Sparks fly at Arctic conference

February 18, 2015

Northern Lights, January 2015, over Kvaløya Island, Norway.
© Randall Hyman

The Arctic Frontiers policy and science conference in northern Norway this January was marked by fiery debate as hundreds of participants reacted to the landmark announcement on the first day that the government was inviting 43 companies to bid on new oil leases in the Barents Sea. It was the first such offering in 20 years, and it contradicted advice from Norway’s own scientists that oil activity should remain far south of the fluctuating polar sea-ice edge.

The new lease parcels overlap what some consider the hazardous “slush line,” where ice and storm make extraction technologically and environmentally risky. This zone is the cradle of life in the Arctic Ocean, where the ice edge recedes each spring under 24-hour sunlight, generating vast algal blooms that feed the entire food chain, from fish to seals to polar bears. Opponents of the new lease blocks say that an oil spill in this remote and gale-prone region would be disastrous and difficult to contain.

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Norwegian Polar Institute scientist investigates marine life at the Arctic Ocean ice edge, 82º North latitude.
© Randall Hyman

Throughout the conference, prime ministers, oil execs, environmentalists and scientists debated management of Arctic resources in light of a startling energy study published by Nature in early January. The study, based on careful modelling of the Earth’s carbon budget and the United Nations’ call to cap Industrial Age global temperature rise at 2°C (3.6°F), suggests that 4/5 of the world’s coal reserves, 1/3 of its oil and 1/2 of its gas must remain forever untapped.

The study specifically cites Arctic oil as essentially off limits, and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg declared at the conference that her country was entering a new “gas age” and would be slowly leaving oil behind. Environmentalists and policy wonks warned of “stranded assets” — i.e., extraordinarily expensive, taxpayer-subsidized oil and gas rigs left abandoned in the Arctic Ocean in a post-oil economy three decades from now.


Tanker ship docks at liquified natural gas plant at the gateway to the Barents Sea in Hammerfest , Norway.
© Randall Hyman

By any measure, these are precarious times in the Arctic. Oil prices are tumbling and many Barents Sea exploration sites are yielding mediocre results. While the petroleum industry desperately looks to slash costs, environmentalists see cheap, $50/barrel oil as a blessing. For the short term, with a break-even point of $100/barrel, Arctic oil is just too expensive to drill.

Nonetheless, oil companies and some Arctic Council nations are betting on oil for the long term. Since planting its flag on the seabed at the North Pole, Russia has been reopening mothballed Cold War defense sites across its vast Arctic coastline. In a counter move, Denmark recently laid claim to all gas and oil resources at the Pole by extending Greenland’s subsea mineral rights far north of its icy shores. For its part, the United States owns only one active heavy icebreaker to deal with maritime emergencies in the Arctic compared with six nuclear icebreakers operated by Russia.

With the US assuming chairmanship of the Arctic Council from Canada in April, President Obama recently appointed Admiral Bob Papp, former head of the Coast Guard, as special representative to the Arctic. Papp spoke at the conference, calling for caution regarding energy development in the Arctic, in stark contrast to the pro-development leanings of Canada.

Papp’s concerns are worth noting as the US prepares to open the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to drilling on one side of the Arctic and Norway expands Barents Sea claims on the other side. Oil industry assurances that Arctic operations can be conducted safely ring hollow for environmentalists who remember the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and Royal Dutch Shell’s disastrous drillship wreck near Kodiak Island in 2012, which, like the BP oil disaster, was the result of a chain of reckless cost-cutting decisions.

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Norwegian Polar Institute scientist walks along Arctic Ocean ice edge at 82º North.
© Randall Hyman

Meanwhile, the ice continues to melt, with Arctic temps rising twice as fast as the rest of the globe. While experts estimate that 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of its untapped natural gas lie beneath the Arctic Ocean, reaching them depends on how quickly the Arctic melts and, conversely, how effectively the world curbs greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists predict an ice-free North Pole by 2030.

VIDEO: Sami reindeer corral

February 8, 2015

After attending the Arctic Frontiers conference in January, I joined Sami herdsmen outside the town of Tromsø, Norway as they corralled and separated reindeer trapped along the coast by early snows in autumn. The animals were finally headed by truck to the highlands to join herds that had already migrated to high mountain plateaus.

Lowland, coastal winters are deadly and expensive. Successive layers of ice caused by alternate rain and freeze cycles cover pastures like a steel sheet, making natural foraging impossible. This can lead to starvation. The herdsmen I met outside Tromsø were spending $1500/day feeding specially-formulated food pellets and hay to some 2000 reindeer. For the herdsmen, the sooner their animals made it to higher ground, the better.

Winter temperatures in the highlands are bitterly cold, but that makes snow dry and fluffy, which insulates the tundra pasture so reindeer can easily paw out an existence. Even in the highlands, though, life is tough. White-tailed eagles and wolverines prey upon herds, cutting calf survival to 10% some years. Reindeer do not usually bear twins like sheep, so the loss of a single calf hits hard.



Sami reindeer herdsman, Johan Isak Oskal, tends his herd.
© Randall Hyman


Since the early 1980s, climate change has steadily made reindeer ranching even more difficult, bringing rain-freeze cycles to the highlands rather than just the coastal lowlands. This is bad news for reindeer and bad news for traditional Samis, Scandinavia’s only indigenous people. Once heavily dependent upon reindeer, only 3% of northern Norway’s 50,000 Samis now follow this semi-nomadic, rugged outdoor lifestyle.

Mining, power lines, roads and expanding communities are steadily encroaching upon ancestral lands, but Samis are beginning to see one bright spot: cultural tourism. With greater awareness of the threats facing the Sami way of life, foreigners are coming in increasing numbers to experience this unique culture. Several Sami companies offer visitors a range of traditional activities, from half-day reindeer sledding to week-long treks following the annual migration from highlands to lowlands in April.



Musing over her legacy, a Sami girl studies father’s initials on parka as family rounds up herd.
© Randall Hyman

Alicia Patterson Fellowship

January 5, 2015

The year is off to a great start with the news that I have been awarded a 12-month Alicia Patterson Foundation grant, American journalism’s oldest writing fellowship, as well as receiving the Foundation’s top honor of being their Josephine Patterson Albright Fellow.



Glacial ice sits on frozen fjord in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman


Norwegian Embassy feature

November 5, 2014

The Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington just launched a website series showcasing one American each month whose work focuses on the Arctic. They chose me as their inaugural feature for the month of November. The monthly series is leading up to April when Canada will hand over chairmanship of the Arctic Council to the United States from 2015 through 2017.



Seabirds scatter as glacier plummets into ocean in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

Northern Lights article in SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE

October 15, 2014

While at the Arctic Frontiers science and policy conference in Tromsø, Norway last January, I did a story about the booming phenomenon of Northern Lights tourism. “Seeing the light” is on everyone’s bucket list these days, and you can read more about it in my story that appeared online in Smithsonian Magazine this month.



Northern Lights shimmer above Lofoten Islands. © Randall Hyman

NBC-TV affiliate interview

October 1, 2014

As the list of venues grows where I have presented my video/photo lecture show on climate change and sustainability, the NBC affiliate television station in St. Louis recently interviewed me about my travels in the Arctic as a Fulbright Scholar and beyond.


Display of Randall Hyman’s photos at lecture.

Paleoclimate and clams articles in DISCOVER MAGAZINE

September 12, 2014

A trilogy of articles for Discover Magazine’s Field Notes department covers my recent trip with a team of scientists off the north tip of Norway studying clams for insights into Arctic climate change past and present.



Arctica islandica clam at Ingøya, Norway. © Randall Hyman



Scientists deploy rack of clams fitted with electronic loggers. © Randall Hyman



Scientists examine trove of shells washed ashore at Ingøya in storm. © Randall Hyman





Smithsonian Magazine Instagram, May 23rd

June 23, 2014

On the final day of my week-long editorship of Smithsonian Magazine’s Instagram page exactly one month ago, here are the last three Arctic Oracle images and texts published. Click each photo to retrieve the corresponding Instagram page:

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Scientist walks across thinning pack ice 500 miles from North Pole. © Randall Hyman

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Newly-hatched kittiwake chick. © Randall Hyman

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Northern Lights shimmer over Lofoten Islands. © Randall Hyman

Smithsonian Magazine Instagram, May 22nd

June 22, 2014

On the sixth day of my week-long editorship of Smithsonian Magazine’s Instagram page one month ago, here are the three Arctic Oracle images and texts published. Click each photo to retrieve the corresponding Instagram page:

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Sea angel. © Randall Hyman

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First night of midnight sun in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

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Russian trawler’s catch. © Randall Hyman

Smithsonian Magazine Instagram, May 21st

June 21, 2014

On the fifth day of my week-long editorship of Smithsonian Magazine’s Instagram page one month ago, here are the three Arctic Oracle images and texts published. Click each photo to retrieve the corresponding Instagram page:

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Scientist releases weather balloon at science base in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

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Emaciated, stranded polar bear looks for meal on land. © Randall Hyman

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Scientist sets up GPS to track glacial flow. © Randall Hyman

Smithsonian Magazine Instagram, May 20th

June 20, 2014

On the fourth day of my week-long editorship of Smithsonian Magazine’s Instagram page one month ago, here are the three Arctic Oracle images and texts published. Click each photo to retrieve the corresponding Instagram page:

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Bearded seal on ice in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

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Randall Hyman sits on iceberg in Arctic Ocean.

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Scientist researches Arctic tern migration. © Randall Hyman

Smithsonian Magazine Instagram, May 19th

June 19, 2014

Next in the Smithsonian Magazine series, here are the three Arctic Oracle images and texts published exactly one month ago on the magazine’s Instagram page. Click each photo to retrieve the corresponding Instagram page:

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Scuba diver gathers marine samples in the Arctic Ocean. © Randall Hyman

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Diver triumphantly pumps fists after finding plankton beneath ice 500 miles from North Pole. © Randall Hyman

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Entire face of glacier calves in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

Smithsonian Magazine Instagram, May 18th

June 18, 2014

Following up on the previous post, here are the three Arctic Oracle images and texts published exactly one month ago on Smithsonian Magazine’s Instagram page. Click each photo to retrieve the corresponding Instagram page:

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Puffin portrait in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

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Dog sledding in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

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Young Svalbard reindeer. © Randall Hyman

Smithsonian Magazine Instagram, May 17th

June 17, 2014

From May 17th through May 23rd, I hosted Smithsonian Magazine’s Instagram page and featured my Arctic Oracles project. I posted text and photos three times a day covering important aspects of the changing Norwegian Arctic. Here are the postings, one month later, day by day. Today’s three photos and text originally published May 17th. Click on each photo to retrieve the corresponding Instagram posts:

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Randall Hyman stands on ice pack beside research ship 500 miles from North Pole.

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Scientists take core samples of fjord ice in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

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Norwegian children celebrate 17th of May in Kirkenes, Norway. © Randall Hyman

VIDEO & PHOTO GALLERY: Return of the Sun

January 21, 2014

It is soldagen, or Sun Day, here in Tromsø, Norway, far above the Arctic Circle. Last time folks here saw the sun was mid November, and there is great anticipation on this clear frigid day in the third week of January, especially among the children. My day begins at 9:00 a.m. (still very dark in mid morn), attending a speech by the Norwegian prime minister on Arctic foreign and domestic policy in the wake of climate change. While she is from Norway’s right-wing party, there is no debate in Scandinavia about whether climate change exists, just debate about how to deal with the problems and opportunities, as avidly discussed this week at the Arctic Frontiers international conference. After another speech from Greenland’s first female prime minister about her determination to put traditional indigenous lifestyles above exploitation of the country’s lucrative mineral and petroleum resources, I slip out of the dark auditorium to catch a city bus for the coast.

When I was last here in July, kids were swimming in skimpy suits in the cold waters, but today the rocky shore is covered with snow and sheets of ice. Only three girls with a sack of cordwood get off the bus with me. The shore is empty, save for a couple of photographers shivering in the 15F° weather. Distant snowy mountain peaks are already glowing in the rosy first light of sunrise at 11am, but here the southern tip of Tromsø Island is still in shadow. The three girls begin building a fire, and soon more groups arrive, lighting fires along the shore. Suddenly a woman runs forward excitedly pointing and shouting. I swing around and, lo and behold, at 11:04 a.m. the sun has returned from her winter slumber.

Even I, having only spent a few days here, am giddy with excitement. It is the sun, in all her glory, beaming across the ocean from behind a mountain, dancing across the calm waters on this frigid winter day. I run along the shore photographing people’s reactions, and then it is over at 11:11am just as I catch a group of kids sitting on ice-covered beach rocks around a fire with the sun setting behind them.



Norwegian schoolchildren celebrate sun’s return in Tromsø, Norway. © Randall Hyman

(click above photo for video!)

I ask someone where all the school groups are that traditionally come each year to celebrate along the shore. A woman tells me they are on their way and will still see the sun rise. Impossible! It has already set! I suddenly hear the distant commotion of hundreds of boots shuffling down a snowy path carrying hordes of chattering children. Here they are, crowds of them, with suns painted on their faces and decorated paper headbands.

As the kids gather above the beach, the sun magically reappears from behind the distant mountains, as promised, playing peek-a-boo between peaks, tracing a low path along the horizon. Kids are darting wildly everywhere, waving, pointing and jumping with glee. Before it is all over, an hour has passed and the sun has set and risen three more times. I finally join the crowds of happy children and teachers marching from the beach up icy streets back to school.

For me, the celebration is still missing one thing. A girl walking her huge, fluffy white Samoyed dog (never did a dog look better suited for such an icy climate) suggests I duck into the Tromsø Museum to warm up and get some hot chocolate. I discover they have no cafe, but the receptionist escorts me into the staff cafeteria where a party is underway with workers happily drinking hot chocolate and munching on the traditional solbolle, or sun buns— sweet dough, fried like donuts and sprinkled with sugar, some with cream or raspberry filling. My hands are thawing, my spirits are high and my celebration is complete.  The sun has returned home to the Arctic, and so have I.



Norwegian schoolchildren greet sun after almost two months without sunrise in Tromsø, Norway. © Randall Hyman

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