By Florian LeDoux
Life on earth is the most elaborate state of matter in the cosmos. It has evolved over billions of years and requires nearly impossible physical conditions to exist. Being alive is a moving and fascinating experience when we are truly present to the natural world around us. There are places on Earth that can alter you forever. These places, once experienced, leave their mark within you, changing who you are and how you see the world.
The Svalbard Archipelago is one of these places. The power of the elements here leaves you speechless. To contemplate the endless forms created in the ice is to see deep complexity built of only hydrogen and water. Plants and animals, perfectly evolved to survive in this place, work in harmony with each other and the ice and land around them.
Svalbard is the last land above Europe before the North Pole. This Norwegian archipelago is a unique territory in the Arctic, offering a diversity of landscapes and fauna like nowhere else in the far north. Svalbard brings together all the facets of each region of the Arctic. There are places similar to Nunavut, Canada, but also like Greenland and the Russian Arctic Islands.
Here, life is tough. The endurance required to survive is like very few places in the world. In winter, storms sweep the mountainous landscapes, break the ice floes like glass and existence compresses with plummeting temperatures. The few tenacious species that overwinter here must endure darkness and extreme conditions to survive until light returns and their world begins to warm again at the end of February.
The species in Svalbard are dependent, either directly or indirectly, on the ice. All ecosystems are linked to the rhythms of this ice; the pack ice, the glaciers and the rivers, which all vary according to the seasons. In winter, ice envelopes the island, creating a frozen landscape as far as the eye can see. In summer, the ice retreats north, changing the food supply and mobility available to animals like seals, walrus and polar bear.
2021, Record Temperatures
We were in the middle of the 2021 summer season when the air temperature suddenly rose, due to a hot air flow from Siberia. Longyearbyen was the hottest place in all of Norway on Saturday July 27th. With 21.7 degrees Celsius recorded at 6pm in Longyearbyen, the archipelago experienced its hottest day since the start of meteorological records. And it happened just 1,300 km from the North Pole.
Not only was it hot on July 27, 2021, but these high temperatures remained over the archipelago for more than a week. I remember being in shorts and slippers at midnight the following Monday, facing the eternal midnight sun. We didn’t feel like we were in the Arctic anymore. The average air temperature in Svalbard has increased by 3 to 5° C between 1971 and 2017. In recent years, there have even been episodes of heavy rains during the winter explains the Norwegian official report.
About 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers which represent 10% of the total area of Arctic glaciers. It goes without saying that the rise in average temperatures has a large impact on all ecosystems present in this region of the Arctic. Currently, Svalbard’s glaciers lose more ice through surface melt and calving than they accumulate mass through snow in winter. An average reduction of the glacial surface of 10% was estimated from from the average in 1961-1990 period to the 2019. Aerial photographs taken during the summer expeditions to the North East in Svalbard bear witness to this significant melting, illustrating the surface of the Austfonna ice cap, full of rivers.
Warm temperatures also have other impacts. Permafrost, which since 2009 has had temperature increases at rates between 0.06 ° C and 0.15 ° C per year to a depth of 10 meters.
(Source Svalbard Climate 2100 report, miljodirektoratet)
The One Worthy of Great Respect
Standing in front of this animal, meeting the great wanderer of the extreme, there is a confrontation of ultimate power and a fine tenderness in one body; the great Polar Bear. Every encounter is unique and incredible. Very often when I share space with them, tears come to my eyes, despite the cold. The emotions I have around them do not change over the years, although there have been many encounters. This winter, I have been lucky to spend long months on the sea ice with them, hours and hours of waiting, and then observing. Despite the reduction of sea ice in summer, moving further north, polar bears are resilient animals. The key to their evolution and survival in these extreme environments has always been adaptation. As conditions change, polar bears spend more time on land and seek out different options. I have observed them hunting reindeer on several occasions, even when there was lots of sea ice. I have also observed a few bears hunting in walrus colonies. However, their main source of food remains the energy-rich seal fat, which they find in abundance in the spring.
But other factors threaten this species, such as the pressure from hunting. The polar bear has received very little protection, except in Svalbard, since 1973. Prior this date in Svalbard, 30,294 bears were shot from 1871 to 1973. Across the Arctic today, more than 1,000 polar bears are still killed each year. Since I was born almost 30,000 polar bears have been killed worldwide.
Chemical pollutants also have a negative impact on all mammals. In the late 1970s, regulations came into effect on the global use of pollutants, such as PCBs and pesticides, helping to reduce pollutants in polar bears. However, because they are predators at the top of the food chain, organic pollutant levels remain high in polar bears. Studies have shown that pollutants can impact the activity of molecules in the brain, the immune system, and hormones that are important for developmental processes and energy metabolism. Pollutants also have the ability to interfere with the fat storage and burning processes in polar bears.
Sea ice, known as pack ice, is a sensitive component of the climate in the Arctic, where the freezing, melting and movement of sea ice are governed by the thermodynamics of the atmosphere and the ocean. The sea ice also plays an important role on the climate. It’s high albedo effect (reflection of light and heat radiation from the sun) prevents excessive warming at the earth’s surface. The insulating effect of ice keeps the heat exchange (where heat carried by ocean currents in lower latitudes is released to the atmosphere) to specific areas and prevents warm Atlantic water from traveling too far north.
Currently, Arctic sea ice is shrinking at a rate of 12.85% per decade. In 2020, Arctic sea ice coverage reached its second minimum extent since researchers began observing it in the late 1970s. (figures and analysis from NASA and National Snow and Ice Data Center NSIDC).Less ice means the Arctic waters will absorb rather than reflect the sun’s energy and warmer, Atlantic water will infiltrate the cold, Arctic waters, altering ecosystems and warming the planet even more.
The Arctic, a Vital Place
All living species on the planet grow and prosper in association with other species. A tree needs a certain climate and certain types of soil. Mushrooms, berries and fruits need certain types of tree. Insects, birds, and arctic fauna need ice, and so do we Humans. The only difference is that our survival does not depend only on one ecosystem, but on all of the ecosystems of our planet. And the unravelling of these ecosystems, all over the world, begins with the disruption of the polar regions. We need to reverse our trajectory now, before we cross points of no return.
When we cherish it fully, Nature has much more to offer us than just resources. Nature can nourish us at every level and help us find an inner balance to live in deep joy and harmony.
Long live the Arctic.