When we visited UNIS – the world’s most northerly university, located in a contemporary architectural building on the outskirts of Longyearbyen that also houses The Norwegian Polar Institute, the Svalbard Museum and Svalbard Science Forum – we were expecting to meet a few dry research types. We definitely weren’t expecting to meet Heidi Sevestre, a bubbly French PhD candidate whose infectious optimism and obvious passion for her research work dispels any notion of the introspective and overly intellectual scientist.
Sevestre caught the arctic bug during a six-month undergraduate exchange program in 2008, which ignited her love for the Arctic archipelago and its glaciers. “I came for one semester and couldn’t get myself to leave – it broke my heart,” she says. “I just wanted to get as far away as I could, and live something extreme and different.”
Following a masters program in the UK, she finally returned to Longyearbyen in 2011 to complete her PhD on a phenomenon known as surging glaciers, where glaciers move up to 15 metres each day, rather than a few metres a year. And, with over 60% of the landmass comprised of glaciers, Svalbard is a glaciologist’s paradise. “We’re right in the heart of a cluster of these funky surging glaciers,” says Sevestre. “This is literally the best place in the world to study them.”
It’s also a dream for fieldwork, and UNIS boasts a huge equipment area where teams of students and professors have access to a treasure trove of field equipment – from arctic tents, snowmobiles, and zodiac boats to ice drills and cutting edge research technologies. Typical field expeditions involve snowmobiles, helicopters, setting up camp on a glacier for up to two weeks to conduct tests, and, of course, the occasional polar bear encounter. It was enough to make at least one of the Norwegian team fleetingly consider abandoning journalism for a career in glaciology.
As with most things in Svalbard, the fieldwork season follows the light. “During the light season we do the fieldwork and it’s literally non-stop until the dark season,” says Sevestre. “Then, when the dark comes, finally we can breathe and relax. Even nature relaxes.”
So, is Sevestre destined to become one of Svalbard's long-term residents? She certainly hopes so, and is already planning a post-doctorate to continue her work at UNIS. "Every time I go back to the mainland, it feels very aggressive," she says. "Svalbard is a bubble of peace and friendliness – it's like a big family. Especially at UNIS, we really take care of each other."