(CNN) – When Hilde Falun Storm and Sunniva Sorby began a long-planned expedition in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard last September, their main goal was to encourage conversation about climate change in the polar regions.
After spending nearly nine months collecting data and samples for researchers in a remote area of Basembu, which is located 140 kilometers from the “nearest neighbor,” adventurers are ready to say goodbye to the small wooden shack they have called home since the beginning of their trip.
However, as has happened to many people around the world, their plans were suddenly put on ice because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now the couple had little choice but to remain separate from civilization with only one another to accompany, along with their dog Ettra and various polar bears, reindeer and geese, until a ship was able to cross to bring them home.
“We are very cold,” Strom told CNN Travel via satellite telephone. “There is no electricity. There is no running water. This is challenging, but this is the most beautiful area you can imagine.”
Strom and Sorby spent two years planning a project known as Heart in ice, Who saw them become the first women in history to overcome winter in the Arctic without a male team member.
During their stay in Basembu, both have collected weather and wildlife data, monitoring clouds, sea ice, and organisms for international institutions 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 described as an experience “not for the weakest heart.”
“None of us lives that close, 24/7 in a small space [their cabin was built for whalers in the 1930s] with anyone, “Sorby said.
“So it has learning opportunities and challenges. But there isn’t a single thing that happened here that we don’t know about together.
“Then in March, the earth began to turn its axis, and everything began to change.”
‘We are more useful here’
Hilde Falun Storm and Sunniva Sorby were trapped in remote Bamsebu in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago.
Courtesy Hearts in the Ice
While they have little access to technology in Basembu, Strom and Sorby, who both work in polar tourism, stay abreast of Covid-19 by their social media team.
But they did not know how serious it was until it became clear their four-day “pick-up trip”, where family, friends, sponsors and science partners would arrive on board to collect them in early May, could not continue.
“There are a lot of tears,” said Sorby, who lives in Canada. “It was very difficult. The same ship that dropped us off in September will come to pick us up.
“We haven’t moved from this location in nearly nine months and some of the same people we stand up and wave to be there.
“But the whole world has witnessed many tragedies in terms of health and so many other disappointments with all that has been canceled. So, we are all on the same boat to talk.”
Aside from disappointment, partner, who have written books about their experiences, determined to make the best of the situation they are now experiencing, and has chosen to remain in Basembu until September to continue their work.
“We had a goal when we left and we will continue that,” Strom said.
“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, showing that they are in a better position in some ways, because they have not been “tainted” by the despair of the coronavirus pandemic that has accumulated in the world over the past few months.
“We will remain in the good news department,” he added. “Leaving this project means sacrificing our goals and what we value and stand for as women.
“So, there is never a choice for us to stop this. Apart from the cost to us emotionally, and financially.
“We honestly have done a lot of soul searching. We are both over 50. And we really care about our values and how we appear in the world.”
Arctic tourism conflict
Strom and Sorby were the first women in history to “endure winter” in the Arctic without a male team member.
Courtesy Hearts in the Ice
The fact that tour ships cannot travel to Svalbard, is positioned halfway between Norway and the North Pole, because global travel restrictions also mean fewer samples of data are being collected at this time.
“Tour ships provide great value for scientists by collecting saltwater and cloud observations,” Sorby explained.
“The tourists are involved in the citizen science program on the boat. But no one this year.
“Last August we had ships here every day with between 60 and 80 guests. Small ships began to arrive in May and larger ships in June.”
As a result, the two found that they were the only people in their field who were actively collecting sea ice or phytoplankton at this time.
“It makes sense for us to continue so that no data set is lost,” Sorby added. “We feel there is great value in that.”
The Arctic tourist season runs from May to September, which means if restrictions remain, there will be little or no tourism at all in the region this year.
“The entire Svalbard community was devastated by Covid-19 and all travel restrictions,” said Strom, who has lived in Longyearbyen, the main settlement here, for several years. “This is really visible and is a big thing for the tourism industry.
“But they have started to be open to guests coming from Norway from June, so we have to see how it develops.”
There has been much debate about the environmental risks surrounding Arctic tourism in recent years, largely due to an increase in the number of expedition ships built to sail in Arctic waters and the dangers posed by emissions from ships.
Last year, the Norwegian government issue a press release shows it is considering a ban on heavy fuel oil (HFO) as well as size restrictions on passenger ships on Svalbard in an effort to manage tourism growth and protect local wildlife.
However, as indicated by Strom and Sorby, this area also benefits from tourism.
Hilde Kristin Rosvik, editor of the local newspaper Svalbardposten Recently talked about this conflict, explaining that while local residents appreciate the money and awareness generated by such tourism, the number of people who come can be very large. “Now coal mining is far less than before, education, research and tourism are important elements of the economy,” Rosvik said Forbes last year
“The problem is that too many tourists arrive at once from a ship. This creates friction in a small community.”
Involving the global community
The duo has used solar power and windmills for electricity and collected wood for fires during the winter.
Courtesy Hearts in the Ice
Svalbard is also one of the regions on Earth that is most severely affected by climate change.
The annual average temperature here has risen four degrees Celsius since 1970, while winter temperatures have surged more than seven degrees, according to a report released by Norwegian Climate Service Center in 2019.
Strom and Sorby were forced to launch Hearts in the Ice as a result of these events, with the aim “to involve the global community in dialogue around climate change and what we can all do.”
In between data collection, they host live videos “hang out” with students and teachers around the world to spread the word. They also have a blog that provides updates on their progress.
The two women said they found it difficult to understand what was happening outside their very remote locations.
“This is a strange event,” Sorby added. “We can never imagine when we begin this voluntary self-isolation, that the whole world will be in accidental isolation.
“It’s still very difficult to wrap your head.”
The couple, who have used solar power and windmills for electricity, are very aware they will return to the new world once the ship finally arrives, and many of the things they take for granted in the past will have been completely changed.
For example, their work – Strom as a product manager for tour operators Hurtigruten, and Sorby as director of global sales for Polar Latitude — no longer.
“The way we process meaning in our world is through travel and connecting people across countries and cultures and making ambassadors for the environment,” Sorby said.
“It’s very strange that it stopped and we found ourselves without work, like many people out there.
“We will not return to the same world. We will not return to our work.
“So, we continue to stay here to be relevant to other crises facing our world, namely the climate crisis.”
Both feel they are “more useful” where they are, and have decided to remain in Basembu until September.
Courtesy Hearts in the Ice
However, they hope some goodness can come out of this situation, related to the 1962 book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, which tells how bird populations throughout the US are affected by the widespread use of pesticides.
“The world is in a very different ‘silent spring’, where it takes a very big deep breath, and we have to watch and observe,” Sorby said.
“And I think many people are reevaluating how they work, how they live and how they travel.
“That is very interesting for us in the polar tourism industry.
“How do we introduce people to different landscapes, different cultures and specially protected areas?
“How we do it is important. We must try to understand how to redefine it. So, this is 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.
“We as travelers will have a different view of how we travel [in the future],” she says.
“We will find sustainable operators and other ways to travel to avoid environmental impacts like we did before.
“I think this will be a new direction for us all.”
While the two women hope to finally see their family and friends, and have a hot shower and cappuccino, they are currently at peace with isolation and look forward to a very quiet (though not too quiet) spring.
“There is no traffic,” Sorby said. “There is no static electricity in the air. There are no airplanes. There is no ship traffic. When we go outside, we only hear the sound of ice moving and the wind.
“We find a lot of strength in our goals and vision, but also the nature around us.
“That’s something everyone can relate to. [We can all] go outside and feel the power of nature. Walking, running or cycling. Mother Nature has a lot to offer. “
Strom and Sorby are currently collecting money through a GoFundMe page to help “expand technology, citizen science gathering and education outreach” to schools around the world.