Cape Farewell: an Arctic diary

Caspar Henderson
27 May 2003

Caspar Henderson
The author, hunting for the Snark - or signs of climate change
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Part one: The Devil’s Dance Floor

6.30am, Wednesday 28 May, en route for Svalbard, 100 nautical miles south of Bear Island. Light winds from the north-east, 2 degrees centigrade.

Yesterday we sailed through ‘The Devil’s Dance Floor’ – an area of sea north of northern Norway known for always being rough and choppy. Most of the passengers on the Noorderlicht, including Globolog, were horribly sick. It rained a cold, hard rain.

Things had started well. Once clear of Tromso sound on Tuesday morning a steady westerly wind pushed the ship along under sail at 9 knots in a broad powerful motion. But by 9am the wind had died away. The sea turned lumpy, chaotic. This is where the Gulf Stream begins to peter out, where the sea bed rises rapidly and where winds blow in from various directions.

We motored all through the day on Tuesday, heavy diesel fumes making life no fun at all. Only at 9pm did an east wind pick up sufficiently for us to haul the mainsail and the jibs again. This was a hard job but satisfying: through the night – a light grey sky, just as overcast as the day – the boat powered along again under full sail, creaking and vibrating gently with the water trickling, gurgling and booming along its hull.

The Noorderlicht is a Dutch ship, crewed by four tough, kind sailors – two male, two female. The twenty passengers include some of Britain’s best visual artists, a small team from the oceanographic department at Southampton University, a film crew, an Indian classical dancer and Gretel Ehrlich, one of the most distinguished nature writers of her generation.

Nausea overcomes Globolog after a few minutes at the computer screen. Dolphins have been sited off the port bow.

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Part two: The Atlantic Conveyor

Wednesday 28 May. Measuring the ocean current, the company of whales, harp seals, dolphins – and a polar bear on Bear Island.

On Wednesday morning the wind gradually falls and the sky brightens. Anna, the Noorderlicht’s indestructible cook, bakes bread. By eleven o’clock in the morning the sun is beginning to show through, and the waves are subsiding to a more even swell.

All morning and afternoon we see white-sided dolphins. This is guaranteed to cheer anyone up, and by lunchtime even those passengers who had felt close to death are finding their sea legs. We all eat well. In the afternoon, the boat starts to buzz with activity.

Subathra Subramaniam, who is a science teacher as well as a dancer, shoots a sequence with the film crew on the foredeck. The film will be part of a module for school geography courses in Britain intended to make earth and ocean science – and climate change – more comprehensible. It is likely to be accompanied by graphs, charts, wild-life photographs, and paintings and other works of imagination made by those on board this ship.

Sarah Fletcher and Val Byfield, our oceanographers, had yesterday measured the ocean temperature. At 8 degrees centigrade, Suba explains to the camera, this is much the same temperature as the waters of the English Channel, well over 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometres) to the south at the same time of year. The continuity indicates the power of the ‘Atlantic Conveyor’, a massive ocean current that brings warmer waters from far south right up past the British Isles and Norway and has made those lands hospitable to humans in recent millennia.

One of the questions that focuses minds is whether the ‘Conveyor’ could shut down. It has happened before. About 15,000 years ago, a massive ice cap covering much of North America melted very rapidly as a result of sharply rising atmospheric temperatures, and poured fresh water into the northern seas. Now, with the global climate set to warm very quickly once again – in all likelihood largely as a result of massive greenhouse gas emissions by humans – could something similar happen?

“It’s quite possible,” said Jan-Gunnar Winther, head of the Polar Climate Group at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromso, whom we had visited on Monday on the eve of our voyage. “But there are significant differences. For one thing, this time there is no major ice cap of the same size over North America to melt”.

There are other troubling scenarios. For example, if the tundra in the Asian and American Arctic warms beyond a certain point it will melt and could release large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and as more and more were released it would warm the climate still further, potentially leading to a runaway feedback effect.

At around 3pm the watch calls out “land ahoy!” It is Bear Island (Bjørnøya in Norwegian). A tiny smudge of white over the northern horizon. The temperature on deck reaches a balmy 8 degrees, when one is sheltered from the wind.

Soon afterwards we see humpback whales nearby. Grouped in twos and threes, they rise and arch gracefully not more than a hundred metres from the boat. Thousands of birds gather on the water. These are rich feeding grounds. The fish have come to feed in an area rich in plankton and other live because of the upwelling of nutrients from the deep. The birds are packed as densely on the sea surface as flies on rotting meat. But then they scare, and become a sea of wings. It is breathtakingly beautiful.

Here, around 74 degrees north, is where the warmer waters of the Atlantic meet the cold Arctic. A wedge of the colder water from the north spreads over the warmer, but more saline and therefore heavier, waters brought up by the Gulf Stream. This is the edge of the true Arctic.

At around 5pm we see minke whales. Sarah and Val take more measurements of sea temperature. We eat a splendid supper.

By 9pm, Bear Island has risen to become a range of snowy cliffs and mountains, shining like heaven in the sun. At 10.20pm we see our first iceberg – about half a mile across and sticking thirty metres out of the water. But Globolog was taking a hot shower – bliss – when we got up close, and missed the whole thing.

Then we head in towards Bear Island. The south end is a mass of sheer, sheer for more than 400 metres and fearsome grey. From a distance it looks like there are massive breakers around its base. But from closer to, it is apparent that this is ice.

We reach the edge of the ice shortly before midnight. There is a large field of loose, floating blocks – only a few centimetres in width at the edge, but ten or twelve metres across nearer the centre. What strikes you first is the sound – like the washing of waves across a beach combined with rustling and a slight clinking like ice cubes in a glass.

An enormous section of the nearest cliff hangs off the island at a sharp angle, standing ready to fall with an enormous crash, perhaps several thousand years hence.

Our passage to the bay where we had planned to anchor for the night is blocked by the ice. As we sail along its edge, the sunshine breaks through low cloud and lights up a massive field of ice stretching off far to the south-east. It is a field of gold. A rainbow stands above the sea, far to the south. It is twenty minutes past midnight.

Harp seals appear beside the boat, heading out to hunt. They bob out slickly and smoothly, moving fast towards their fishing grounds. Then, as the boat turns to seek another passage, someone spots a polar bear on the ice. About three hundred metres away, he or she is concentrating intently on unseen fish he is trying to catch. Head down and arse up, oblivious to the Noorderlicht.

Judging by the excitement of the crew, one doesn’t bump into a bear here every day. And, even more extraordinarily, when this bear spots us, he decides to swim out and have a look. After a leisurely swim around the bow, turning to look (twenty people in woolly hats with cameras of every shape and size, jibbering with excitement) and smell (diesel and…whisky?), the bear has had his fill of strangeness, and heads back towards the ice.

Part three: In sight of Svalbard

Thursday 29 May. Talking with Gretel Ehrlich about glaciers and Wyoming. Approaching Svalbard, in the shadow of explorers, whalers and coal merchants.

Bear Island (Bjørnøya) is completely ice-fast. Landfall is impossible. We travel westwards along the edge of the ice field, looking for a passage north to Spitsbergen (Svalbard). In the unreal light of the Arctic at 2am we see three Russian trawlers. A thick fog descends for the rest of the early hours.

After noon the wind picks up. Sailing conditions are excellent – so long as you don’t mind a fearsome wind chill when you’re on the helm. With a force five or six the Noorderlicht hums through the sea at eight or nine knots.

In the afternoon I talk to Gretel Ehrlich. ‘Gretz’, an old friend of our expedition leader David Buckland, is in her fifties. She is small with long blond hair and ice-blue eyes. She has a wonderful face: weather-beaten and strong but delicate and beautiful at the same time. She likes to hug people.

Her latest book project is an ode to winter. One of the reasons she came on this trip was to see one of the places where the climate seems to be changing fastest. Winter in the sense that we know it may be changing ‘forever’.

Gretel has lived for most of the last twenty years or more in a remote part of Wyoming, but in recent years she has spent many months each year with the indigenous hunters of eastern Greenland. And in January she was in Patagonia to look at glaciers, one of her great loves. “They are really enormous” she says, “I sat by them, touched them, attended to them for days. I imagine paradise to be Alpine”.

Her home in Wyoming is in a landscape shaped by glaciers – ox-bow lakes, U-shaped valleys. On climate change, she says: “we see the biggest change in winter in the temperate zones. This could be part of a global catastrophe. We’re already killing thousands of species. It angers me. It’s outrageous, intolerable, inconsolable”.

“People need to be educated. In my country they are incredibly ignorant and aggressive at the same time as to how to make proper decisions on natural resources. I’ve gone to so many meetings and heard people talk about making changes, but people don’t do anything. They don’t change their behaviour. I’ve concluded that a lot of environmentalists like complaining but not doing anything about the situation. At some stage you’ve got to get down on your hands and knees and do something about it”.

“I’ve given a good deal of my own life to dealing with the grazing issue in Wyoming – working out what makes grazing sustainable, restoring riparian areas. You learn that there’s a niche for everyone, including humans and domesticated animals”.

“I grouped the cattle into a single herd and moved them around for short duration, intensive grazing. This is the pattern that buffalo and bison follow naturally – but I used a portable electric fence to move them around (it leaves no trace). I monitored the grass to understand the morphology of the grass plant – and how often it could be eaten without damaging the root system. This way you can figure out how long is needed for re-growth and how many animals you can graze sustainably”.

“Rather than saying ‘I want to run 500 cattle here. That’s what my grandpa used to do’ or ‘That’s what the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) says I can do’, you look at it the other way round – from what the land can actually support”.

“I tried to let the place tell us what it was capable of. We listened. We raised beef on natural feed without chemicals. We grew all our own vegetables, collected the seed. We harvested rainwater in the summer”.

“And over time it really improved! We had lots of grass and water when all around was drought. Natural springs started to appear. After three years of doing this on my land we saw wild plants returning to my land that the BLM hadn’t seen for years. Antelope, grizzlies, black bear, wolves, elk, coyote – all came back”.

Gretel first came to Wyoming when she was in her 20s to make a documentary for Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) about people working in remote places. She was with her boyfriend. “We had gone to film school together, and were making films and our lives together”. Then he died, very suddenly, from liver cancer at the age of 29.

She cried and cried. And she stayed. “I just couldn’t leave Wyoming to go back to the city. I would drive to the state line and just not be able to cross it.

“The ranching folks were rough and tough, but they were sensitive too, and they looked after me. They would notice whenever I would break down crying, but they wouldn’t make too much of a fuss. They would keep me busy: ‘C’mun, Gretz’, they’d say, ‘these cows need attendin’ to’.”

Before midnight, Spitsbergen appears on the northern horizon. The archipelago was discovered on 16 July 1596 by the Dutch explorer William Barents who was looking for a northern route to China. At first he thought the islands were part of Greenland and called them Spitsbergen – ‘sharp-pointed mountains’.

The modern name for Spitsbergen – at least since the Norwegians assumed sovereignty for the islands in 1925 – is Svalbard, meaning ‘cold coast’. It may also be the oldest. Or that’s the story in a Nazi-era publication The Place Names of Svalbard (Oslo, 1942). “Many historians and geographers agree that the Svalbard mentioned in the Icelandic Annals as discovered in 1194 is the Svalbard of today”.

In 1596 Barents and his crew reported great numbers of whales around the archipelago. Soon, the Dutch were sending whaling ships. By 1611 the English – followed by the French, the Norwegians, the Swedes and the Danes – were doing the same.

The rivalry for bowhead whales – known then as polar whales, or Mysticetus – was intense. After several failed attempts to keep crews over winter there to be ready for when the ice broke up, the Dutch established Smeerenburg – ‘Blubbertown’.

Over the next two centuries Greenland whales, right whales and walruses were almost completely eliminated. Motorised vessels made possible the elimination of the Beluga possible in the early 20th century. Since the decline of whaling the islands have been mined by the Norwegians and the Russians, among others – mainly for coal.

Part four: The sound of deep time

Friday 30 May. Landfall in Hornsund. Receding glaciers, reptile fossils, polar bear footprints, and the voice of eternity.

The Noorderlicht arrives in Hornsund – a fjord on the south-eastern side of the archipelago. It is wide and long. Sharp grey and black peaks shrug off broad glaciers pouring down to the sea. The air is still. The sky is heavily overcast, but in a few places the sun breaks through over distant water and peaks. At the rare moments when there is quiet on the boat, the only sounds are the wind and distant birds. There is no trace of human activity.

The rocks of Spitsbergen (Svalbard) cover more than three billion years from end to end (zircon aged 3.2bn years has been found in the north-east), but much of what we see was formed around 400 million years ago (mya) as part of the Caledonian Mountain Chain, which included parts of what are now in Scotland, Norway and eastern Greenland.

The Norwegian continental shelf has been moving north from the tropics over the ages. This accounts for the great diversity of fossils. From the Devonian age, for example are the imprints of extraordinary fish. In the Carboniferous (360 – 290 mya) and the Permian (290 – 245 mya), Svalbard was a flat area covered with lakes, lagoons and alluvial plains. There was luxuriant swamp vegetation, mostly spore plants resembling horsetails but much larger than today: 10 to 30 metres high (up to 100 feet). Toads and other amphibians roamed the earth. This era produced the coal that became Svalbard’s major industry for most of the 20th century.

During the Mesozoic (Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous eras, from 245 to 65 mya) the land that is now Svalbard drifted to between 46 and 60 north – a temperate and damp region. Fossils of the giant swan-necked reptile Tricledius Svalbardiensis, five or six metres long, have been found. There were bullet-shaped belemnites – like those fossils found on the coast of Dorset, on England’s south coast, today. Middle Triassic shales often contain phosphate layers rich in hydrocarbons. This is the oil shale that speaks of the region’s potential future as a major oil-producing zone.

We sail up Hornsund to the eastern end where there is a thin crust of sea ice. Behind this the glaciers rise – gleaming and smooth into the far distance. There are three or four of them, depending on what you count as a separate ice flow. They are receding fast – by as much as ten kilometres in the last three decades. On the charts, the new lines of the glacier fronts traced every few years look like great bites taken out of white cakes.

Our first landing is on a small area relatively free of snow on the southern side of the sound. We start to glide over the grey water towards the shore in a dirty red zodiac, stuffed into uncomfortable lifejackets, cutting through the cruelly cold air.

The first landfall has a strange feeling. What kind of world are we in? Silt, boggy mush, a few lichens and saxifrage are emerging from the long winter snow. There is a very harsh cold wind.

How does anything survive here? Yet the conditions are balmy for the animals and birds living here during the short summer (plants have a growing season of just six to ten weeks); it’s only people who have to learn to adapt. “We are a tropical animal”, says Ko, our phlegmatic Dutch guide, reminding us of our recent evolutionary roots in Africa.

For relatively naïve, first-time visitors, it is astonishing to see how life can subsist here at all. All the animals and birds – with the exception of reindeer (whose main food is a particular kind of lichen) ultimately depend on the riches of the sea.

Dan Harvey and his partner Heather Ackroyd (who has not come on the voyage) make sculpture using natural forms and processes. One recent series uses what they call photographic photosynthesis on grass.

Gary Hume is one of Britain’s most prominent artists. I’ve not seen his work. Others tell me it is very highly rated…and very highly priced. He moves among some of the superstars of contemporary art on both sides of the Atlantic. Gary is a complex character with a wicked wit. He explains his work in two sentences. “I work in two dimensions. There is no narrative in my pictures”. Gary and I are both fascinated by the rocks utterly smashed by frost – looks like they’ve exploded from the inside.

Once you start to look and listen, the land is rich in life. No more than a hundred metres from the dinghy is a set of massive polar bear footprints. A little further on, a pair of rock ptarmigans huddle on a rockface.

Back on the boat, Max Eastley, who is a musician and sculptor with sound, records the most amazing sounds. Through a hydrophone in the sea comes a series of long whistles that start high and descend, very gradually – ever so slowly – right down the scale. They sound like a cross between The Clangers and fireworks or artillery, but more gentle and sweet. It is Bearded Seals. This sound is suspended in a deep, vast, echoing underwater world, where crustaceans rustle and click in the far distance.

Part five: Landscapes of ice and longing

Saturday 31 May. The Hornbreen glacier, walking on sea ice, Polish science and endurance.

Overnight, the song of the bearded seals can be heard faintly through the metal hull of the Noorderlicht. Put an ear against one of the masts and the sound echoes right inside the skull.

Early in the morning a group of us goes for a walk on the sea ice in front of the Hornbreen glacier. This is one of the more rapidly retreating glaciers in these islands. At present it joins the island of Sorkapp – the most southerly on Spitsbergen (Svalbard) to the ‘mainland’. On present trends, some say, the glacier could melt away altogether within two or three decades, leaving an open passage of sea where this is now a river of ice hundreds of metres high and about fifteen kilometres long. But this is not the only possible future. A warmer climate in the Arctic means more snow, which can increase glacier mass (by contrast, at lower latitudes most glaciers are almost certain to shrink rapidly).

The sea ice in front of the Hornbreen glacier forms a vast, even field several kilometres across. Those of us who have never walked on sea ice before are apprehensive at first. If one falls through into the water beneath it can be hard to get out and the risk of hypothermia is high. And when this happens at some distance from help and warmth, the person who falls in could well die. Ted, the craggy Captain of the Noorderlicht, leads the way and we hold on tight to the rope, walking carefully in his footsteps. He has an old Belgian police rifle slung across his shoulder, our only protection against polar bears.

After a while we get used to being on the ice, and relax. The sun starts to edge out, making the surroundings more beautiful every moment. Walking across the ice becomes easy, peaceful.

When we reach the landward edge of the ice not far from the snout of a tributary glacier, there’s a moment of doubt. Long crack lines run through the ice where it buckles against the rock. The ice shelf ‘breathes’ – making strange, barely audible noises while moving very slightly up and down. Sometimes it seems to be growling like a distant polar bear (isbjorn – ‘ice bear’ in Norwegian).

see more of the landscape here

Gary Doyle, a geography teacher who resembles Walter Matthau, describes the moraines, the glaciers, the faults to the film crew.

In the evening we sail over to the Polish research station. Poles have been taking part in the exploration of the Arctic for over a century. At first, going there was not always a voluntary affair. The pioneers were Jan Czerski, a biologist, and Aleksander Czekanowski, a geologist – both exiled to northern Siberia in the 19th century.

Poles took part in Russian and Swedish expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th century and led independent national expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s – in particular under Stanislaw Siedlecki (1912 – 2002) who dedicated his entire life to Spitsbergen.

The permanent station was established in 1957. Photographs from the early days show a hard life, pioneering science, fierce smiles, large husky dogs. These days the station is largely staffed by technicians and engineers, who keep the systems going and make sure the data gets back to scientists in Poland. These poor guys are stuck here for twelve or (in the case of one lad who has just got married back in Poland) as much as fifteen months straight because the government cannot afford to fly them back and forward for leave.

As well as the scientific work being done here, another reason for the continued existence of the station is surely its contribution to Polish national dignity: ‘we have our autonomy and capacity to contribute the world community of knowledge’. There are a number of glaciers and other features on the archipelago named after famous Poles, including Copernicus (Mikolaj Kopernik, 1473-1543) and Marie Curie-Sklodowska, 1867-1934).

Leaving the station, there is a photograph of the aurora borealis – northern lights – in the entrance. It’s a magnificent, mysterious sight.

Sunday 1 June, Bell Sound. Amazing birdlife, and graveyards of dreams and bones.

We visit the site of an English whaling station in the early 17th century on Bell Sound. This open, empty headland was once the site of massive activity – with a dozen ships or more anchored in the bay. There is almost nothing left except a small reconstructed hut and a few whale bones, little decayed because of the cold climate.

As usual the film crew gets busy, filming every angle. Colin Izod is the director. He’s a hard working, kind man with positive energy – and no small talent as a singer and guitar player. Philip, the cameraman, is an elegant Jamaican who once trained to be a Jesuit priest, but has since become a global master of the moving image with a command of both the Japanese language and dirty dancing.

Albert, who is originally from Guyana, is one of Britain’s most experienced film sound recordists. Andy, the assistant cameraman, is a big cockney lad, sharply humorous and a good mimic, who organises wild parties in his spare time. Everyone is a volunteer whose journey to the Arctic is impelled by some personal dream. In Andy’s case, it comes from a floppy record of a forty-minute round-the-world journey by the British television host Michael Aspel which he obtained with Ribena coupons as a small child in the 1970s.

Also here is Colin’s 13-year old son Liam, whom Andy calls the Information Minister for his proficiency with satellite phone and email. Liam is probably the smartest person on the trip.

A group goes to look at one of the great bird cliffs nearby. The bird life is astonishing. The more than thirty species include red-throated diver, barnacle goose, king eider, long-tailed duck, ringed plover, snow bunting, glaucous gull, Arctic tern, little auk, and wheatear.

We are in full sunshine for the first time since reaching land, and I climb up the rigging to the top of the schooner mast to look. From high up, looking out to distant mountains and glaciers, it is easy to dream. I read again a passage from Sir Martin Conway‘s history of Spitsbergen No Man’s Land (Cambridge, 1906), which frames ancient ideas of the Arctic in Edwardian prose:

“[To the Greeks and Romans] the Northern Ocean and whatever lands there might be within it belonged to the other world, which some saw as the home of the dead. It was sluggish, stagnant, and hard for rowers to move, which even the winds could not raise, and where light of the setting sun lingered until dawn, quenching the light of the stars; and the sound of the sun’s rising could be heard, and the manes of the horses that draw his chariots and the glory about his head could be seen. ‘Only this far’ says Tacitus, ‘does the wind extend’. Homer, too, sang of the Isle Aeaean, ‘where is the dwelling place of the dawn and her dancing grounds, and the land of sun-rising’; and he told of the land of the Cimmerians ‘stranded in fog and cold, where the shining sun never sends dawn with his rays, neither when he climbs the starry heaven nor when he returns earthwards from on high, but deadly night spreads over wretched men’.”

At midnight, most of the ship’s company go for a walk further up the bay through a bog to look at more bones. We trash the fragile lichens and saxifrage underfoot. The massive boneyard – of beluga whales hunted in the early 20th century – is under deep snow. Once, the living animals were ‘thick’ in the fjord; now there are none.

Monday 2 June, Recherche glacier. Industrial archaeology, ocean currents, slowing time in order to see.

The Noorderlicht anchors near Recherche glacier, named after the French ship La Recherche which undertook the first expedition to Svalbard for purely scientific purposes in the 1830s. This French expedition was probably the first to carry skilled artists who would bring back high-quality images of what they found.

On shore are the twisted remains of cabins built by the Northern Exploration Company, a British enterprise of the early 1900s. They came looking for iron, tried to persuade the British government to annex the islands, failed, and went bankrupt.

David Buckland, our expedition leader, tells me a little bit about his work, and the inspiration for this trip. He is fascinated by the world’s deep ocean currents: how they may be changing, and what this could mean. Could the ‘tongue’ of Arctic water that makes Svalbard as warm as many places 20 degrees further south shut off?

David’s imagination is fired by research at Britain’s Hadley Centre, where they build climate models that integrate both oceanographic and biological change. As an artist and photographer, he uses photographic processes of the early 19th century. ‘People process, consume and move on from photographs in a fraction of a second. One of the things I want to do is slow this process down so that people really start to see’.

Svalbard remains a world centre for scientific exploration of all kinds. This includes the impacts of climate change (according to the Norwegian Polar Institute, ‘there is no concrete evidence that marine ecosystems have been affected by global warming’; but ‘large natural fluctuations could be masking the signals of climate change’), ecosystem management and degradation (the Barents Sea, including the waters around Svalbard, is one of the world’s most important fishing areas; and persistent organic pollutants (Pops) from the industrial world are reaching alarming concentrations in wildlife).

The trends in the polar climate are uncertain. But change seems likely. There is no ‘elsewhere’ in the environment and the human footprint is only increasing. Resting after the day I read a report of a new study from the European Union which predicts that worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide will double within thirty years. By 2030 the world will be more dependent on fossil fuels than it is today, and that the proportion of energy from renewable sources will be declining (‘Expect a hot polluted future’ New Scientist, 24 May 2003). One of the main reasons is a likely doubling in the use of coal, which will remain abundant while the price of more carbon efficient oil and gas rises.

Sailing towards the Norwegian settlement of Longyearbyen, the Noorderlicht passes Barentsburg, a Russian coal-mining town that spews out massive clouds of black smoke across the sound, staining the snow dark grey for miles around.

Part six: Conserving the sea’s bounty

Tuesday 3 June. Longyearbyen, polar bear stories and environmental politics.

We sail into Longyearbyen, the largest permanent settlement on Svalbard (about 1,500 of the 2,500 people who live on these islands are in this town and another 900 or so are in Barentsberg. The total land area of Svalbard is roughly the same as Scotland). It’s a brilliant sunny day: the world seems kind.

Longyearbyen, named after an American magnate named Longyear, started as a coal-mining town in the early 20th century. Only one of the seven mines is still working, but wooden pylons that used to carry the cables systems for transporting coal from the mountains to the port still march across the steep rocks and scree around the valley.

Today, Longyearbyen is a tidy and prosperous place. Tourism and science are the two growth industries. The tax regime is generous, and the quality of life is high. There are extraordinarily large numbers of children, given the size of the community and given that these are Europeans in a time of demographic decline.

There are also a number of fearsomely fit, lycra-clad Italians on the streets, here to take part in the world’s most northerly marathon, a few days hence. Some of them are fundraising for an organisation that supports mentally and physically handicapped people in Rome.

I have a cold beer in the pub with Dan, Suba and Ted. We share more polar bear stories. One bear at the Polish research station who decided he had an appetite for the huskies could not be stopped even by four sixteen-bore shot gun rounds from a distance of five metres. On another occasion, a guide was torn to pieces on an ice flow just thirty metres from his colleague after their gun jammed. When a man kills a polar bear the police investigate in detail, taking the matter almost as seriously as a human death.

Polar bear numbers are increasing. The very high levels of PCBs in their bodies (chemicals from industrial regions transported to the Arctic on the winds) have not been proven to have an adverse effect on their health.

The film crew, Gretel and I interview a number of people in Longyearbyen including Jason Roberts, an Australian wildlife cameraman who lives here. Jason works mainly for the BBC natural history unit in Bristol. He’s worked a lot with Doug Allen, a Scottish wildlife photographer noted for, among other things, astonishing sequences of polar bears swimming, filmed from right underneath. Over the last two years Jason has spent 450 days filming in ‘the field’ – the Arctic and Antarctic. He says he has been five times to the North Pole in the last year – on skis, with dogs and in a nuclear ice-breaker. He has strong views on conservation.

“Svalbard has the image of being well-protected, and on land that’s largely true. It’s one of the best protected areas in the world. Indeed, it may even be over-protected. In many places, people are not even allowed to go on shore – and without people experiencing the wilderness fully there’s less chance of spreading awareness of why it matters so much.”

“The problem is that there is very little protection offshore, and on these islands almost nothing survives on land without being connected to the ocean. From the bottom of the food chain (plankton) to the top (arctic foxes and polar bears) is only three or four links [via fish, seabirds and seals].”

“It’s not out of ignorance or naivety that the oceans are unprotected. The fisheries are tremendously rich here and the oil prospects are good. This represents huge amounts of money. On shore there is so much regulation that you can do virtually nothing. But just offshore the trawlers can do just what they like. It could be the same for oil.”

“I’d like to see the Norwegians extend full and complete protection out from four miles to twelve miles, which they can do under the Svalbard treaty of 1925.”

Wednesday 4 June. Marine conservation around Svalbard.

We travel north towards the Kongsfjord (‘kong’ is Norwegian for ‘king’ – giving rise to predictable jokes), site of the large European Research Facility.

more walruses

Forland Sundet, the straight between the main island of the easterly island called Prins Karls Forland, would be our normal course. But the sound may be blocked by ice at the northern end so we go round the western or outer side of this roughly 65 kilometre-long island. There is less chance of seeing the walruses on this western side as they prefer the shallow water of the channel.

Even at 79 degrees north, we are still in a current of largely Atlantic water. Warmer than Arctic waters, it keeps the water free of ice for much of the year. Amsterdam Island, further north still, was one of the first places to be free of ice – and thus home to the earliest settlements in the region – due to the current reaching there.

Val, one of our oceanographers, obtained in Longyearbyen the Report no. 118, Marine Resources of the Ocean Regions Surrounding Svalbard, from the Norwegian Polar Institute. Its recommendations include

  • Ban fishing in important nursery areas, especially to the west and north of Bjørnøya (where we had seen the Russians trawling)

  • There is a huge gap in knowledge of the impact of oil exploitation on the environment; developing the oil resources is therefore not defensible at present

  • The Storfjorden (great fjord) on the east side of Svalbard should be set aside altogether from any human uses, and studied as a climate change indicator.

Part seven: North music

Thursday 5 June. Polar flight, Aeolian flutes, birds of paradise…and climate change trends.

Ny-Ålesund, at 79 degrees north, offers the world’s most northerly retail experience. The little shop stocks surprisingly serious (and tax-free) wine, Fisherman’s Friends and polar bear glove-puppets. Once a coal-mining settlement, it is now a centre for European scientific research into the polar environment, the atmosphere and space.

Arctic terns are beginning to arrive for the summer. So far, it is mostly the males, swooping at each other and shrieking, competing fiercely to establish territories. The area occupied by this tiny town, and the shores just around it, seem to be one of their favourite spots. The human presence, some nine decades old, doesn’t seem to have affected them unduly.

These birds have just flown more than 17,000 kilometres (11,000 miles) from the Antarctic. It has taken them about a hundred days. In the next three months they and the females who soon follow will feed, breed and fledge their young before starting again for the far south. Arctic terns fly over 35,000 kilometres (21,750 miles) each year – almost the circumference of the earth. They probably spend more of their lives in daylight than any other creature.

They’re beautiful, of course: delicate, with deeply forked tails and a dark trailing edge on their wings. But one of the most amazing things about these chronic insomniacs is how small they are – just 30-38 centimetres (12-15 inches) long and less than 500 grams (a pound) in weight.

The American naturalist John Hay called Arctic terns the Birds of Light. Their taxonomic name – Sterna paradisaea – is almost as delightful: the second part means ‘of paradise’. After close study, Hay reflected:

“I will never wholly know the terns because of the facts and information I am able to collect about them. I follow after them because the quality of their being is still wild, still unconquerable, out of the ocean of being that created them.”

But it’s not all poetry. If they think you are getting too close to their nests these terns will dive bomb and deliver a very hard thump on the top of your head

In the centre of Ny-Ålesund there’s a statue of Roald Amundsen. Eagle-nosed, mournful, and smeared with bird droppings, it stares towards a pylon a couple of hundred metres to the east. Here, in 1926, moored the dirigible Norge in which Amundsen and others made the first aerial crossing of the North Pole, flying on to Alaska. From here to the Pole is roughly the distance (around 1,240 kilometres) from one end of Britain to the other.

The first attempt – made in 1925 with Dornier biplanes – had been a disaster but also one of the most astonishing survival stories of the age. The year after the flight of the Norge, Amundsen disappeared forever during a bid to rescue his friend-turned-rival Umberto Nobile, who was trying a second crossing.

Jon Børre Ørbaek, project co-ordinator for the Ny-Ålesund Large Scale Scientific Facility, shows us around. There’s a big international scientific presence here. The Germans mainly study upper atmosphere chemistry and physics. In winter, they shoot a green laser beam 50 kilometres up into the dark sky in order to profile its composition in detail. Albert Speer, eat your heart out.

The British – through the Natural Environment Research Council – mainly research biology and geomorphology. The Italians are here in force. The South Koreans, among others, are putting in a show these days. There is talk of the Chinese coming here in number and force – a prospect which some others seem to be nervous about.

Jon is the sober scientist, but he shows his wild side when he requisitions Carolyn Maze, our best sailor and an all-round winter sports champion, to help him take David Buckland (our expedition leader) and Phil Chavannes (our cameraman) out on snow scooters across the sea ice to film scientists taking cores.

“The ice was splitting open underneath us, revealing the water,” says Carolyn when they get back. “We kept going faster and faster. We were doing 80 clicks [80kmph/50mph], skidding over water and making it to the next bit of ice by sheer momentum.” Snow scooters do not float. Carolyn laughs.

The scientists and engineers I talk to are dubious about Greenpeace, the environmental group, which had visited the previous year. The activists brought their boat, the Rainbow Warrior, to Kongsfjord to photograph a glacier that has retreated fast, leaving a clear channel of sea between the ice and an island.

“These guys are not telling the whole truth”, say some scientists I talk to. “We told them, 'this is not new. You need to look at several other glaciers nearby which are actually increasing in mass. This has been studied in great detail'. But they simplified and went away with only a small part of the story”.

Climate change trends are hard to predict at the regional level. But the larger context points unambiguously to overall higher temperatures on Earth. Later, I am able to access the internet for the first time on this trip. The New Scientist (“Global Warming Smokescreen Revealed”, 4 June), reports that global warming is likely to be significantly greater in the 21st century than models have suggested hitherto.

Paul Crutzen, the 1995 Nobel laureate in chemistry, and Bert Bolin, chair of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) from 1988-98, have found that smoke mitigates up to three-quarters of the greenhouse effect – far more than was previously thought. That may seem like good news, but Bolin and Crutzen point out that as cover diminishes in coming decades, there is likely to be a dramatic escalation in global warming - two or three times as great as previous best estimates. This is a sobering finding, and I feel pretty stunned as I walk back to the boat. Only the sex mad Eider ducks, making a noise half way between a pigeon and wolf, bring me back to the present moment

. After a day of glorious sunshine, the weather turns cold and snowy as we leave Ny-Ålesund. Max Eastley ties sections of cut-off plastic tubing to the Noorderlicht’s rigging, creating Aeolian flutes – an amazing sliding set of sounds pitched at subtler intervals than the western pentatonic scale, varying in intensity, cycling but never quite repeating.

I recall an earlier conversation with Max about the 5,000-year old structures in Britain and Ireland which create conditions for standing waves of sound at the frequency of the human voice. One of the things that fascinates Max about music, is that it is old as humanity itself, perhaps older. It is integral to our being, he says, both within us and infinitely larger. Fulmars and little auks fly within just a few feet of the boat to investigate the sounds from Max’s tubes – the first time they have come so close.

We are heading south for the inside passage of Prins Karls Forland. We are going to see the walruses.

The Noorderlicht

The Noorderlichtmore photos

Part eight: A moment in eternity

6 June. Prins Karls Forlund, seduced by walruses

At about 1am we near the shore of Prins Karls Forland at a place called Richardlaguna. Ted, the captain, slows down the boat. Suddenly, there’s a shout “Walruses! Walruses!”

In the distance, massive round shapes bob through the water. Slowly, they come closer and stop to look at us, snorting like steam trains. They don’t seem entirely comfortable, and swim on, around the Noorderlicht. But later, at about 3am, a group comes back and swims around the boat again, taking plenty of time to clock anyone on board. Staring into walrus eyes, I am besotted.

At 7am we organise landing parties. It’s a cold, hard morning – with quite a wind and steady snow. The water is rough and the shoreline hard to land on. We have to climb out of dinghy straight up about six feet of ice.

The land is a picture of desolation. We start to walk parallel to the shore. Large yellow patches on the snow. Walrus piss! We’re passing over a sleeping spot from some previous night.

A hundred metres further down there’s a cluster of twelve mature walruses, dozing in a great heap. These guys are big. Adult males can weigh nearly two metric tons (around 2,000 kilograms). They remind me of the startlingly obese Americans I saw on a recent trip to Utah – only they have much more charm.

At first, they don’t mind our presence too much. We’re careful not to do anything that might alarm them. But when more of us turn up and get too close, they frighten and lumber into the water, turning round about twenty metres off shore and looking at us with puzzlement. Why won’t we let them sleep? We have broken their precious rest.

In the present era, Walrus-Human relations are cordial. In general, we are learning to leave them alone, allowing for the slow recovery of the species from almost total annihilation because they are no longer a valuable resource.

The earliest account of a walrus in English dates from 1604, when the Speed, under Stephen Bennett of the London-based Muscovy Company, reconnoitred these islands. One day, a walrus – which at that time they termed a Sea Morse put his head out of the water ‘looking earnestly at the boate’ and making ‘an horrible noyse and roaring…they in the boate thought he would have sunk it’.

The charm of this animal was evidently as great to people in the 17th century as it is for us today. In 1611 a young walrus was shown at the English court ‘where the kinge and many honourable personages beheld it with admiration for the strangenesse of the same, the like whereof had never been seene alive in England. As the beast in shape is very strange, so it is of a strange docilitie, and apt to be taught’.

But that was the view for home consumption. In that first encounter of 1604 the English soon learnt walruses were not only harmless but rich in oil. In 1605 Muscovy Company ships returned to Spitsbergen, spending the entire summer killing walruses and boiling down the blubber which was used for soap. By the third season, in 1606, they were so experienced in walrus hunting that within six hours of landing they had killed between six and seven hundred beasts out of which they made twenty-two tons of oil and filled three hogsheads (large barrels) with tusks.

7 June. Barentsburg, desolation row and Russian vodka

We take a couple of detours on the way back to Longyearbyen. First we sail out away from the islands so that Sarah and Val can do some more temperature and salinity profiles of the water column in order to determine where Arctic and Atlantic waters meet and where the transition areas are. (See more about this on the oceans for schools web site http://www.soc.soton.ac.uk/JRD/SCHOOL/cn/exp001.html).

Then we stop at Barentsburg, the Russian coal-mining town. If you were trying to create a model of ugliness and filth, this would be it. Belching chimneys, grime, dilapidation, broken pipes: Niebelung meets the Gulag.

A statue of Lenin gleams like new in the main square. Hey, the man was a mass murderer but he’s part of our cultural heritage. Not too far from the statue the miners built a small wooden church just two years ago, something that was not previously allowed.

The Russian authorities have closed other mining operations in Svalbard, including one memorably described by BBC correspondent Alex Kirby an “abomination of desolation”. Indeed, the Russians are beginning to reduce their presence across large swathes of the Arctic, putting an end to decades of misery for hundreds of thousands. But they’re determined to remain here in Barentsburg. For one thing, the coal is good quality and can be sold directly to the European Union for hard currency. More importantly, perhaps, the Russian authorities want to back up their claims to offshore resources of fish, oil and gas.

A few hours in Barentsburg and we get to quite like the place. Could it be the vodka at the hotel bar at ten in the morning? The miners have a functioning sports complex and a theatre which is clearly a place for lively musical events. They get fed three times a day – the central canteen is said to provide a memorable culinary experience – and are paid in full at the end of their two year stint. Many of these guys come from the Donbass region of Ukraine – and compared to the Donbass, Barentsburg is heaven.

8 June. Longyearbyen, fire and ice, love minus zero

Longyearbyen. Journey’s end. From here we fly out to Oslo and back to London.

Suba performs a dance on the aft deck of the Noorderlicht. It is in the south Indian tradition, but developed on her own lines. The accompaniment is one of Max’s seal song recordings. It sounds weird, I know; but it is magnificent.

What will come out of this trip? Important new materials for the UK science and geography national educational curricula. Inspiration and images for some of the most creative people you could find (there are several amazing individuals I have not even mentioned in this Globolog), who will help make beauty and wonder available to others. Foggy memories of all-night parties on the Noorderlicht. Admiration for the crew, including the strong and gorgeous first mate Maaike and her enthusiastic miniature poodle Eisbrant (‘burning ice’). A sense of wonder at the huge forces shaping a few moments on the earth. A greater appreciation of the role of good science. Questions as to the wisdom of some current economic and social policies.

How do you measure all that? As Globolog has quoted in a previous context:

“Love is the star to evr’y wandering bark,
whose worth’s not known although his height be taken”

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