The Barents Sea: Land of Perpetual Night

As we traveled northward, the twilight diminished, the sky grew darker, until finally our ship crossed into polar night

Shea: An Alaskan husky named Laban
An Alaskan husky named Laban, one of two dogs standing watch for polar bears outside Bjørnøya's weather station. (Neil Shea)

In late November last year, I traveled to the Norwegian port city of Tromsø and boarded a northbound icebreaker called the KV Svalbard. The ship belonged to the kystvakt, the coast guard, and it was stout and gray with a steep bow for plowing into sea ice and a thick round bottom for crushing it. In the long blue twilight, sailors pulled supplies aboard and welcomed passengers, while below in the mess, cooks prepared salmon fillets and sang along to MC Hammer and Metallica. Many of the young crew members were conscripts, fulfilling their national service, and here and there they stood outside in the cold, smoking and soaking up cell phone signals before we sailed beyond reach.

In Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, the word svalbard could mean “the cold coast” or “a cold edge,” and either sense—geographical, metaphorical—worked to describe the coming journey: a tour of isolated outposts in Norway’s vast Arctic waters. First, northeast between the nation’s rugged outlying islands, past the town of Hammerfest and over the pipelines that crowd the sea floor there, arteries carrying gas from distant drilling platforms. Then into the open water of the Barents Sea, where we would visit lonely weather stations on the islands of Bjørnøya and Hopen before finally turning toward the ship’s namesake, the Svalbard archipelago, home to the northernmost settlement in the world.

The Barents Sea at that time of year was mostly empty, trafficked only by big trawlers scooping up their last hauls of cod, wolffish, and haddock, or military ships eavesdropping before the weather grew too rough and the sea began to freeze. By then the sun had also set and would not rise above the horizon again for weeks or, farther north, months. In Tromsø, the sky brightened for a few hours each day and then stepped down into darkness through a range of blues unknown in lower latitudes. The twilight, as we traveled northward, would diminish, the sky grow darker, until finally our ship crossed into polar night.

All this created a feeling of looming closure. Of time, light, and traffic winding down even while space—the vastness of the Arctic itself—seemed to expand all around us. This was half of what I’d come for. My work for more than a year had focused on the Arctic. I had interviewed plenty of experts and traveled to other parts of the North in search of the destructive effects of climate change. But Arctic darkness was something that warming could not destroy.

Hours later and many miles farther north, I stood on the blacked-out bridge of the Svalbard, staring into the kind of disruptive dark I’d previously known only underground. I could hear the voices of coast guard officers. I could feel in my feet the boat’s roll. To the east and west, I knew there were snow-covered islands that in photographs appeared rugged and tersely beautiful. And yet this knowledge did not help. My brain rebelled, as it has done in deep caves, against the bear hug of Arctic night.

I felt my eyes straining, wide open. I was thrilled in the dark, but I also felt a primal longing for light, for a flare or star, something to mark our passage and let me know we were actually moving.

When it finally appeared, the light was beautiful, disorienting, a spray of golden globes somewhere to the east, piled up between black water and black sky like a fallen constellation. As we sailed closer, the chaos resolved into a strange geometry. It was not a boat, or a house, or even an oil platform. I asked the Svalbard’s executive officer, who sat beside me, commanding the watch. He was silent for a moment, recalling English words.

“Fish farm,” he said. “Those are cages.”

“What kind of fish?”

“Salmon. Hundreds of them. Swimming in the same direction day after day after day.” His hand turned circles in the air, silhouetted in the faint glow of a computer. “You know, the fillets you get at the market.”

Yes. Sealed in plastic, priced per ounce, a little pink dye added to the flesh. In the darkness I could see them perfectly.

Shea: A crewman aboard the KV Svalbard

A crewman aboard the KV Svalbard makes one last phone call from Tromsø harbor before sailing beyond reach. (Neil Shea)

In 2010, after 40 years of argument and negotiation, Russia and Norway agreed to split the Barents Sea roughly in half. Some critics said Norway got less than it gave away, but the deal was generally described as a breakthrough, some observers taking it as proof that Russia could play nice in the North. Behind the agreement, though, was an understanding that the Arctic was melting, and both nations were eager to sort through the slush. This was the other reason I’d come: to travel along one of the Arctic’s freshest borders, and try to gauge how the neighbors were getting along.

Since the late 1970s, the Arctic has lost an average of 21,000 square miles of sea ice each year, according to scientists at NASA. Put another way, if you were to imagine sea ice as a territory the size of the United States, then Alaska and the Pacific Coast would have melted away, along with Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and most of Montana. The scale of loss is astonishing, and the negative trend continues. One researcher told me that to understand it, I had to think in unprecedented terms: “There’s a new ocean opening up before us in real time,” he said. “That hasn’t happened before.”

The new ocean brings potentially catastrophic environmental consequences. But ice-free waters also offer business opportunities in oil and gas drilling, fishing, and shipping—a kind of disaster dividend that many nations and private enterprises hope to exploit. Among them, Russia and Norway have been the most proactive, investing billions in pipelines and platforms, Arctic-ready ships, and their militaries. Russia’s military spending has been particularly robust, outstripping every other Arctic nation with new bases, missile batteries, aircraft, and more.

All of this has created a kind of frantic media cloud that seems to hang over the pole, swirling together news of climate change with stories describing how nations are scrambling after the few remaining slivers of Arctic pie. This great power competition is often seen as a prelude to conflict. What I’ve found, though, is usually far less dramatic. Many experts—military, diplomatic, scientific—do not fear war starting in the Arctic: it’s simply too cold. Too dark. Too expensive. There is common concern, however, that aggression in some other region—recent Russian actions in Ukraine, Syria, and Crimea, as well as the U.S. elections, were mentioned—could creep northward.

Aboard the Svalbard, officers (nearly always officers) spoke of Russians genially, like odd but lovable neighbors who occasionally played their music too loud or set the yard on fire but who were at least entertaining. Some of this was Nordic optimism, planted in Arctic oil, gas, and fishing revenues that help make Norway the third richest country in Europe. But the attitude was also realpolitik. Against the bear there is no defense, one officer told me: “We get along because we must.”

NATO sent 50,000 troops to Norway for a massive war game. The adversary wasn’t named. No one doubted it was Russia.

Still, older members of the crew pointed to the fishery we were at the moment sailing through. The Barents Sea, one of the richest in the world, is jointly managed by Russia and Norway in recognition of the reality that fish do not care about borders. Cod, the most lucrative species, begins its life in Russian waters and then swims to Norway, where it reaches adulthood. Ships from both nations are allowed to harvest each other’s waters, and both coast guards cooperate to keep fish schools and trawler crews in good shape.

Several experts I spoke with predicted such arrangements would become more frequent exactly because of the Arctic’s vast distances, its physical dangers, and our comparatively shallow scientific understanding of the region. Some scientists said they even hoped for the new open waters to be governed by an international treaty, similar to the Treaty of Antarctica, which preserves the continent for research.

But that moment seems to have passed long ago: in late October 2018, NATO confirmed that no treaty was in the works by sending some 50,000 troops to Norway for a massive war game. The exercise was the largest of its kind since the collapse of the Soviet Union, involving 31 allies and a couple of observer states, all of them pretending Norway had just been invaded by a foreign army. The imaginary adversary wasn’t named. No one doubted it was Russia.

Shea: A coast guard crew delivers weather station personnel

Battling heavy winter swells, a coast guard crew delivers weather station personnel to the harbor at Bjørnøya. (Neil Shea)

After days of rising swells, the icebreaker arrived off Bjørnøya at the western edge of the Barents Sea. On the map, the island was vaguely heart shaped, about 12 miles long and nine miles wide, dotted with lakes and small mountains, the tallest of which is called Misery. Invisible to us in the night were offshore columns of rock that rose from the sea like broken lighthouses, and the emerald sweep of plains above steep cliffs that sheltered enormous colonies of seabirds.

The island is home only to weather station staff and the occasional scientist. In summer, tourists cruising the Barents Sea on their way to Spitsbergen stop by for an hour or two. They strip down for a polar plunge, or visit the station’s gift shop and mail home cards stamped with its rare postmark. In winter, no one much visits.

It was easy to see why. In midmorning I stood on a middle deck and watched while a bright yellow boat was lowered over the gray side of the Svalbard, banging and shuddering in the waves. Aboard were weather station personnel dressed in orange survival suits, packed beside all the gear they’d need for a six-month stay on the island—duffel bags, cases of beer, a Christmas tree.

The sea heaved, all foam and black water, the swirl of nightmares. I tugged on a survival suit and boarded a second boat. Fifteen minutes later, I jumped onto a concrete dock where a little crowd stood waiting. It was the old station crew, men and women who were finishing their tour of duty on Bjørnøya and who’d eventually catch a lift back to civilization aboard the Svalbard. We stripped off our orange suits and mucked along a dirt road toward the station itself, a cluster of buildings on a headland skinned with old snow and ice.

I walked with Arild Lyssand, the outgoing station chief. He pointed out various buildings, warned me not to fall off the cliffs. But what I most remember was the story of his previous life. For years he’d been a policeman on Spitsbergen, one of a handful of cops stationed at the end of the world. His work had taken him all over the Svalbard archipelago. He’d investigated polar bear attacks and murders, watched boatloads of German tourists sail into remote ice-curtained fjords and party to the sound of oompah bands.

I had imagined Lyssand as a kind of Norwegian Kurt Wallander, stalking through contrasty landscapes, haunted by what he’d seen men do in the Arctic darkness. But he hadn’t much noir about him. He loved the archipelago’s stark beauty, reveled in its emptiness, the way life below zero pared things down. Later, when we discussed a homicide in a remote Russian coal town called Barentsburg, he said it’d been relatively easy to solve.

“It’s hard to get away with anything up here,” he said. “Everybody knows what you’re doing.”

Shea: a bunkhouse at the meteorological station

A bunkhouse at the meteorological station in Bjørnøya, an island near the western edge of the Barents Sea. (Neil Shea)

The first thing you notice upon entering the Bjørnøya Meteorology Station is the rifle rack. Hard by the door, half a dozen high-powered weapons, loaded and ready. Like those I’ve seen in certain police stations, or on military bases in war zones, as though the Norwegians were waiting for a Russian invasion. Beyond the guns, a case displaying extraordinary eggs of birds that nest here—Brünnich’s guillemots, common guillemots, auks, fulmars, gulls, puffins, terns. And then, through a doorway, a fine, wood-paneled living room lined with bookshelves—and a polar bear.

The bear was stretched across the wall, mouth open, fur gleaming in the lamplight. Lyssand told me it had been shot on the island five years before. Since polar bears are protected in Norway, and because Lyssand was a cop back then, he investigated the case and later made sure the skin was returned to Bjørnøya. He and others thought it was appropriate, after all. Bjørnøya means “bear island.”

Bears had for centuries been regular visitors during winter, when sea ice crept down and enclosed the island like a fist around a jewel. In 1971, a weather station crew member was killed by a bear. Shortly afterward, a new regulation required all personnel to carry rifles whenever they went outside.

Human activity had long ago wholly transformed the landscapes in which we lived. There was little left to mourn but our illusions.

That explained the rifle rack by the door, and the other weapons and flare pistols scattered throughout the station and its outbuildings. The station’s doors were also left unlocked at all times—to accommodate someone fleeing in a bear-induced panic. Dogs had even been employed to help guard the station crews, and outside, two Alaskan huskies, Yukon and Laban, were chained to neat Nordic doghouses. In theory they would bark at the approach of a bear; in reality, everyone thought they’d just hide.

By the time of my visit, though, the guns, flares, doors, and dogs had mostly outlasted their purpose. Polar bears are essentially marine animals; they spend their lives wandering sea ice, hunting other creatures that live along its edges. But climate change had so altered this quadrant that ice hadn’t reached Bjørnøya for years, and no bears had been seen since 2011. (A few months after my visit, a station staffer told me that the thick ice finally returned, in March, bringing with it a solitary bear. The bear found its way to the station, she said, nosed around the buildings, and soon wandered back out to sea.)

To travel in the Arctic today is to enter a perpetual vigil. Crossing the Circle, you are aware that you have come at an environmental cost, that you are privileged to be there, that the behavior of your own country is helping to melt this one. Every village, every shore, each encounter with an animal is heightened by the question of what will happen, what is happening, as new ocean appears and the Arctic is transformed.

Once, during my time on Bjørnøya, a friend who had just spent the summer working in the Canadian Arctic texted me and asked, “Is the Arctic still the Arctic when all the ice is gone?” It was the sort of thing he and I, as outsiders—southerners—could entertain without consequence. Human activity had long ago wholly transformed the landscapes on which we lived. Down south there was little left to mourn but our illusions. I wrote back to my friend and said that at least in the Arctic there would still be darkness.

On the final evening of my island visit, I went for a walk along the shore with two station staffers, Alex and Tina. Both were about to return to Oslo after their half-year stay. Alex carried a rifle, Tina went unarmed. The huskies bounded along with us, slipping happily between our legs. In the moonlight, we could see just enough. The shore, the hills in the distance, all appeared like an old memory, blue and uncertain. Something crunched underfoot. Walrus bones, Alex said. Walrus had at one time thrived here, but they were hunted out hundreds of years ago: another animal exiled from Bjørnøya.

Earlier, Alex had taken me into an old house on the station grounds. Radio crews had once lived there, in small rooms, huddled around small stoves, and now it had become a kind of museum. In the attic, artifacts were stored—old rifles, bits of a Nazi bomber that had crashed here, radios, whale bones, skis. In a corner under an eave lay the most unsettling object: a small rectangular frame made of driftwood, about the size of a rabbit hutch and set on driftwood legs.

Alex explained that this was a polar bear trap. Many years ago, hunters would position a sawed-off shotgun within the box, its trigger tied to a tripwire, which was fastened to a hunk of seal blubber. Inevitably a hungry bear would come along and tug at the blubber. Alex told me one or two traps still stood on the island. They were harmless now, he said. Broken by time and the elements, waiting for trophies that would never arrive.

I instantly hated the trap, but it also clarified things. Bjørnøya was like a stone dropped by a receding glacier and mired now in the warm mud of the Anthropocene. The island and most everything on it were relics of a larger, colder age. The true line of demarcation was not some border drawn between nations, but one that separated us from the Arctic of the past, and revealed how far things had come.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Neil Shea’s first book, Frostlines: Dispatches from the New Arctic, will be published next year.  


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