World Why the First Women to Overwinter Alone in the Harsh Arctic Returned
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Totally isolated from any other humans other than your roommate/best friend/coworker who you're sharing a 215-square-foot room with for over 16 months during some of darkest days imaginable. Sound all too familiar? But instead of the dangers of COVID lurking outside your door and a face mask as your tool for survival, you need to carry an infrared night vision scope, flares and rubber bullets in case your neighbors don't respect social distancing. While most of us have experienced isolation and long nights living through the COVID era, probably not many of us can relate to having your only neighbors during the pandemic being polar bears.
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For two indomitable women, Hilde Fålun Strøm and Sunniva Sorby, this was their extreme COVID reality. They have spent 16 months—10,000 hours—isolated together in the high Arctic in the 76th parallel in the world's northernmost archipelago, Svalbard, Norway, living in a remote trapper's hut with no electricity or running water, and the nearest sign of civilization 140 km away. And it was all by choice.
Welcome to Svalbard, Ground Zero for Climate Change
Sorby and Strøm became the first women to overwinter solo in the Arctic, in one of the harshest, most extreme places in the world in the 2019/20 winter season. A few women have overwintered at Svalbard before, but never without men. But these polar ambassadors aren't doing this for bragging rights, not the first time and certainly not when they decided to return again for a second time during the 2020/21 winter.
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"It's a pretty extreme existence. And we came back for the second time simply because we felt like our voices are far more powerful from here. We do want to draw attention to a global issue but from a place where the heart is beating the fastest for both of us," Sorby tells Newsweek from a satellite phone in their hut in Svalbard.
As citizen scientists and polar ambassadors, their mission Hearts in the Ice brings attention to the place on the planet that's experiencing the most extreme shifts due to climate change. The world's northernmost town, Svalbard, is the fastest-warming place on the planet. November had its warmest day on record in Svalbard at 9.4 C (49 F) and this year's sea ice minimum tied for the second-lowest extent on record, according to NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
The outlook in Svalbard, the front lines of climate change, sounds all doom and gloom: rising temperatures, melting sea ice, birds dying from microplastics in the ocean debris, polar bears that can't find food.
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"Up here in the Arctic, everything changes twice as fast as in the rest of the world. Climate change is happening all over the world, but here it's accelerating and it's a lot more visible up in the Arctic," says Strom, adding, "That's why it's a mirror to the rest of the world. The temperature is rising four times as fast than in the rest of the world.
Bonding Over Polar Extremes
Both in their 50s, Sorby and Strøm are uniquely qualified to be polar ambassadors and citizen scientists in the high Arctic, as each woman has over 25 years of observations and experience in the polar regions, seeing all the changes in the Arctic and Antarctic.
Strøm is Norwegian and lives in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, and has taken numerous long expeditions with severe conditions in the Arctic and has had over 200 polar bear encounters. Sorby is Canadian, although born in Tønsberg, Norway, and was the first Canadian woman to ski across Greenland to the South Pole. After meeting at an Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) world summit in Alaska in 2016, they both realized they had a unique bond for polar extremes.
Arctic winner Ott Tänak: "Had to make the difference at the beginning"
With a sovereign victory in Lapland, Ott Tänak is back in the championship fight - the early attack of the Hyundai driver was the right strategy After the disappointment at the "Monte" reported back Ott Tänak with the victory in the Arctic-Rallye in Finland. The Hyundai driver won five of the ten special stages and collected two bonus points on the power stage. In the World Cup, Tanak moved up to fifth place. "When we came here, I didn't think too much about the 'Monte'.
Skiing across the South Pole took 67 days, 700 miles and a 200-pound sled, and yet Sunniva says there was something that weighed more heavily on her conscience than the most grueling expedition of her life.
"Nothing harder than the low that I feel by having borne witness to all the change in both the Arctic and the Antarctic over my close to 25 years of exploring in the polar regions," shares Sorby.
"We have, over the years, discovered that the world is experiencing such extreme, violent shifts in temperature, climate destruction, and displacement of people and we wanted to do something about it," she adds.
Thus Hearts in the Ice was born and the women's first winter season in 2019-2020 went down in history as they isolated themselves in their tiny uninsulated trapper's hut called "Bamsebu" with polar bears lurking outside the door, all with a mission to bring attention to the place on the planet that's experiencing the most extreme shifts around climate change.
Bringing Heart and Citizen Science to Climate Change
While their reports might not include the best news for climate change, the core mission of Hearts in the Ice is to make climate change more accessible and relatable. Acting as middlewomen between scientific reports and everyday people, Strøm and Sorby add a bit of softness to the harsh realities of climate change with engaging storytelling, both on their blog and their presentations to schools all around the world, and by inspiring everyday people to make small changes in their life. Strøm and Sorby are filling a need: bringing a bit of heart and relatability to the dismal climate change forecast.
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Sorby and Strøm serve as citizen scientists at Bamsebu by collecting data for existing research being conducted in the Arctic, tracking polar bears and reporting on seven citizen-science projects. But with COVID added to the extreme mix, they are also providing research to scientists on what it's like to be isolated for so long.
"We feel very strongly that the climate crisis walks hand-in-hand with the pandemic and that it is also a crisis, but it's one we can see," says Sorby. The women try to encourage changing small daily habits, ways of thinking and being creative to embrace the enormity of the fact that we need to go from climate despair to some form of stubborn optimism around climate change.
Women on the Front Lines of Climate Change
Strøm has been living in Svalbard for 25 years and says, while the history of the early pioneers in this Arctic region is extremely important to her, she thinks it's about time women are on the front lines.
"We have more than 150 years of history, but it's all written by men," says Strom. "It's about time two women write the story about how this is done by females. We are as strong, as powerful, as acknowledged, and as comprehensive as are men."
Foraging in a whiteout for a resupply of wood, carrying heavy Siberian logs, taking parts off a snowmobile in subzero temperatures, their blog shares the extreme parts of their mission. There's no shower, no running water, no light switch, no juicer or microwave. Instead, they're surrounded by the remnants of the beluga whaling era of the early 1900s: thousands of bones scattered on the beach covered with ice and snow.
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"This was a man's world," they recount in their blog, "Trapping, hunting and early expeditions were dominated by men. Stories told by men about men. The women were there, in these stories, and often represented the glue that kept things together. They were true pioneers that possessed equal skills and brought the tough, soft feminine into an otherwise harsh world."
Storm and Sorby, having now survived and thrived during two overwintering missions, can attest that women can do this just as well as men. Asked if there are advantages to being a woman on an extreme expedition like this, Hildes says yes, and that maybe it's even easier being a female on a mission here, despite the physical labor.
"I think we have an advantage being women because we're able to be vulnerable and to share with each other. We don't compete as much as men do," says Strom, adding, "I think jealousy and competition are things we can more easily overcome in a situation like this. I think we use our heart a little bit more than men, too."
More staggering feats? The duo has managed to go without a shower for more than a year at Bamsebu. They've also survived in 215 square feet that included their bedrooms, dining room, office, workout studio, kitchen, laundry room and science lab.
It's Not About Strøm and Sorby, It's About Us
"We are doing our project for the benefit of the collective, not for ourselves," Sorby says. "And so, we are an example of other strong female leaders in the world that are showing up for the collective."
We need to think as a collective and not just for our own little world," she continues. "And so those of us who have access to knowledge, or have access to resources, who have access to networks, we need to be the bridge builders. So we are really trying to encourage people to be self-leaders, to take responsibility for their own lives and the life of someone else that you can't see."
"It's not about Suniva and me, it's about our children; they don't have a tomorrow If we don't do anything now," adds Strom. "It's up to you and me and Suniva that need to make the change now."
"We are trying to ignite that small thing inside people that makes a change in their feelings—to go from despair to being present and engaged. It's extremely serious."
After being isolated for a year and a half in one of the harshest places on Earth, all they're asking is for each of us to get involved from our little corner in civilization. Now.
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