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Trip Reports

Svalbard Arctic Adventure: Part 3

written by Monique Fallows

Sea smoke in the Arctic

Posted on Friday, 12 May 2017

Part 3

We steamed northwards to the North West corner where we were hoping to find the pack ice. Polar bears are often found floating on ice floes as they move around searching for seals.

The conditions however were not on our side.

The Polar ice cap shifts each year according to winds and current. Right now it is much further south than it has been in past years effectively blocking our passage further north and the chance to explore normally fruitful fjord systems.

Temperatures remained extremely low with most days being between -20 and -28C.

Sea ice was forming all the time and this meant we couldn’t get close enough to glaciers and shorelines to spot.

The very thick sea mist reduced visibility and finding another polar bear sadly became an impossible task.

A highlight however was coming across a number of walrus on the ice floes. These huge mollusc eating flippered marine mammals can weigh up to 1000kgs and sport large heavy tusks. They certainly won’t be winning any beauty pageants but still a captivating animal to see up close.

 

Climate Change and The Arctic

If I had to ask anyone on the planet which animal is most at risk from climate change even people who are not interested in wildlife will most likely tell you it would be a Polar Bear.

I love learning from people who as naturalists spend a lot of time in the field and as such have a clear understanding on how all the systems work. In my mind time in the field and natural observations are the best source of interesting and relevant information. Our guide Erik was able to give me a much better understanding of the Arctic.

 

It is fact that the sea ice in the North has been depleted by 80% since the 1970’s and that most of the loss has taken place since 2005.

The above becomes extremely important given how vital the sea ice is to the eco system of the arctic. And it’s not just the Arctic. The effects of a healthy or an unhealthy arctic stretches much further afield.

 

To break it down very simply:

Algae lives under the sea ice and feeds on the sea ice.

Zooplankton and phytoplankton feed on the algae and the extremely cold water is full of nutrients.

Polar cod (a species of small fish) then feeds on the plankton which in turn attracts sea birds and seals to feed on the fish.

Polar bears feed on the seals and thus a very balanced and healthy eco system exists.

 

Presently the Greenland Current carries these nutrient rich waters through Norway, down to Ireland and then across to the east coast of the USA.

The currents allowing these nutrient rich waters to travel on this route are essential to the healthy cod populations in these areas and sustain a very important fishery.

Of some of the factors influencing ocean currents temperature differentiation plays a very important role. It can directly affect where currents move.

Climate change and the increased ocean temperature may have a very large effect on the eco system I have just described, and ultimately on the all-important cod fisheries I have just spoken about.

 

It’s very important to understand how climate change is having an effect. Its’ not just polar bears at the extreme risk of extinction, it is the entire Polar eco system that is currently existing in a fine but precarious and fragile balance. Any small change can have a catastrophic effect on the system which will have severe knock-on effects.

 

One final scary thought to consider is that a proper Polar Bear population count in Svalbard and Franz Josef Land has not taken place since 2005.With 80% of the sea ice now depleted where does that leave the Polar Bear and the domino effect?

 

In conclusion I have to admit that I set out on a mission to see a Polar Bear but the surprise highlight was just simply to experience The Arctic.

Such punishing cold, harsh conditions and the difficulties associated with that; air so rarefied, crisp and clean making the spectacular mountains appear as 3D shapes hovering above, around and beyond you;  sea smoke smouldering around ice-floes and icebergs; sunrise and sunset changing by 20 minutes each day as the far North races towards mid-night sun; snow, ice and blue glaciers providing a back drop to courting and duelling polar bears…that was my little piece of The Arctic, and long may it remain.

 

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