The world’s northernmost Alt-Weekly moves south
For nearly thirteen years, Mark Sabbatini was the sole publisher, editor and journalist of Ice People, an article covering Svalbard, a remote Norwegian archipelago in the High Arctic, intended for a global audience.
Earlier in his career, Sabbatini worked for newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and the Antarctic sun. In 2008 he traveled to Svalbard to attend a jazz festival and loved it so much that he stayed. He founded Ice People A little after. “I’ve always wanted to edit my own little newspaper,” he explains. For more than a decade, Sabbatini ran the newspaper with the idealistic mindset that alternative weeklies are meant to be free, even as his financial situation worsens.
He printed the English-language newspaper every week – between sixteen and twenty pages – then paid about four dollars to photocopy each issue. He distributed copies to local businesses and hotels. For its income, Sabbatini relied on money from odd jobs, tours, donations, and an occasional grant to cover production costs, but in recent years that has not been enough to make ends meet. In 2016, Sabbatini was forced to leave his apartment building due to damage due, in part, to thawing permafrost. The next house he moved into was boarded up due to avalanche danger.
On July 13, the governor of Svalbard ordered Sabbatini, an American citizen, to leave the island on the grounds that he no longer met Svalbard’s unique self-sufficiency requirement.
In the 1920s Svalbard Treaty, citizens of any of the forty-six signatory countries can live in Svalbard without a visa. However, social services such as social assistance are only accessible to Norwegian citizens and health facilities are limited. A local saying goes that no one is allowed to give birth in Svalbard – pregnant women come to the mainland shortly before their due date – and no one is allowed to die in Svalbard – people cannot there be buried because of permafrost.
The governor of Svalbard can expel anyone who does not have “sufficient means to stay or earn a legal living” or who is unable to take care of themselves. This regulation is rarely enforced, however, and most returnees are newcomers who cannot find work; Sabbatini, a longtime resident, is unique in this regard.
Sabbatini’s departure leaves a critical hole in the archipelago’s ground cover. Longyearbyen, located 800 miles from the North Pole and with a population of 2,400, is the fastest warming city in the world. Temperatures in Svalbard have risen by about four degrees Celsius since 1971, five times faster than the global average. Winter temperatures are seven degrees warmer than fifty years ago. “What I’ve seen, obviously, in terms of climate change is so drastic that it’s hard to put it all in just a few words,” says Sabbatini.
On December 19, 2015, an avalanche hit the eastern part of Longyearbyen, burying eleven houses and killing a man and a toddler. A little over a year later, another avalanche hit two apartment buildings. Scientists discovered that avalanches were caused by storms that brought short, intense snowfalls to this part of the mountain, compacting it into fragile patches.
At the time of the first avalanche, Sabbatini was the only reporter on the ground; Norwegian language newspaper staff Svalbardposten had traveled to the mainland for vacation. International media have relied on Sabbatini for precise, minute-by-minute updates. “The avalanche was roughly equivalent to Ice People what the war in Iraq was for CNN, ”he said dryly. “It put him on the map in a huge way.” At one point, the volume of international traffic caused the site to crash. A government report on the avalanche response later revealed that Sabbatini was the only person providing emergency information to the citizens of Longyearbyen, revealing a significant deficiency in their operations.
Today the scope of Ice People extends well beyond the archipelago; it serves as a critical source of information for anyone interested in Arctic affairs. poaching bearded seals and the end of Norwegian coal mine. Despite its non-comic book title font, dated homepage, and polar bear avatar, the site receives around 50,000 unique visitors per month, with readers from as far away as South Africa. Foreign and Norwegian journalists have long relied on Sabbatini for help with climate reporting from the remote region.
Thomas Nilsen, editor-in-chief of The Barents Observer, a newspaper based in Kirkenes, Norway, describes Sabbatini as “a true long-time hero in Arctic reporting.”
“Journalism in the North is often about small newsrooms with limited resources. This, combined with the long distances and expensive travel, forces us to cooperate, ”explains Nilsen. His media covers the Barents region, shared between Russia and northern Norway, for an international audience. It was important, he adds, that Sabbatini was there to help judge what was going on.
Since losing his apartment in 2016, Sabbatini has struggled to survive in the archipelago. He had a few bad falls on the ice resulting in two broken hips that required medical evacuations to the mainland. Earlier this year, a bicycle accident left him on crutches. During the winter he was able to stay in an empty Airbnb in the city’s industrial district, but it was rented out in June, and Sabbatini was forced to move to a tourist campsite on the outskirts of town – the same location. where about thirty an eight-year-old Dutchman was kill by a polar bear last summer.
Lars Fause, the newly appointed governor, began investigating Sabbatini’s circumstances shortly after taking office on July 1. On July 13, Sabbatini was informed that he had to leave Svalbard. Although disappointed, Sabbatini says he doesn’t think the governor was unfair in his decision. (The governor’s office declined to comment on details of the newspaper publisher’s case, citing confidentiality concerns.)
Sabbatini recognizes the risks of living in Svalbard. “If I’m on crutches and I’m out there and a polar bear comes along, there’s nothing I can do to help myself. If I fall into a glacial crevasse or get caught in an extreme storm, I won’t be able to ask for help. It’s dangerous to be here if you’re not smug in every sense of the word. The governor was worried about my safety. He plans to continue publishing Ice People online from Juneau, Alaska, with the help of a network of informants in Svalbard.
In some ways, the quirk of Svalbard’s unique governance is a fitting ending for Sabbatini. “I always told people that if I were to end up in Svalbard I would be attacked and killed by a polar bear – a great story to tell the world. But it makes sense that I was forced to get out of here in this unique way in Svalbard. “
Gloria Dickie is a freelance journalist based in British Columbia, Canada, who frequently reports on the Arctic. His work appears in the New York Times, American scientist, Wired, The Guardian, and Reuters.
TOP IMAGE: Polar night in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Photo by Gloria Dickie.