flew by, but it was incredible to get a glimpse into what life might be like for those that live there.

Special thanks to Polar Bears International's supporting partners who made the Ice House possible, including the Svalbard Museum, Hearts in the Ice, and the Norwegian Polar Institute. We're grateful, too, to the University Center in Svalbard and PostenBring AS, Tromsø.

Dr Louise Archer is a Mitacs Elevate Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto Scarborough, supported by Polar Bears International. Larissa Thelin did her Master of Science studying polar bear space use at the University of Alberta with Dr. Andrew Derocher.