Study at UNIS in the Arctic

From August 2018 to December 2018, I studied at UNIS, the University Centre in Svalbard, where I went on an exchange to do a minor in Polar Meteorology, Climatology and Oceanography. This is the first out of two blogs where I share my experiences from my time in Longyearbyen. As I mentioned in the previous blog, going to the Arctic was an absolute dream coming true. My time on Svalbard was everything I expected and more. Read about why I went to Svalbard and the process of getting there here.

On the 10th of August, 2018, the adventure finally started: I arrived on Svalbard. My flight departed from Oslo, were the sun had set before departing. It was surreal to flight into daylight while I remained in the same time zone (Central European Time). I arrived in the night (1:30), but since the midnight-sun season was still going on, it was light outside. After driving home from the airport by bus, unpacking and getting ready for bed, it was almost 4:00, and still: completely light outside. While my body felt exhausted from travelling and the fact that it was deep into the night, the light started messing with me a little directly.

Exploring Longyearbyen

The 2 days after arrival, a fellow Soil-Water-Atmosphere-student from Wageningen that went on the same exchange and me, used our time to explore Longyearbyen. Longyearbyen is the capital of Svalbard with a whopping 2,300 inhabitants. We visited the town centre – which is basically one street where almost all stores restaurants and bars are located -, the one and only grocery store, the coal mine ruin and the outer edges of town where you are allowed to go without a polar bear guard.

City Center Longyearbyen, Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Study at UNIS in Svalbard
The main street of Longyearbyen
One of the outer edges of Longyearbyen Behind this sign you need a guide or carry a weapon yourself Some people claim this is the most photographed sign in the world Photocredits Anna Sartell

Starting the studies – study at UNIS

The start of studying at UNIS in Svalbard (in a lot of other languages also known as Spitsbergen) is quite a bit different from most other universities. The first days of university consist out of safety training, which includes a general first aid course as well as a small course on how to act in case of imminent frostbite. We also learned how to handle GPS-devices and satellite phones. We got taught how to build a proper camp, we got to swim in cold water survival suits in the freezing cold Isfjorden and, for most people the highlights of the safety course: we got polar bear safety training. Here we learned how to act when a polar bear is near and all the things you must do to prevent a direct confrontation with a polar bear. We also got shooting lessons to be able to defend ourselves in a worst case scenario – for if all the steps of prevention would not be enough.

Scientific cruise

In Svalbard, I took the courses Polar Meteorology and Climate and Polar Ocean Climate. For the latter course, we went on a scientific cruise, starting on the 23rd of August. During this cruise, we did measurements in the seawater in different seas and fjords around Svalbard. We went all the way to the the south cape of Svalbard and from there towards Storfjorden, east of Svalbard. The students on board worked in day- and nightshifts, to operate the devices and gather data. Besides a very valuable research experience, it was incredible to see more of the Arctic nature from the boat. We saw puffins, but also several groups of whales and dolphins. During the cruise, the sun set for the first time, treating us with a one hour sunset, directly followed by a sunrise.

  • Study at UNIS in Svalbard - Scientific Cruise
  • Study at UNIS in Svalbard - Scientific Cruise
  • Study at UNIS in Svalbard - Scientific Cruise
  • Study at UNIS in Svalbard - Scientific Cruise
  • Study at UNIS in Svalbard - Scientific Cruise
  • Study at UNIS in Svalbard - Scientific Cruise
  • Study at UNIS in the Arctic

Hikes and trips around Longyearbyen

After the cruise, the ‘normal’ study schedule returned. We used the time during the weekends to see as much of the environment as possible. We went on hikes with house- and studymates and on these hikes we crossed mountain ridges, plateaus, glaciers and rivers. Also, we went out in the one and only night club in Svalbard: Huset. Below you can see some of the beautiful places we have seen.


On the 12th of September, my dad and his partner arrived to visit me for a week. The day after, we went to Pyramiden, a Russian ghost town, by boat. The desolated coal mining settlement once used to be a small but thriving society with over 1.000 inhabitants. The town had a school, a theather, a library, a sports complex and even a swimming pool. In 1998, Pyramiden was closed and all the inhabitants left the place. Nowadays, Pyramiden is a touristic attraction, with just 6 permanent inhabitants in the summer season. With the buildings still mostly intact and a few Arctic Foxes roaming around the town, the atmosphere in the town was very weird. The place gives a taste of (old) Russian culture.

Boat tour pyramiden - study in Svalbard - Isfjorden
One of the beautiful views on the boat tour to Pyramiden
Pyramiden - Nordenskiöld glacier - nordenskiöldbreen - study in Svalbard
Photo made in Pyramiden with the impressive Nordenskiöld glacier in the background

The days after Pyramiden, I took my visitors on some hikes around Longyearbyen and we went on a quad tour. During these days, the first snow fell at sea level height, which means the first white world of this fall! The day after the snowfall – when we went quad-driving – was arguably even more beautiful, when the crystal clear blue skies created a beautiful contrast with the still partly snow covered mountains.

Study at UNIS - UNIS in the snow!
The first time the snow stayed on the ground until sea level On the left you can see the UNIS building
Reindeer grazing Svalbard - Svalbard Reindeer - Study at UNIS in Svalbard
Svalbard reindeer grazing in the snow Photocredits PP van den Broek
Quad tour Svalbard - Snow - Study at UNIS in Svalbard
The beautiful views during the quad tour Photocredits PP van den Broek

The studies – Study at UNIS

After about one month of studying, I could draw my first conclusions about the courses I took at UNIS. First of all, it is remarkable how the courses are made practical by making fieldwork an integral part of the studies and how the courses are specialized with regard to the Arctic area. The fieldwork in the Arctic is what makes courses at UNIS unique. The level of the courses is relatively high, although, especially in the beginning, there might be quite a bit of repetition for the people that already had specialization in the given subject. The workload so far was a bit lower than I experienced at other universities, which was not a negative thing – it leaves enough time to do other things than studying and enjoy the amazing environment.

Here you can find part 2 about my experiences studying at UNIS in Svalbard. I will discuss fieldwork for the course Polar Meteorology and Climate at Isfjord Radio station (Kapp Linné), living in the polar night, aurora borealis (northern lights) and some more hikes and adventures, such as staying the night in an ice cave. I will also give my final judgement on the courses I followed and my opinion about the university in general.

Going to Svalbard yourself? Read here how to prepare for studying at UNIS. Read about Longyearbyen’s climate here.

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2 thoughts on “Experiences During My Study at UNIS in Svalbard (part 1)

    1. Hi Marjo, thanks for the nice words! Wonderful to see you on my website as the first commenter – I’m honoured! Stay tuned for Svalbard part 2, where I will be writing about our cabin trip in Todalen, among other things.

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