When time seems to rush erratically or plod in slow motion, it’s hard to tell how gone a gone thing is, if remnants of life remain, whether time is linear or time is a loop.
In the chilled landscape of the High Arctic, the initial sense of immutability makes movement seem wrong. I slowed my pace and stood motionless while all around me the ice gleamed ivory-white and snow peaks jagged against the sky. Beauty that far north looks as if it’s been locked-frozen forever, remote and untouchable, a dream I might pretend would never fade that held still for a few cold days, and then shattered.
The archipelago near the top of the globe has long been the seemingly-empty place from which to launch passage to the Pole, a landscape anchored by compass points. To travel to Svalbard is to travel across latitude lines—40, 50, 60—approaching the Arctic Circle. To count miles (700 to the North Pole!) as a way of measuring adventure must have helped me to feel I was headed for some place far away. On a map before I left, I put my thumb on my Maryland home and my pinky on the Pole, just to see what a stretch that is.
But traditional maps are necessarily limited. They aren’t 3D and can’t convey the jolting heights or hidden depths. After a few days of being lulled—and then, to my surprise, too lulled—by the Arctic’s stark beauty, I felt a question begin to nag: What, besides this breathtaking dazzle, is going on here? What could upend the stasis implied by Rebecca Solnit’s phrase stale vision of delight?
One answer is time: learning that what’s below the ice began millions of years ago when a much warmer Svalbard was home to plant-eating, 800-pound pantodonts, and temperate rainforests meant plenty of decay, which piled up and sank down. Over millennia, the climate changed, as it always does, and the buried, carbon-rich biomass dropped even deeper and finally froze hard and harmless and out of sight.
In the town of Pyramiden, a statue of Lenin keeps watch over a mining camp, which, just a few decades after its founding, became a ghost town, abandoned almost overnight when the coal market dried up and a plane full of miners went down. The Soviets halted the whole operation and sent the residents packing. The aftermath must have happened rapidly; within a few weeks the place was almost deserted, and the Arctic cold, unimpeded by coal burners, seeped back into buildings and has, ever since, preserved what remains.
Today you can sit in the musty concert hall and imagine the music, walk past doors that haven’t opened or closed for 20 years, notice a basketball on a deserted gym floor, a tilting mirror in a restroom, a half-full bottle of vodka left in a sink.
In the library I pulled a dusty book off the shelf, turned one parchmentlike page after another, and suddenly there/here they all seemed to be: the author, the librarian, even the miner who might have taken the book back to his room and, in the dim light of an Arctic night, felt his life forever changed. There’s no way of knowing who among them is still alive, who’s dead. No wonder the place feels haunted. When time seems to rush erratically or plod in slow motion, it’s hard to tell how gone a gone thing is, if remnants of life remain, whether time is linear or time is a loop. I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder, be nervous about shadows, the sustained suspense of what might have happened there in the past.
Down the hall a bright banister descends an emptied stairwell and in the community room a chessboard with just a rook and a bishop suggests an unfinished game. The questions I can’t, even months later, get out of my head: Who removed the kings? Couldn’t they have at least finished the match? Who had the next move?
Thirty miles south of the abandoned mining camp, in a small cemetery outside Longyearbyen, the crosses tilt on the humpy ground. If you took your shovel and began to dig there, you’d find the coffins in dirt so cold it preserves whatever it encases. If you opened one you’d likely find a partially frozen, mostly undecomposed body that looks as if it could sit up, climb out of the hole, and roam the village streets on Zombie night.
If you kept digging, your shovel would eventually clang against something hard and unchinkable—millions of acres of the buried, ice-cold remnants of a temperate forest that flourished here 55 million years ago: permafrost that’s been down there all along, under all the snow and ice and emptied buildings, beneath much of that remote and once-untouchable Arctic. It harbors traces of the Spanish flu, anthrax, viruses that killed long-extinct animals and might, in the increasing warmth and light, revive.
And here’s this hard, cold fact: as the climate crisis heats the Arctic, permafrost melts, unsettling more than gravestones and buildings. It destabilizes, disturbs.
Some glaciers in Svalbard are now retreating almost a thousand feet a year. This is no subtle shrinkage but the dramatic, calved-off, melting away of ancient movers of landscape, colossal scrapers of valleys. As they back away into the high peaks, they leave behind river deltas, melted puddles in the valleys, our footprints visible in the mud.
On the ridges above Longyearbyen, snow melts earlier and earlier. On one ridge, a windswept bank of snow hangs out over the edge of a cliff like a porcelain cornice. It looms, almost dangles, a remnant of what had once covered the cliff and whole plateau. An ominous sign. A few more warm days, and the whole half-frozen wedge will slide down the cliff and into the village. In 2015, such an avalanche killed a man and a girl on a quiet road near the center of town.
On a nearby shore, a shack is keeling over, one corner still raised but fatally tilted. It won’t be long now. A window all askew opens like a dark eye into the shattered interior. The beach around it is littered with stone. There must have been water there once, maybe snow.
So much of what a map can’t show taints the pristine and frozen sense of remote, which implies untouched. To the language of direction—north, more north, and then up—it adds the language of time: appear, disappear, hover between, become something else. It summons the facts of hunting frenzies and seal slaughters, the intrepid trapper who stayed too long, miners who packed small bags and hurried to the rickety pier where the departing ships were waiting.
History upends static beauty and begins to haunt it. It happens almost every time.
Which is why I find that chessboard in the abandoned mining camp so creepy: two random pieces left on a board, the game unfinished. A test of nerves, I imagine, while an audience watched and the timer ticked until nobody could stick it out to the end. A standoff now while ancient carbon bubbles up into the present and the hourglass runs down.
Perhaps one day survivors from the future will look back to consider some final game we played. Though they might wonder who or what is responsible for all the devastation, it won’t matter by then what happened to key players, whose move it was, or what triggered our abandonment.
Once the Arctic in your mind has been infused with time, its colors fade—no longer unblemished white but tones of gray, a little silver, wispy fog, slate-blue water—and static icons seem false. Polar bears are skinnier now; they pace the vanishing ice floes. Fjords, no longer glacier-filled or dogsled-passable, slosh, emptied of ice. Melting permafrost releases methane and carbon.
Underneath that slumping cornice of snow, a mile or so up-valley from those titling crosses of Longyearbyen, my boots slurped in the mud of a river delta that had once been buried by a glacier. They say that in remote lands what we need most is the footprint that won’t fade, meaning the path that doesn’t disappear. With a clear way ahead, the thinking goes, we’re less likely to travel aimlessly in circles.
But here and now the opposite might be truer. Our footprints are dangerously more apparent, but that’s not making the way forward any clearer. And it means that this day today is not the only day appropriately sullied now by history. Tomorrow is, too. Unsettled by what’s been locked underground and has begun to hiss to the surface, we learn what it is to feel haunted by the future.
Barbara Hurd is the author of five collections of essays and the recipient of a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Michael O. Snyder is a photographer, filmmaker, and environmental scientist who uses his combined knowledge of visual storytelling and conservation to create narratives that connect people to the other-than-human-world and drive social change. As founder of Interdependent Pictures, he has directed films in the Arctic, the Amazon, the Himalaya, and East Africa. He currently resides in Charlottesville, Virginia with his wife and son.
Header and all inset photos by Michael O. Snyder. Photo of Barbara Hurd by Adam Wilson.