Czech anthropologist in Svalbard: “It will be quite painful to leave”

Zdenka Sokolíčková, photo: Hilde Kristin Røsvik

For nearly two years, Czech anthropologist Zdenka Sokolíčková has lived in Svalbard with her husband and three children, studying how local people perceive the effects of climate change. What was it like adapting to life high up in the Arctic? And what are the outcomes of her research? These are just some of the questions I discussed with Zdenka Sokolíčková on the phone to Longyearbyen. I started by asking her about her decision to move to Svalbard.

“First of all there was my husband, who is a polar ecologist and studied in Svalbard some 11 years ago. He always told us stories about the place, how it grew close his heart, and I was intrigued by that.

“Then in 2015, I got to know the Norwegian social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who is now the mentor of my project, and he was by then running a big project called Overheating.

“It involved a team of people who were studying in different places of the planet how globalisation changes local communities. He has always also been interested in environmental issues and especially the issue of climate change.

“I am not looking exclusively at what scientific data say. I want to hear how people perceive and interpret what they see around them is changing.”

“I felt it was an intriguing perspective to look at processes that are happening in a parallel way. I was also focused on the speed or the acceleration of changes that are happening on a different level, be it the environment, the economy, or the society. So then it all fell into place in a way.

“We were living in Prague by then with three small children and we were kind of fed up with life in a big city, so we agreed with my husband that it would be interesting to try to study the processes of globalisation and climate change in Svalbard. It took some time to raise money for the research project but eventually we managed to move up here in February 2019.”

So are the effects of climate change more apparent in Svalbard then in the rest of the world?

"I guess you can say that Svalbard belongs to the places on the planet that are warming up faster, that’s what scientific data says quite clearly.

Longyearbyen,  photo: archive of Zdenka Sokolíčková

“I work as a social anthropologist so I am not looking exclusively at what scientific data say. I want to hear how people perceive and interpret what they see around them is changing. The tricky thing with Longyearbyen is that the population here is very transient. There are many people here that come and go all the time.

“But for my research it is very important to talk to people that have been living here for several decades, because climate change is something that is usually being measured on a scale of 30 years and then you can go further.

“Another thing to bear in mind is that there are natural cycles of the climate. That’s also why there are such rich deposits of high quality black coal in Svalbard, because 60 million years ago there were really high trees growing up here and it was really much warmer than it is today.

“But the interesting and perhaps a bit worrisome thing about climate change that we are witnessing these days is how fast it is going. People who grew up here and are now mature adults keep telling me stories about how when they were having breaks at school they would just hop on their snow mobile and drive up the glacier, which you can hardly see from the town nowadays. That means that the glacier has retreated a lot.

“So there is warmer weather, it rains much more, there is less sea ice, and that has to do with many issues, but 97 percent of scientists agree that the anthropogenic reasons for today’s climate change are significant.”

Tell us more about the town of Longyearbyen. I know it has been a traditional mining town but with the mines gradually closing, it has become quite a popular tourist destination... Who are the people who come there and what attracts them to this cold and seemingly unwelcoming place?

“We are not going to move back to Prague. I don’t think I could survive in a big city after spending two years in Longyearbyen.”

“It’s really only seemingly unwelcoming. If those who are listening to use imagine a hostile place where I have dragged my family, I must say that we live quite a comfortable life.

“It’s just an ordinary town very high up north. The kingdom of Norway invests a lot of money in keeping the town running on quite a comfortable level.

“This used to be a company town, but in 2002 a sort of a local democracy was introduced, so the regime of a company town where everybody who was living here was in one way or another linked to the mining company is over.

“This means that the local economy is more diversified and as you point out, tourism is one of the economic backbones. There is also quite a large community of scientists and researchers and a growing population of students.

“That also means that the predominantly Norwegian settlement became very international and very multicultural. So there are just about 2,300 inhabitants at the moment but we have over 50 nationalities here.

“When it comes to tourists, before the pandemic hit it was very much a mixture of people from all around the world, but you have different seasons here and those seasons attract different target groups.

Longyearbyen,  photo: archive of Zdenka Sokolíčková

“So for example the famous so-called sunny winter from March to May when it’s still very cold, but it is sunny. Right now we have polar nights so it is pitch black dark 24/7, but the Sun comes back by the end of February, beginning of March. And if you have a lot of snow, it’s a lot of fun driving a snow mobile here. That’s something that is really attractive for Scandinavians.

“In the summer you will have more people travelling by cruise and then you will have the slow dark season, which seems to be a very interesting period for the Asian market.”

As you said, you have been interviewing local people to find out how they perceive the changing environment, as well as the economic and social transitions. How do you actually choose the people you talk to?

“When I came here I knew what the population looked like in terms of numbers. So for example about six percent of the population that is predominantly Norwegian are people who have been living here for more than 20 years.

“If I want to document how people see and interpret change it was important to me to get in touch with those. Because they have witnessed those changes by themselves. They have lived through them. So I had to invest quite a lot of time and energy to learn Norwegian properly.

“I tried to get in touch with people that would represent the different segments in the population. I began to get to know people reading the local newspaper, following Facebook, going to meetings. That’s the job of an ethnographer, trying to be everywhere.

Zdenka Sokolíčková,  photo: archive of Zdenka Sokolíčková

“When I became fluent in Norwegian I could finally get closer to the segment that I call veterans. Those are predominantly people that used to work for the mining company but recently we have also had the second and third generation of people who came originally for jobs available thanks to tourism.

“In fact just two days ago, the Norwegian government announced that the last operating Norwegian mine will be closed within two to five years, which is quite a short time horizon. So this took some people, especially the workers, by surprise and I think the town is going to witness another abrupt change.”

So what is the attitude of the miners toward the climate change? There are many deniers of global climate change in our part of Europe. What about Svalbard, where the impact of climate change is more visible?

“When I was preparing the project and when I was moving up here, I was expecting, perhaps naively, that all the people that live in Svalbard are environmentally engaged, because they are informed and because the impacts of climate change are so visible.

“But actually, it is quite logical that for the people, whose lives have been so closely linked to the mining of fossil fuels, it is really difficult to admit that they have been involved in an industry that is actually one of the causes of the problems that we are facing today.

“As an ethnographer, I also feel a moral obligation to try to understand the perspective of these people. And I think that if you dig deeper, you can see that they are not people who are completely ignorant or who don’t care about the natural environment.

“Many of them really love this place but at the same time it is also very natural that they are worried about their own existence, about their being able to sustain their families, and that’s why they are struggling with seeing the industry disappearing.

Longyearbyen,  photo: archive of Zdenka Sokolíčková

“And I think this is also something relevant for our country in a sense that we need to talk to the people who will be impacted. You have to take into account their fears and their worries. You need to make them feel they are part of the new and greener solution. I don’t see much of that neither here nor in the Czech Republic.”

As you said you only have about a few weeks left of your two-year research stay in Svalbard. What was your life like there? Was it difficult for you and your family to adapt?

“First of all, the fieldwork is over in a few weeks, but I got a smaller follow-up research project. I will be doing a few more months of field work researching on the second and third generation of people that immigrated to Svalbard from other countries then Norway. So it will be a slow good-bye.

“But we are already talking a lot about it with the children, because they need to get ready. Recently they have started saying that they don’t want to move away from here, because they got used to it and they have friends here. So it will be tough.

“It was very difficult for them to come up here, I think, both because of the climate and because of a different language and culture. It was quite a hard cookie especially for the two older ones, because the youngest one was just eleven months when we came.

“But I think for the kids it’s important to see what their parents are doing and we talked about why we moved up here. I don’t want to be too idealistic, but I think the experience in general very was enriching for all of us and for each of us individually in a different way. The fact that we have learned a new language and we have made many new friendships.

“So I don’t regret it at all that we moved up here. It will be quite painful to leave, because both I and my husband are afraid whether we will all have the same amount of time to spend together. Life is so simple here. Everything is within walking distance. You don’t have to bother your mind with choosing.

“There is one store, one school, one swimming pool, and it actually is very nice compared to the overwhelming world of opportunities and choices in big cities. So we are not going to move back to Prague. I don’t think I could survive in a big city after spending two years in Longyearbyen.”