Mining began on Svalbard in the 1920s. But it has declined as cleaner, less climatically harmful energy sources have gained ground. Canada wanted to interview miners about the looming end to their way of life.
“I got to do this really impactful interview with a miner named Vince,” Canada says. His father and brothers were miners, too. Tragically, one of the brothers was killed when a beam crashed down on him.
From her interviews, Canada learned that “journalistically, you can’t approach something from a black-and-white perspective. And there are some underrepresented voices. We don’t often hear from people like Vince.”
Next, we flew to Ny-Älesund, where scientists from 10 nations conduct research. The town comprises a few dozen buildings huddled by the fjord. Polar bears roam this area, so doors leading into the buildings are left unlocked—allowing you to dash to safety should a bear ramble by.
During a trip to a glacier with Chinese scientists, Pilnick felt confident his hosts would protect him. But when they climbed out of their boats, the leader said in broken English, “We forgot the polar bear gun.” He asked Pilnick whether he wanted to turn back. The answer was a definitive “no.” So they spent six hours trudging up and down the glacier, carefully avoiding crevasses while recovering data from GPS units used to monitor ice movement.
“No polar bears were spotted, unfortunately,” Pilnick says.
Or, perhaps, fortunately.
No polar bears were spotted the entire trip. But on the boat ride to the Kongsbreen glacier, we did spot reindeer browsing on tasty greens along the shore, and thousands of birds roosting on cliffs.
As we bobbed on the swells near Kongsbreen, Holmén stood confidently near our boat’s bow, a tall, imposing man with a salt-and-pepper beard flowing down to his chest. Atop his head was a pink and purple woolen cap.
“It was kind of like not real life—him balancing there in the boat with his big beard and weird hat, in command of the tides,” Canada says.
At one point, a slab of glacial ice splashed into the fjord, and climate change came up again. “He didn’t think we should make a big deal about one isolated event like that,” Canada recalls. “It shows that scientists have to be balanced, and they can’t always jump to a conclusion.”
We came away thinking this was good advice for journalists, too.
“This trip helped me appreciate nuance, and how to better inform my own writing,” Leytham-Powell says. It also helped crystallize her future: “I do want to write, I do want to use these energies in a way that can help solve these issues.”
Cay Leytham-Powell got her wish after graduating in spring 2017: She landed a full-time job as a content creator for CU Boulder’s College of Arts and Sciences. Kat Canada was hired by The Denver Post, where she is doing editing and design. And Alex Pilnick launched a freelance videography business. He’s using video he shot in Svalbard to demonstrate his technical skills to prospective clients.
The Center for Environmental Journalism, founded in 1997, is celebrating 25 years, as well as the 20th anniversary of the renowned Ted Scripps Environmental Journalism Fellowship.