At Hornsund, at the far south of Spitsbergen, lies an oblong building with the Polish and Norwegian flags waving in the foreground. During the summer it accommodates some 40 researchers monitoring instruments and sending data to Norsar and the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Warsaw. During the winter there are ten people at the research station. It is great honor for them when they get a visit from Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt, Catholic Priest Marek Michalski and Svalbard Church Priest Leif Magne Helgesen.
"We should have been 11, but one got sick," says Kasia Budzinska, 27. "Now we are seeing you today, then we only see each other until April or May, I guess, so it's clear we appreciate this."
She is among the youngest who will stay at the research station until July next year. Then the 39th contingent will complete its work and a new group of researchers will arrive.
Christmas visits to the various settlements in Svalbard have been common since the governor first received a helicopter in 1976. At the beginning the trips were appreciated due to a need for mail and supplies, but today it is increasingly a social tradition. Askholt is making her first Christmas visit to Hornsund, while Helgesen and Marek – who normally is the pastor of the Catholic church in Tromsø – have been involved for many years.
"Going on a Christmas visit is entirely positive, whether they are believers or not," Marek says. "We are always well received and it is a nice tradition."
Coffee and delicious Polish cakes are served at the station, and mingling is encouraged before the Mass takes place. It is usually held in front of the large cross at Wilczekodden but fierce weather with strong winds and snowfall forced the the service indoors this year. Behind a door that says "quiet zone," they are working collectively to set up chairs and an impromptu alter.
The sound of a heating blower is drowned by Marek's words from the altar. Meteorologist Sabina Kucieba sings a lovely song in Polish, and the Norwegian visitors contributes "Beautiful is the Earth." The Mass is clearly popular at the station.
"It is always very nice and these Christmas visits we especially appreciate greatly," says Station Manager Piotr Dolnicki.
No one has been at the station longer than Dolnicki, who has a total of 14 stays since 1999. This is the third time he is overwintering and said he has extra enthusiasm for the situation this year.
"This is the best group I've been here with. There are young and talented people, and there are few problems," says the man who is referred to as the father of the others. As the station manager, he is responsible for all the others and that work is carried out according to plans and assignments, in addition to conducting research on permafrost.
Polar bear visits
To qualify for a year at the research station, scientists must first go through normal interviews. Those who are offered a job must participate in a one-week security training trip in the mountains of Poland, and then one week on a boat and in the water, in addition to weapons training.
Since the group arrived by boat in July, they have seen 14 polar bears. Kucieba remembers one encounter in particular.
"I and Piotr, the station manager, sat and ate and were taking it quite easy in the kitchen. We heard some noises outside and suddenly we had eye contact with a polar bear. It had its nose glued to the window, and I was very scared. But it was peaceful and did nothing to us, so in retrospect it was just a fantastic experience," she says with great enthusiasm.
Seismologist Kasia Budzinska says there is another animal that also thrives in the area.
"There are some annoying reindeer that scrape their antlers on a pair of cables we have in the field, so when that happens that we simply have to go out and replace the cables," she says with a smile.
Budzinska points out the research station is a monitoring station and therefore not much work takes place outside since much of the work is done on computers.
One person who does go out, however, is Kacper Konior, who observes and measures changes primarily in Hansbreen.
"I read some instruments we have in the glacier, and see how much it decreases in summer and grows in winter," he says. "Last winter it grew four to five meters in the lower part, but over the summer it melted six meters, so the glacier melted one to two meters at our bottom measuring point."
Konior says during other visits there hasn't always been much interest in speaking with him because he can't show what he's working on in an office like the others can.
"I get out a lot," he says. "This is a cool place, I love it. And then we have a very good group of people here."
The Lord's Supper
After some of the Poles have received Communion and the Mass is over, Budzinska takes the guests from the governor's delegation on a small tour of the station. She shows and explains what is being done in daily life. At the same time a group in the kitchen is making a variation of a Polish meal.
For lunch, soup with spaghetti are starters, and schnitzel with mushrooms, cheese and potatoes are the main course. Those wanting get something red in their glasses are fulfilled and there is a good mood around the table. One by one, Dolnicki, Askholt and Helgesen get up and offer thanks for the cooperation, hospitality, and finally wish each other a Merry Christmas. Helgesen calls the station the best restaurant in Svalbard, to the delight of the Poles.
"And then there is always a risk that we must weigh ourselves before going to the helicopter because we have eaten too much," he says.
After a few toasts and a springy gel for dessert, there is the presentation of an early Christmas present from the governor to the station. A package of candy, fruit and vegetables are welcomed, and as a thanks for the visit the station manager give the governor a small polar bear bag. In addition, all of the guests receive a book full of pictures from Hornsund.
When the meal is over and Budzinska takes stock of the fresh inventory she gasps and throws her arms in the air.
"Oh, cucumbers!" she says, clearly pleased with the governor's gift. "I have not eaten cucumber since I was in Poland, so that must have been in June."
Food supplies, in other words, aren't consistent. When the research team arrived by boat in July they had a large amount of food. Everything was bought in Poland, excluding the current perishable gifts. Although access to perishables is so-so, as in the case with other things, Budzinska is happy with her situation.
"I can imagine being here longer," she says. "However, it is not possible to be here for two consecutive years now, so I'm thinking about moving to Longyearbyen after the summer."