Studying in the Arctic


Driving a snow-scooter

A little follow up on my trip to Svalbard, now that I’m back home at Strathclyde with great memories of almost 6 weeks studying in the Arctic – no snow, midnight sun, polar bread, wearing hiking boots outside and socks inside every day anymore… I had a truly great time at the world’s northernmost university – the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) where I attended a course on ‘Light climate and primary productivity in the Arctic’ as part of my PhD. I’m a PhD student in the Marine Optics and Remote Sensing Group at Strathclyde ( My PhD project is about the improvement of optical sensors and methods to measure the oceans’ optical properties. Basically: I work with sensors that (just like the human eye) can tell from the colour of the water, what’s in it – e.g. if it’s green-ish it contains a lot of algae. The course in Svalbard gave me an inside on how light is linked to biological processes, such as photosynthesis and growth, in the ocean.


Macroalgae sampling on Blomstrandoya

The entire course was quite intense (lectures, lab work, reports, revision, exam) but I learnt a lot and met many other students also interested in marine research. The highlight of the course was a week of lab work in Ny-Alesund, a research base at 79 N with research stations from over 6 different nations. We used the facilities (including the free cantina!!) there to conduct our experiments and to collect algae samples.

What is UNIS and how can you go there yourself? UNIS is based in Longyearbyen, the largest town on Svalbard with approx. 2,000 residents. Longyearbyen is located at 78 N where from mid-April to October the sun doesn’t go down, and over winter it completely dark.


Biology students having an Arctic after midnight bath in Ny-Alesund. Water temperature around +2C


The student accommodation in Nybyen just after midnight end of April

UNIS is specialised on Arctic studies and offers courses in Geophysics, Geology, Biology and Technology.

Bachelor courses last an entire semester and you can take 2 at the time whereas Master/PhD courses are taught in blocks of 4 to 6 weeks. All courses include some practical/field work and are open to students enrolled in a degree at any international institution of higher education (check: The atmosphere at UNIS is very friendly and cosy – for


Shooting as part of the safety training

example, everyone takes their boots off when entering a building (uni, hospital etc.) and people run around in socks all day. Norwegians are very good in English and all courses are taught in English as well. Everyone is keen to meet new people, see as much as possible of the island and make the most of their stay there. Svalbard is also famous for its polar bears. This means you have to carry a riffle when you leave the settlement. Training and riffles are provided by the university.


On the flight from Longyearbyen to Ny-Alesund

Money matters… The tuition fees are very low (£50 for my course) and the only other cost is a contribution to excursions, £20 per day.


Inside the ice cave under the glacier

Svalbard is tax free which means it is much cheaper than in the rest of Norway but still more slightly expensive than in the UK. The student accommodation is less than £400 a month and is located in Nybyen the old houses of the miners. 6 of the barrack have been converted into student accommodation. It’s roughly a 30 mins walk down the valley to get to uni but therefore it’s perfect for any hike up the surrounding mountains, deeper into the valley.

Although I didn’t see a polar bear in 6 weeks of living in the Arctic it was an incredible experience and I can highly recommend a visit to Svalbard to everyone.


On top of Sarkofagen

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