Sunniva Sørby reaches me via satellite phone at 6:30 p.m. local time on Svalbard, the group of islands halfway between the tip of northern Norway and the North Pole. For the past 10 months, she and Hilde Fålun Strøm have been doing climate change research and becoming the first women to spend a winter in the remote region without a man. “We’ve just had our little workout,” she tells me, adding that the temperature is a “balmy” 2 C.
The project, called Hearts in the Ice, saw the two women spend the winter in a tiny trapper’s hut, which was built in the 1930s, along with their dog, Ettra. The hut is 140 kilometres from the nearest town and has no electricity or running water. Sørby and Strøm had planned to wrap up the project and return to civilization in May, but, due to the pandemic, they decided to stay on Svalbard until September, when they will re-book a 100-passenger ship to pick them up, along with all their gear and equipment.
Sørby and Strøm are both accomplished athletes, and, not surprisingly, running outdoors has become crucial to their physical and mental health. (They also do yoga and work out with resistance bands in the hut.) “Running has saved us here,” Sørby wrote in an email before our interview. “We have run on the ice several times in -27 C! I write that and can hardly believe that we did it. Routine here has been so key for us.”
Sørby, a veteran of eight marathons including the Montreal Marathon, the Oslo Marathon, the San Diego Marathon and the Catalina Island Marathon, had drifted away from the sport before traveling to Svalbard. She says it was Strøm who inspired her to get back into it. “I just stopped,” Sørby says, adding that she had started having hip and knee problems. Then she and Strøm discovered Hoka running shoes, and her issues cleared up. They have layered up to run on the ice and tundra, even in temperatures that most Canadians would find daunting.
Regarding the decision to stay on Svalbard a few more months, Sørby says, “We spent nine months collecting data on climate change, both of us passionately engaged in this work from working in polar tourism and spending our lives in the outdoors witnessing change. We had to ask ourselves, where would we, as two women leaders at this time, with COVID and climate crisis, are we most relevant and useful?”
Thankfully, the weather is now somewhat warmer for running than it was in February. “We are completely isolated,” says Sørby. “There is nothing around us except reindeer, polar bear, geese, ducks, Arctic fox and seals. We’re surrounded by mountains, ocean and wildlife, and there is very little room for us to train. It’s very rocky and hilly. Were it not for exercise, our routine with rubber bands and running, we would not have been able to keep ourselves sane here for nine months, away from everybody, self-isolating to conduct citizen science work. Living through three months of polar darkness, training is absolutely vital here.”
Sørby was born in Norway and raised in Canada, and has spent much of her life as a guide and historian in Antarctica. In 1992-93 she was a member of the first all-female team to ski the South Pole. In 1999 she was the first Canadian woman to cross Greenland. Sørby lives in Squamish, B.C.
Also born in Norway, Strøm has lived on Svalbard for 23 years. She has led numerous Arctic expeditions and spent time living in trappers’ huts throughout the region. She’s also experienced hundreds of polar bear sightings.