Welcome to the world's most northerly science lab

This former coal-mining village is now a leading centre of Arctic research.

By Catherine Zuckerman
photographs by Paolo Verzone
Published 5 Nov 2018, 17:30 GMT
Jürgen Graeser is a technician in charge of meteorologic and other measurements at the French-German station ...
Jürgen Graeser is a technician in charge of meteorologic and other measurements at the French-German station at Ny-Ålesund. Here, he uses a tethered balloon (nicknamed 'Miss Piggy') to take wind measurements.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, VU for IPEV

Imagine a place so high up in the Arctic that the only spot above it on the map is the North Pole. It’s cold but beautiful, an icy landscape of glaciers, mountains, and fjords that’s home to polar bears, foxes, walruses, and whales—and a bunch of scientists.

Welcome to Ny-Ålesund, a tiny settlement in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard and the northernmost inhabited place on Earth. Unlike other Arctic outposts, Ny-Ålesund is not a hub for commercial fishing or shipping operations. Instead, it supports more academic endeavours.

Since the 1990s, Ny-Ålesund has served as a base—and a community—for scientists from all over the world who need access to the Arctic to conduct their studies. Located on the island of Spitsbergen, the base is made up of several research stations, also called houses.

Each house corresponds to a country except for one that’s shared by Germany and France, which goes by the name AWIPEV—an acronym that combines the names of each country’s polar institute: Germany’s Alfred-Wegener-Institut für Polar-und Meeresforschung (AWI) and the French Institut Paul Émile Victor (IPEV).

The scientific research village of Ny-Ålesund, as seen from an airplane.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, VU for IPEV

Italian photographer Paolo Verzone had an opportunity to visit this unusual place a few years ago while on assignment for the French newspaper Le Monde. Fascinated by its history and charmed by its harmonious vibe, Verzone returned twice to photograph life there at various times of the year.

One thing that makes Ny-Ålesund so intriguing, Verzone says, is its past. Historically, the village was a starting point for polar expeditions—including those of legendary explorers Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile. For much of the first part of the 20th century, however, Ny-Ålesund was a coal mining facility. In 1963, after two major accidents, the mine was shut down and the company that owned it, called Kings Bay AS, helped re-purpose the site into the hub of scientific research it is today. (Take our quiz to test your knowledge of polar exploration.)

Today, each research station functions as both lab and living quarters for scientists affiliated with their country’s polar research institute. The scientists who visit hail from a range of disciplines, including physics, glaciology, marine biology, and chemistry. (See what it takes to go on a climate research expedition to Svalbard.)

Teams come and go, as most generally study at Ny-Ålesund during a specific time of year. To manage the revolving door of visitors, each station has a leader who is responsible for overseeing day-to-day logistics and site maintenance as well as the safety of all occupants. The base has just 30 permanent residents, most of whom are support staff. At its peak, the total population is fewer than 200.

One of the primary goals at the base is sustainability. Another is radio silence. That means no cell phones (antennae can disrupt data collection), and the only way to connect to the internet is via cable. Another rule at Ny-Ålesund: children are rarely allowed.

Container ships deliver food several times a year, and there is just one dining hall, where everyone eats together. Forms of transport include snowmobile and dogsled. Also, all visitors must attend a half-day safety briefing on polar bears—the animals are curious and sometimes wander up to the houses. (Read about how the warming Arctic is affecting polar bears.)

A woman takes a break from celebrations of Norway's Independence Day—May 17—at the base.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, VU for IPEV

“Imagine 20 houses in the middle of nowhere, connected to nothing,” says Verzone, who appreciated the lack of distraction from cell phones.

There is some fun to be had at the remote base. On Saturdays, for example, thirsty scientists can relax at the on-site bar. And in the evening after a long day of work, people often gather for an aperitif, a game of cards, or to share stories.

But do they share their findings? Absolutely, says Verzone, who calls the comradery across nations at Ny-Ålesund remarkable. “If the world could work the way it does in this place,” he says, “it would be fantastic.”

French glaciologist Jean Charles Gallet carries his snowpack sampling gear.
Photograph by Paolo Verzone, VU for IPEV

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