International Research Grant: Noah Thompson, Svalbard

Each year, the Dean’s International Research Grant program awards $2,500 to up to 10 students to fund independent travel that informs their research and provides an experience related to their creative or intellectual trajectory. Noah Thompson, a student in the Department of Communication Arts, received a grant to travel to Svalbard, a group of islands about 600 miles north of Norway, where he explored how to use his artistic practice to engage in climate activism.

When we talk about the arctic, we often talk about it in the context of its needing to be saved. We discuss it like it is a delicate, fragile zone that could disintegrate at the slightest human touch. In the media, we see pictures of fuzzy baby polar bears alone on ice floes, and hear slogans like “the arctic is burning.” The arctic seems to be a precious, breakable object, placed at the edge of the shelf, ever-endangered by even the slightest move of an absentminded passerby.

In July, I traveled to Svalbard with this notion of this fragility in my head. The reality on the ground was shockingly different.

The arctic is a hard, harsh place. As my father so eloquently says, it is, “nature that can freaking kill you.”

Everything on Svalbard seems to imply that blunt, yet true, phrase: rifles carried openly in town as protection against polar bears; sled dogs in pens with darting eyes that duck and growl whenever you lower your hand towards them; rows of abandoned houses on the jagged mountainside, condemned due to the threat of deadly avalanches. Nowhere did I see the delicate arctic that I had become familiar with prior to my trip.

This brutality was most obvious at Poolepynten, the walrus colony that I had come to Svalbard to study and paint. I had originally planned to spend three days camped out at the colony with my local guide, Marielle, creating work that would be used to educate about the walrus’s recovery. I had hoped that this work would encourage other communities to engage in initiatives similar to the ones the community in Svalbard has taken to bring the walrus back from near eradication.

I made it to the colony, and did spend three days there. But unfortunately, I produced no paintings.

For three days, Marielle and I sat huddled under a tarp, waiting out a low rain that refused to let up, and that soaked everything I brought with me. My sketchbook turned to mush. My passport warped into a shape that elicited a smile and the response “this has seen some things” from a Norwegian customs agent on my way home.

At points, rain turned to snow, and we shivered under the tarp. On our second day, we discovered polar bear tracks near our campsite. At night, the 24-hour sunlight plagued us with vivid nightmares that resulted in sleep deprivation.

In hindsight, it was pretty damn epic, but during the trip I was miserable. I remember thinking to myself that I was in a cold, wet, walrus-scented hell. Silently, I shivered next to Marielle, counting down the hours until the return of the zodiac that had dropped us off, when I could be warm again.

On the third day, only a few hours before we were picked up, the rain finally broke and the sun came out, warming our little camp to a balmy 40 degrees. Marielle and I shared a celebratory smoked reindeer heart in the warmth as we waited to be picked up. I sketched quickly, trying to get down what images I could.

At no point during those three days did I witness the gentle, fragile arctic that I had been told about.

If the conditions weren’t hostile enough, I had plenty of time to watch the ‘fragile’ walrus go about their business as Marielle and I huddled together for warmth. These creatures, that I had assumed prior to my trip would be beautiful, noble beasts, were simply brutal. They fought constantly, oftentimes over things as inconsequential as where they wanted to lay to sleep. Always the fights were the same: a roar would sound and then two or more walrus would rear up from where they slept, swinging at each other with their tusks until one animal limped away, blood streaming from stab wounds on his chest.

It seemed at all times that at least one walrus was bleeding from a fight. At one point, I watched a walrus sleep on his back, blood oozing out of his mouth to mix with snot from his nostrils, this gelatinous mix dripping down over the rest of his wrinkled face.

To add indecency to violence, walrus also are incredibly frequent masturbators, pleasuring themselves constantly as they lay clustered on top of their sleeping and fighting brethren. At some points masturbating and fighting coincided—true chaos.

For three days I sat still in the in the coldest, wettest rain of my life, sleep deprived and fearing a polar bear attack, watching huge stinking animals stab each other and masturbate. At no point did I ever think to myself that I was in a delicate place. The truth of the arctic that I witnessed was irreconcilable with the arctic that I had been told about my whole life prior to my journey north: the fragile snow-globe falling dramatically towards the ground.

It might seem counterintuitive, but after some reflection, I feel invigorated by this beauty. This harshness is, if anything, an even greater argument for activism and service towards this region.

The arctic is harsh, it’s brutal, it’s all the hellish things I experienced and saw on my trip. And still, despite all of that, we are somehow destroying it. Humanity’s negative effects on the planet are so powerful, so dangerous, that they are having serious, deadly impacts on one of the toughest environments on earth.

To the east of Svalbard, in Russia, walrus are trampling each other to death on beaches that have become overcrowded due to a lack of sea ice to haul out on.

In Svalbard, permafrost is melting so fast that mudslides and, in the winter, avalanches threaten to wipe out the main town of Longyearbyen. Just last year, a little girl died in a massive avalanche there. A man I talked to in town described seeing the girl’s mother frantically digging through the wreckage of their house with a frying pan, searching for her daughter. No one has ever seen avalanches at this severity or frequency in Svalbard before. It’s shocking to think that climate change is powerful enough to do this to a place like Svalbard, powerful enough to bring this crazy place to its knees.

It’s shocking and yet, at the same time, the inability of the brutal arctic to stand up to the monster that is human-caused climate change is one of the most powerful rallying cries I’ve heard. It’s proof that something really does need to change, that our survival, that the survival of our planet, is at stake. It’s proof that something needs to be done.

While I was on Svalbard, I had the opportunity to learn more about how I could engage in climate activism with my art. The quiet harshness of arctic locales and the kind of destruction that climate change is wreaking can’t be grasped by simply reading words or hearing a story. Visuals, like the ones created by the artists I spoke to on Svalbard, are crucial for understanding the reality of the situation in the arctic and moving the public to action.

Moving forward from my trip, I strive to create these kinds of visuals. I am currently working on a graphic novel based on the information I gathered in Svalbard. I’ve been privileged to experience the harshness of the arctic firsthand, and the horrors climate change is wreaking on it. I look forward to sharing that unique and powerful experience with others in service of this beautifully brutal region.