The Nature of Svalbard

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Facing a New Reality

Essay & Photographs by Michael AW

Svalbard is nature’s marvellous showcase of our planet’s north polar region; it is like a one-stop mega mall to see all the flora and fauna of the Arctic. My first voyage through the islands were in 2013. Since then, the journey to this remote outpost has been my annual pilgrimage each July and August. As you view the following pages, you will be putting yourself at risk of being seduced to make the journey- -- the beauty of the Arctic is addictive.

Just 9° south from the North Pole, Svalbard is in the high latitude from 74° to 81° north and from 10° to 35° east longitude spanning across an expanse of bewildering wilderness. The group of islands are mostly uninhabited, covering an area of 61,020 square kilometres. But this remarkable showcase of the Arctic region has an ugly past, exploited by human invaders.  From the 17th to 19th centuries, whalers ventured to the seas around Svalbard to hunt for whales; their thick blubber transformed into oil for lighting up the streets of London, Amsterdam and Paris.  One voyage in 1612, a whaler ship reported that the Barents Sea was so abundant with whales that the ship's bow  parted the whales as though it were cutting through pack ice. By the end of the 18th century,  Europe's insatiable demand for oil had almost wiped out the bowhead whales to near extinction.  In that era, some 50,000 bowhead whales, the longest-living mammal on the planet, were taken by the Dutch. 

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At the end of World War I, the 1920 Svalbard Treaty gave Norway sovereignty over the archipelago. This became the turning point for the archipelago.  Administratively, this archipelago in the high Arctic is not part of any country, but forms an unincorporated area administered by a governor appointed by the Norwegian government. Through the 20th century, Governors of Svalbard, effectively transformed one of the world’s free-for-all wildlife killing grounds into one of our planet most protected sanctuaries.

Svalbard is the wet dream of environmentalists and nature lovers; spanning two-thirds of the archipelago, designated with seven national parks and 23 nature reserves protecting the largely untouched, but fragile environment. The protected areas make up 39,800 square kilometres (65%) of the land and 78,000 square kilometres (86.5%) of the territorial waters. Approximately 60% of the archipelago is covered with glaciers, and the islands feature countless mountains and fjords. Although there are only three primarily terrestrial mammalian species(four if you must include humans), up to 20 species of mega marine mammals inhabit the archipelago: blue whales, bowhead whales, fin whales, humpback whales, minkes, several species of dolphins, seals, walruses, belugas, narwhals, and of course, the iconic symbol of the arctic – the polar bear (Ursus maritimus). 

For the ornithologist and bird aficionados, Svalbard is a high target destination as there are fifteen bird sanctuaries, home to over 30 species of Arctic birds. The expanse of sea ice platform and islands serve as a pit-stop and breeding ground for many species. There are known cliffs where colonies of puffins, Auks, little Auks, Kittiwake, guillemots, Glaucos gull, Arctic terns are predictably found between the months of May to August. The Barents and Greenland Sea around Svalbard are known for among the densest population of sea birds’ areas in the world with about 20 million individuals during late summer. Sixteen species found here are on the IUCN Red List. Whilst the Ivory gull remain in the high Arctic in winter, most other are migratory.

For the 2,600 people that live in Longyearbyen, 78˚ North, the northern most township on our planet that is serve by commercial flights daily, life is like living a dream…living in a real-life snowy fairy tale country. Imagine an everyday life in landscape dominated by tundra, bare mountains, glaciers, extreme light differences and exhilarating wildlife that are found nowhere else.

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For the average person, Svalbard may at first seem desolate and barren with large expanse landscapes, sparse vegetation and endless glaciers. Delve beyond this first impression, you will discover an El Dorado of all year-round nature-based experiences. The seasonal variations this far north are massive – the long, dark winter months, which in turn are replaced by a surprisingly mild summer with round the clock daylight. The polar night runs for 84 days from 26 October to 15 February. During these months of total darkness, the magical Aurora borealis (the Northern Lights) splash across the winter sky both day and night. In summer, the midnight sun lasts for 99 days from 20 April to 23 August.

The residents of Longyearbyen, who proudly call themselves Svalbardians, spend a lot of time with one another at social gatherings. They meet at pubs, restaurants, concerts or exhibitions or at each other’s homes. Even in 24-hour darkness during winter months, the  locals enjoy good food and fine wines in a melting pot of European cultures, relishing the winter season, which many locals regard as the best time of the year.

However, everyone welcomes the light at the end of darkness; in February the sun slowly returns and rises above the horizon again. The play of colours during this time is beyond beautiful, beyond words. Ethereal blue skies against a backdrop of snow-capped mountain peaks provide the canvas for the rays of sun, turning the blue to swaths of indigo pink. As the light changes, so too do the lifestyle of the locals. They head outdoors into a winter wonderland on skis, snowmobile or on a sled behind a team of eager huskies. As the sun returns, tourists soon arrive. Since the 1890s, Svalbard had been a destination for Arctic tourism and base for exploration of the North Pole.

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Being easily accessible by commercial airline, Svalbard is an enchanting destination that attracts intrepid explorers and mainstream tourists. In the last 20 years, travel operators in Svalbard have grown exponentially in size and geographical reach. Without doubt, tourism contributes to the economy, the preservation of nature, and to the stability of the community in Longyearbyen. The Svalbard’s Environmental Fund was established in 2007; every person entering Svalbard pays an environmental fee of 150 NOK (16 USD) which is used to support environmental projects and protection. Since inception, 160 million NOK (17.5 million USD) have funded 700 projects that mitigate negative impact from mass tourism and development of sustainable eco-friendly tourist activities. Currently, Longyearbyen play host to about 30,000 tourists per year and another 42,000 per year from cruise ships.  By mass tourist destination standard, the numbers at Svalbard is in minuscule.  Traffic to Longyearbyen represents less than 1% of the total tourism business of Nordkalotten, the hiking trail across Finland to Norway. With effective management, Svalbard is one of the world’s best-preserved wilderness.

But Svalbard is under threat;  anthropogenic  rise in temperatures, caused by human’s activities that emit carbon dioxide and methane gases into our atmosphere. The temperature in Svalbard has been above normal for the last eight years. On my first visit in July of 2013, over a 10-day period, there were at least 3 days with temperature of -3C with an average of plus 3C. During my sojourn this year, over 21 days in July, there was only one day when temperature fell to -2C and the hottest day was a very warm 18C, a new record! The increase in Svalbard’s temperature is now three times as high as of eastern Norway and six times higher than the global temperature! The climate in Svalbard is now warmer and wetter, and the weather has become almost unpredictable.

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Ketil Isaksen, a climate scientist from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, revealed in June, that it is the 103 months above normal temperature in Svalbard. ‘Normal’ temperatures this instance, refer to the average between 1961 and 1990. “The temperature increase in Svalbard is great and we are witnessing violent changes” said Isaksen.

In 2013, 15 climate scientists coined and defined the term "climate departure" as a way of measuring when climate change has really changed things. It is the moment when average temperatures, either in a specific location or worldwide, become so impacted by climate change that the old climate is left behind. It is a tipping point, where abnormal becomes the new normal. This seems after 103 months of abnormal high temperature - the current average in Svalbard now is the new normal. In the words of Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen, “climate change is already creating challenges for us who live here, and we must adapt to the new reality.”

Diminishing sea ice due to warm temperature has also become increasingly common during the past several years, while warmer water is pushing northwards. When the ice does not cover the sea, the sunlight is absorbed and the sea heats further. The earlier lost of both sea and fjords ice in Svalbard has directly impacts the life of polar bears and many key arctic animals. It is likely to cause more starvation among polar bears, warns a new study that discovered these marine bears need to eat 60% more than previously thought.

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Polar bears are the health indicator of the polar north; being a high-energy apex specie, burning through 12,325 calories a day—despite sitting around most of the time, according to a unique metabolic analysis of wild bears published in Science. “Our study reveals polar bears’ utter dependence on seals,” said lead author Anthony Pagano, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The loss of sea ice may have a bigger impact on the bears than previously thought, said Amstrup, a former USGS polar bear expert. Since 2013, I have witnessed young bears scaling steep cliffs, foraging for young guillemot chicks and eggs. The energy expended for a mere few eggs and chicks is hardly worth the effort, but they are starving and desperate to stem the hunger. It was heart wrenching for me to watch.

Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen said he was surprised at how fast the changes in climate are occurring as abnormalities are starting to be considered the new normal. The town has initiated preparations for a different climate. Avalanche in 2015 and 2016 have taken lives and endangered many. Planning is now underway to demolish 142 homes that are in a hazardous area at the base of Sukkertoppen. Some new homes in a safe place are already in use and many more are in construction. More than half a billion kroner (55,000000 USD) is currently being spent on new housing and protective measures. Avalanche barriers have been installed above some the buildings and monitoring of possible avalanche risk has been initiated.

Several hundred people have experienced evacuations from their homes because of the uncertainty. Meanwhile, the avalanche danger increases, the sea ice vanished, and the glaciers are calving fast. Traffic on road is becoming more dangerous and the weather is less predictable. Adjacent to Svalbard, Greenland has lost 197 billion tons of ice melted in July 2019, pouring the equivalent amount of water into the Atlantic Ocean. It was enough water that satellites picked up on the change in global average sea levels from just one month of melt. Significantly, on 1 Aug, a loss of 12.5 billion tons of ice in 24 hours was recorded -- the largest since measurements began in 1950.

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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, aka the Doomsday Vault, is the most important installation in Longyearbyen; it was built to save humanity in event of catastrophic event. This seed bank stores all the biodiversity of crops and plants from our planet. One such disastrous event in recent year was the complete destruction of homes and crops in Syria; fortunately, for the country, the crops of Aleppo had “back-up” in the Svalbard – it was the only “withdrawal” that have been made from that vault.

But the Svalbard Vault, designed to withstand end of the world is already in trouble. Perhaps no one expected doomsday would arrive quite so soon. It was frozen until recently – when the permafrost that was thought to be a reliable blanket around it started to melt. Permafrost, as its name suggests, is not supposed to melt.  With the recent temperature change in Svalbard, it has melted. Climate change has now put the entire world’s food crops in danger. Staff at the Svalbard facility prefer to avoid the name “doomsday vault” – not because it is inaccurate, necessarily, but because it is too accurate. The vault was intended as a fail-safe but has already failed. “‘I don’t like the name,” says Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, which looks after the seed bank. Now the Norwegian government has announced that it will spend $13m (£9.4m) to protect and secure the vault. “When the vault was constructed 11 years ago, no one would even have considered that the permafrost would not be permanent in Svalbard,” says Haga. Climate change has happened a lot faster than predicted; one urgent concern is food production on a global level, climate is changing faster than the plants that feed us, are able to adapt.

Climate departure is no longer in the future. It is happening right now in Svalbard, in the Arctic. We need to a transformative change worldwide to give us more time. Meanwhile, head up to Svalbard to enjoy while it lasts, for it all may be lost during your lifetime. 

*find out more about Ocean Geographic High Arctic Photographic Assessment Expedition 2020 expedition at OceanGeographic.org – expeditions : www.OGSociety.org/expeditions

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