Ny-lesund, a small village in the island of Spitzbergen, in the Svalbard Archipelago (79 parallel), about halfway between Norway and the North Pole, is the worlds northernmost community, and one of the best place on Earth to meet arctic research buffs. Formerly a small mining community, during the 1960s, the settlement was transformed into an international research base, which today hosts 11 scientific stations from eight different countries. Only researchers and their staff live in this remote base, which is connected by small flights to the rest of the island.

No more than 30 people live at the base during the long polar night that runs from November to February. But in summer the base population reaches 150, making it the biggest arctic research community. From May to September, when daylight lasts round-the-clock, snowmobiles stuffed with research equipment scour the small icy streets of the base, as scientists run more than 120 research projects every year in fields ranging from glaciology to astronomy. Although a 1920 treaty gave Norway sovereignty over the Svalbard Islands, any country can establish bases and conduct research here.

Despite being only 1000 kilometers away from the North Pole, research logistics and life considerably easier in Ny-lesund than in the Antarctic. Regular flights connect the Svalbards to Oslo, in mainland Norway, whereas a project to Antarctica needs months of planning and chartered flights, bills for which can be millions of dollars. Moreover, the climate in Ny-lesund is relatively mild for its latitude, thanks to remnants of the Gulf Stream that flows northward from mainland Norway. Still, working in the Svalbards is not a walk in the park. In addition to the challenging weather, researchers have to watch out for polar bears. "They are so numerous on the island that close encounters are not uncommon," says Roberto Sparapani, the logistic manager of the Italian base. For this reason, researchers traveling outside the base need flares, rifles and good shooting training. Sparapani notes, however, that "until now we have only had to shoot a few flares to chase them off." --Sergio Pistoi