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Arctic Circle

Lessons from Living Alone in Arctic Isolation

By Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Fålun Strøm, CEOs (Climate Engagement Officers) and co-founders of Hearts in the Ice

Arctic Circle Journal, Sunniva Sorby, Hilde Fålun Strøm

We share here our voices as Polar Ambassadors and citizen scientists. We created Hearts in the Ice in 2018 as a platform for inspiring social engagement and action, connecting students, scientists, manufacturers, environmental organizations, and all who care about the health of our planet, in the conversation around climate change.

If our collective purpose here in our world is to preserve, protect and save our ocean, the biodiversity of our species, our ice and natural spaces, and each other - it begs the question “What role do we have in all of this? How can we be part of the solution?” We asked that question years ago.

Having each spent close to 25 years working in the polar regions, we have been immersed in the impact of polar education to create Ambassadors, and the utter magic these icy and wildlife rich places exude. The Arctic and Antarctic are two of the greatest treasures of our planet. The science, the stories, the history, the truths and the local knowledge that exists to be told.

An answer offered in response to how to be relevant takes us to the fall of 2019 when we left the usual comfort of our lives. We cut all ties to conveniences like shopping, restaurants, electricity, a car, fitness centres, Netflix, the internet, running water and a hot bath - just to live a most simple, purposeful existence. All of this in a remote uninsulated trappers cabin built in 1930 for Beluga hunting called “Bamsebu” (Little bear hut), with no running water, no electricity and 140km from the closest town of Longyearbyen.

As a scientist from NASA shared - we were closer to the lowest band of Aurora than we were to town.

We were alone in quiet, peaceful, self-imposed isolation before the world started spinning off its axis with the pandemic.

It was just the two of us and our beloved dog, a two-year-old Malamute Ettra, for a total of 19 months.

Our base was situated in Bellsund in the VanKeulenfjorden, Svalbard, 78° north. As seasoned adventurers we planned meticulously, worked double time for over a year before we left and when we did leave, we left family, friends, and our full time jobs - all to bear witness to a rapidly changing Arctic with a plan that had 5 main goals.

1. To live with a zero carbon footprint using solar and wind for power.

2. To utilize our connections to scientists around the world and collect observations and data for them as ‘citizen scientists’.

3. To use the power of storytelling to create mobilizing narratives using our writing, images, videos and observations to collect and inform the world about phytoplankton, changes in the ice and weather, the aurora, wildlife sightings/adaptations, regular infrared drone imagery, collecting marine debris and plastic, drilling for ice core samples, collecting salt water samples and kelp, making cloud observations, aurora time-lapse and photographing a spectacular NASA rocket launch.

4. To connect students around the world to experts studying various angles of climate change using an interactive educational video platform while we were on satellite.

5. To have the adventure of a lifetime while working hard to protect what we love.

Our project was initially 9 months; September 2019 - May 2020. This changed when Covid-19 became a household name. With our May 2020 ship pickup cancelled we returned to Longyearbyen after an eight-hour snowmobile ride - Ettra, both running beside the snowmobiles and sitting in her crate atop one of our sleds. After resupplying food and equipment we decided to return back to Bamsebu for another 10 months. We returned back to our former lives forever changed in May 2021.

More than ever the importance of connecting with youth and continuing with data collection seemed necessary with little to no field work being conducted from the scientists due to restricted travel.

At the end of our 19 months we fulfilled all five goals and managed to connect with over 100,000 youth from around the world and amassed a community of people who joined our movement to elevate awareness around climate change. We were fortunate to have notable experts like Kim Holmen, Jon Aars, Wade Davis, David Suzuki and Dr. Jane Goodall.

So, what did we learn?

We learned that every single one of our science projects were connected to a truth that is impossible to ignore. Human induced climate change is real and is not a spectator sport.

We learned what a simple, peaceful and purposeful existence is like.

We learned how to be a master space saver, how to trust ourselves and each other, how to solve every single problem either alone or together, how strong we felt without TV or media influence. We learned how important daily gratitude is and that ordinary miracles are everywhere.

We learned to listen, to observe and to have original thoughts & ideas.

We were reminded every day of the need to get outside to feel the brush of cold wind on our cheeks to feel alive and connected, we learned how little we really need and that we can indeed live without a shower for 9 months and still be friends.

We learned how powerful we are when we live in alignment with our values and what we burn for.

Arctic Circle, Hearts in the Ice, Polar Bear and its cub

We live on the most amazing planet - full of diversity and Mother Nature is boss.

There is darkness and suffering right now, some we see and most we cannot see, but it is real. We are reminded of a quote by Plato: “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle”. And right now everyone is fighting a great battle, unique to place, yet not separate.

If we all cannot agree on something as basic as a verified fact that the Arctic is warming three times faster than anywhere else in the world and the impact that is having on the entire ecosystem then our hands will be tied when it comes to the big stuff and climate change globally is huge, it is the big stuff.

Changes in the last few years cannot be explained without taking into account human impact. We believe we need civic engagement to understand climate change and citizen or community science is one way to accomplish that.

It's a reality to say that the indigenous people are the least responsible for the changes in our climate. Their work is often underestimated. Youth are our creative voice and there are too few communication channels with decision makers that are used. We need indigenous knowledge to make sure science and local data feeds the research.

Right now everyone is fighting a great battle, unique to place, yet not separate

So what can we do?

  1. Look at what you value and stay grounded in those values.
  2. Protect what you love - stand up for what you believe in – hold local leadership accountable.
  3. Lead by example - listen first, speak last.
  4. Respect diversity - strive for better equity everywhere.

Lastly -- shift your mindset and acknowledge that climate change is a threat that requires all hands on deck right now. When we see the Earth as a living being with living beings on it which it is, we become caretakers of it, not consumers.

Hearts in the Ice is one symbol of the power of community, collaboration and leadership with a heart to inspire active engagement and education around something that could otherwise dive us into deep depression and paralysis – climate despair is a real thing.

We call out a few women-led organizations out there tirelessly working to protect the Arctic: Inge Relph and Sally Ranney from Global and Maria Pia Casarini from Polar Educators International.

Losing hope is not an option.

Introducing the new CEO - mindset

We all need to be climate heroes or CEO's - Climate Engagement Officers. Leadership across all arms is what we need right now. The type of compassionate leadership as evidenced by many women leading and paving the way forward. Where there's love there will always be hope.

It was John F. Kennedy - who said: “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction”.

The Arctic is not one thing - the Arctic is many things to many people. It is a reality to say that what happens in one local community affects all of us everywhere. We are a global community and our purpose must be to regard all life as equal.

Explorer Mindset

A real explorer is someone who does not undertake journeys with endurance records in mind. “Someone who has no interest in being the first to do anything; whose ambitions had nothing to do with self. Rather, their main reason was not an object or a place, but a state of mind, a depth of understanding that would allow her to reveal to the world the wonder of life and lessons learned from the observations” we draw this from Wade Davis.

So, what does real exploration look like? It looks like Knut Rasmussen, son of a Danish missionary and a mother of Inuit blood who was an explorer and writer – the first European to cross the Northwest Passage via dogsled. Rasmussen shared his story of people who had found a way to survive in such a land – his ambitions were not an object or place, but a state of mind at a depth of understanding that would allow him to reveal the wonders of the Inuit life.

It is this sort of wonder and curiosity that all of us should seek to possess and live with.

It was this wonder and curiosity that was at the root of our project in Svalbard and it is this that fuelled our next phase.

And to the question what does it mean to be human and to be alive today? We borrow words from Shelly Elverum from Pond Inlet “Indigenous knowledge and science and technology can be used like a zipper to hold two different ways of knowing together and ultimately produce something that is stronger than two unequal parts”.

We are working on a community based and led project in the Canadian Arctic late 2022-2023 and welcome researchers, educators and community leaders around Cambridge Bay/Grise Fjord to connect with us as soon as possible.

We want to listen and learn from those living with and on the land in the Arctic. Since climate change is not taking a break, neither are we.

No. 2/2022, 10 February 2022

This article is a part of the Arctic Circle Journal Series which provides insight, understanding and new information. The material represents the opinions of the author but not those of Arctic Circle.

Sunniva Sorby

Explorer, storyteller, and co-founder of Hearts in the Ice

In May 2020 Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Falun Strom made history as the first women to overwinter solo in the Arctic. They created the global platform "Hearts in the Ice" in 2018 for dialogue, engagement, education and inspiration around the issues of climate change and the role each person can play. She became the first Canadian woman to complete the Greenland crossing and the first Canadian woman to ski the South Pole. Sunniva was the head of Global Sales for Polar Latitudes (PL) for four years prior to creating "Hearts in the Ice". She was a frequent guest on board the ships and served the role of Zodiac Driver and Historian by sharing her knowledge of Polar History and the rich stories from early exploration. Sunniva is a Senior Polar Tourism Guide, Polar Ambassador, Fellow- RCGS (Royal Canadian Geographical Society), Member of Explorers Club and Chair of BC/Yukon Explorers Club, Member of SWG (Society of Women Geographers) and Fellow and Flag Carrier for Wings World Quest.

Hilde Fålun Strøm

Explorer, Storyteller, and co-founder of Hearts in the Ice

Project co-founder and CEO Hearts in the Ice, Polar Ambassador and Citizen Scientist. Hilde Fålun Strøm was born in Norway and has travelled around the world with an extensive education in tourism as her backdrop. Her mission has been to engage others on how to protect these vulnerable areas. Hilde and Sunniva met in 2016 and created Hearts in the Ice, a platform for positive dialogue and social engagement around climate change. They made history as the first women to overwinter solo in a remote 1930's trappers cabin called Bamsebu, an uninsulated 20 m2 hut without running water or electricity. It became an extreme expedition and also a decade-long dream coming true for Hilde. During the trip they collected important data for seven science institutions like NASA and the Norwegian Polar Institute. Hilde is a member of the Explorers Club, a certified Svalbard Guide, an Expedition leader on ships and on land. She served as a Meteorological Obsever at Jan Mayen and at Bear Island, and she has spent more than three full years in total in Trapper's hut in the High Arctic. She has had more than 300 polar bear encounters.