The double pronged assault on Norway’s Arctic wilderness

After a week spent ski touring in Lyngen, my breath has just been returned to me. The terrain is out of this world with steep couloirs running from endless peaks into crystal clear fjords below. Located high in the Arctic Circle, a short drive away from Tromsø, Lyngen is a true Nirvana for both naturists and snowsports enthusiasts who don’t mind a little hike to access the best lines and views.

In winter both the best skiing and views are only accessible through lung-busting crampon laden skins, making the experience even more appreciable, giving each view a tangible sense of achievement. These mesmerising views are complimented by the unbroken ecosystem of wildlife present. I’ve spend time in Scandinavia every year of my life and despite my best efforts have never seen a moose. It took a mere day in Lyngen to see one, followed the next day by a bull, cow, and calf. Moose included I’ve seen snow foxes, sea eagles and countless reindeer who are herded by native Sami people. Other more lucky visitors have regaled tales of whales, sea otters and even dolphins enjoying the near pollution less waters of the surrounding Fjords. If this is not enough to convince you of the mystical nature of Lyngen, then add in the Aurora borealis, a regular occurrence during the dark winter months. Although my trip came a little too late to witness the magic of the Northern Lights the scenery and the feeling of solitude that came from barely seeing another soul or hearing any unnatural noise all day to me justified the Norwegian beliefs in mystical beings such as Trolls, who are believed to have been frozen by sunlight thus creating Norway’s mountainous spine.

Lyngen is truly like no place I’ve ever been, representing the closest I’ve felt to nature and giving added verve to my respect for the natural environment. We cannot, however, take these pristine natural environments for granted. Many locations such as this have been ruined before, and Lyngen is by no means immune to these threats.

Despite the relative boom of ski touring in Lyngen since the ski movie Focus announced the island to snowsports enthusiasts, tourists often contribute relatively little to the local economy. In Norway, you need to no permission to ski tour as a result to Norway’s right-to-roam ethos. This combined with tourists often staying in Tromsø and bringing their own food due to the lack of eateries means trips often have no effect on the local economy. Although a few lodges including Magic Mountain Lodge offer accommodation on Lyngen mosts, guests stay in private rented accommodation and only utilise the supermarket on the island. Therefore although a marvelous adventure for tourists, our activities in Lyngen often leave the area no better off than when we arrive.

This economic vacuum has given added impetus to plans to develop a conventional ski resort in the area equipped with lifts, fancy hotels, and restaurants. Naturally many locals feel a European-style ski resort represents a route to economic prosperity in an area currently predominately reliant on agriculture and fishing. They feel better job prospects would help reverse the trend of the younger generation leaving to search for jobs in Norway’s bigger more wealthy cities.

Whilst I understand the fervour for developing a commercial resort on Lyngen, from an outsiders perspective I feel this would represent a huge tragedy. Commercialisation would ruin the quiet, isolated nature of Lyngen, and there would undoubtedly be a huge environmental cost to what can be considered one of the last great wildernesses of Europe. Fragile Arctic environments such as the one existing on Lyngen are rare, and one has to balance this risk of ruining this for the sake of economic prosperity.

This all goes without mentioning the second prong threatening Lyngen: Climate Change. I arrived in Lyngen with temperatures highly unusual for July let alone early May, on the back of the warmest April recorded in Lyngen. Naturally these are merely an indication of current weather conditions and not implicit of climate change, however, these temperatures may represent a future climate on Lyngen under a scenario of progressive warming. In central Europe, the line of snow reliability (the point at which reports are no longer considered economically viable) ranges from 1,050 m to 1,500 m depending on local conditions. This line is predicted to rise around 150 m per degree of warming, a worrying scenario when you consider Arctic areas are already undergoing disproportionate warming as a result of positive feedbacks including the loss of albedo due to melting snow and ice. Arctic areas will therefore almost certainly exceed the 2C warming limit set out in Paris. Therefore although Lyngen is comparatively cool owing to its high latitude the low altitude of its peaks only around 900-1200 m combined with enhanced warming in the region will mean any ski resort will soon have an unreliable snowfall. Additionally the fact skiing is only possible from March onwards due to the darkness of the Arctic winter means any development of a ski resort will become economically unviable in the near future even if it isn’t at the moment.

Ski touring, however, requires far less snow and when done properly should have a very little environmental impact. Therefore I feel that this is the form of skiing that should prevail here. Potentially a comprise could be found with the addition of a few small lifts to open up terrain for adventurous skiers, walkers, and bikers, much like in La Grave, which has become a mecca for off-piste skiers. Any addition of lifts, however, poses a risk of paving the way for accelerated development of the area. This I feel would take away Lyngen’s magical feel. Naturally locals in Lyngen deserve to benefit from those visiting the area; however, a commercial ski resort both environmentally and economically is not a viable means to achieve this.

At the end of the day, I have visited Lyngen once. It’s easy for me to sit from my comfy existence in rural Buckinghamshire and tell residents how to manage the area, or to preserve it for those privileged enough to visit it. I do however feel strongly that Lyngen should remain as close to how I found it as possible. Not just because of its spectacular beauty but also because alpine skiing in the area will quickly if it isn’t already become uneconomical. Across the Earth, our natural wilderness’s are increasingly being turned to tarmac by a population favouring economics over the environment. There must be scope to take a step back and see how we can act to preserve areas such as Lyngen whilst aiding the local population before these precious lands vanish forever.