By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent
NY ALESUND, Norway, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Elisabeth Iversen’s sunflowers are probably the closest ever grown to the North Pole.
She fondly waters her spindly 1.5 metre (5 foot) high yellow flowers in a greenhouse in an Arctic research base, brightening life in what locals call the world’s most northerly permanent settlement, 1,200 km (750 miles) from the Pole.
Looking like a shock side-effect of global warming, her garden on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen is a defiant reminder of a warmer south in an icy wilderness of polar bears, reindeer, seals and lichen.
"This is the first year we’ve tried growing sunflowers," said Iversen, a 56-year-old Norwegian who works for King’s Bay, the firm that manages the Ny Alesund settlement, where 30 people live in winter and 130 in summer.
"They’re doing very well."
She also has tomatoes, peas, parsley, rocket and cucumbers improbably flourishing on a latitude north of Alaska, with snow on the ground outside and reindeer wandering the streets.
Along with her plants, almost everything in Ny Alesund seems out of place in one of Europe’s most isolated communities. Originally built around a coal mine, it is now on the front line of Arctic climate research.
All food, and most construction materials, have to be shipped or flown to the base.
There may be midnight sun in summer, but in winter some compare life here to a claustrophobic "Big Brother" television set, where the sun sets for a solid four months and only the hardiest remain.
Iversen says gardening helps to keep her sane in a place so remote that you need to carry a gun outside the settlement, backed by snow-topped mountains, in case a polar bear attacks.
"We’re pretty sure that these are the first sunflowers so far north," she told Reuters in her greenhouse. Native to the Americas, sunflowers grow best in Europe near the Mediterranean.
Grown for fun rather than research, the sunflowers will end up in a vase in the canteen. But in the same greenhouse, a Dutch scientist is growing grass as part of a climate change study.
All around Ny Alesund — and a major draw for scientists — are signs that the bitter climate is turning fractionally less hostile. Glaciers are receding, and in the last two winters the fjord failed to freeze over for the first time in living memory.
Among side-effects of the change are the fact Norwegian climate researcher Paal Prestrud can no longer say he got married in 1982 on the nearby Blomstrand peninsula.
"It turned out that Blomstrand is an island — the glacier retreated and in 1994 you could circumnavigate it," he said.
Prestrud and almost all other experts say global warming, stoked by human use of fossil fuels, is happening about twice as fast in the Arctic as elsewhere on the planet. Once exposed, dark ground or sea soak up far more heat than ice and snow.
In other parts of the Arctic, the thaw is disrupting the lives of indigenous hunters. Some countries, such as Russia, which recently planted a flag on the seabed under the North Pole, are hoping for new shipping routes or to find oil and gas.
Ny Alesund was founded as a coal town almost a century ago: the mine shut after an explosion in 1961 in which 21 men died.
Kept going for research, it is now home to scientists from countries including Germany, Japan, France, Britain, South Korea and Nordic nations, examining everything from glaciers to air pollution. This summer, India mounted a first Arctic expedition.
"We hope to find out if plants here are the same as in Antarctica and if they have medical applications," said S.M. Singh, of the National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research.
The warmest month is July, with average temperatures of 5 Celsius (41 Fahrenheit) bringing a brief bloom of Arctic flowers, even outside Iversen’s greenhouse.
Winter can be particularly hard when everyone has to remain cooped up together — in February the average temperature is minus 14 C (7 F). Few work more than a couple of winters.
"What I really miss is having a caffe latte in a street cafe, just sitting and watching strangers walk past," said Bodil Johanne Paulsen, 39, who works for King’s Bay. "I also miss the sun and warmth, but not so often."
And it is an incomplete society. There are no children, no doctors, no teachers, and the unpaved roads end at an airstrip.
When it was a coal mining settlement, Ny Alesund had more than 300 inhabitants. In a local museum, one photograph shows children playing in the streets, proudly eating bananas.
"We now have one carpenter, one accountant, one plumber, one electrician, five cooks," said Oddvar Midtkandal, director of the King’s Bay company. "It makes it very vulnerable."
One day a pilot landing at the airstrip was surprised to hear the plumber calling over the radio. "He was working as the air traffic controller that day," Midtkandal said.