NPR interview, traveling exhibit and lecture show

December 15, 2013

More and more Americans are becoming concerned about the fate of the Arctic and how it relates to their own actions and future.  With growing concern comes increased media coverage. Link to my interview of December 9, 2013 on NPR’s St. Louis Public Radio affiliate, KWMU, which focuses on my traveling lecture show and exhibit, Shattered Arctic, and includes photos, embedded videos and podcast audio of three segments of the interview.

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Northern Lights shimmer over Lofoten Islands, Norway. © Randall Hyman

 

VIDEO REPRISE: Thin ice

November 5, 2013

This video joins fifteen scientists and divers as they sail from the Svalbard archipelago toward the North Pole aboard the Norwegian Polar Institute’s research vessel, RV Lance, monitoring disruptions in the Arctic marine ecosystem due to climate change. (For details, see previous posts: Thin ice: Uncharted waters of climate change and In the beginning… there were protists)

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Diver from Norwegian Polar Institute research vessel RV Lance surfaces through pack ice at 82 degrees north latitude on mission to collect plankton specimens; Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: In the beginning, there were protists

August 24, 2013

It is perhaps fitting that my four-month journey across the Norwegian Arctic should end at the beginning… of life, that is. I am traveling aboard the Norwegian Polar Institute’s research ship, R/V Lance, with a team of marine microbiologists and oceanographers monitoring shifts in salinity, temperature and plankton to track incursions of warm Atlantic waters into Arctic seas. In two seasons I have come full circle, from ice maximum in April to nearly ice minimum in August, when the frozen ocean retreats to the highest, most remote latitudes.

After 10 days of watching scientists analyze chemical data and microorganisms scooped from some of the Arctic Ocean’s deepest waters, I find their work every bit as fascinating as studying polar bears or whales. They examine some of the most varied fauna and flora on Earth that are as tiny as they are crucial to the planet’s health.

The earliest form of life, blue-green algae, was a simple bacteria, or protist, that became the template for thousands of single-celled organisms, themselves roots of the five kingdoms of the phylogenetic tree. They bequeathed us our atmosphere and replaced the poisonous gasses that originally enveloped the Earth. While polar bears, whales, seabirds and seals are exciting, they all look boringly similar in the eyes of Lance’s microbiologists, who revel in the dazzling and diverse structures of diatoms, dinoflagellates, amphipods and copepods.

Pea-sized sea angel (Clione limacina) is a shell-less cold water gastropod, one of many zooplankton collected at 82 degrees latitude beneath polar sea ice latitude north of Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

 

Having sampled waters on the western and northernmost coast of the Svalbard archipelago, we have spent the entire sunlit night zig-zagging northward, crashing through huge ice floes, searching for algae which thrives on the underside of the Arctic Ocean’s frozen lid. The few of us awake on the bridge and deck scan for the telltale brown of algae on shattered floes that flip over and slide across each other like massive ice cubes as our ship crashes forward. Lance’s hull shakes and grinds with each headlong rush through another fracture line smashed open by the 23-centimeter-thick (nine-inch) reinforced bow.

Finally, we anchor on a sheet of ice two meters thick that extends to the North Pole. The vast snowscape is eerily quiet and still after a night of bone-rattling ice breaking. Wasting no time, scientists and deckhands auger two holes in the floe and insert steel tubes that serve as mooring posts. Five divers pull sledges full of scuba tanks and other gear to a melt pond that has a seal hole in the middle.

Using saws, they enlarge the opening and, after careful equipment checks, disappear under the ice with special suction canisters for collecting plankton. The ocean here is nearly 4000 meters deep. I crouch in the slippery melt pond 2.5 miles above the seabed floor, hand plunged in the freezing water taking photos, and imagine slipping down this hole into the bottomless blue.

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Scientist collects marine samples beneath the Arctic Ocean ice pack 500 miles from the North Pole. © Randall Hyman

We have little luck finding plankton, but at a second dive site the next day divers find plentiful phytoplankton and zooplankton thriving in some of the coldest yet nutrient-rich seawater on Earth. We finally have ice algae, which is later exposed to Carbon-14, a radioactive isotope, and resubmerged in special vials under the ice for 24 hours to track the energetics of carbon dioxide uptake and oxygen output.

The next morning we turn southward, back toward Longyearbyen on southwest Spitsbergen Island, a 34-hour trip.  In the evening, a few of us relax in a hot tub tucked above the back deck (yes, scientists do allow themselves occasional luxuries!), relishing icy winds and choppy seas.

I see a sudden spray of water erupt on our port side from amid the waves and shout, “Whale!” A moment later an enormous, shiny back surges to the surface, passing our ship and disappearing beyond our stern in the stormy seas. We have just seen a blue whale, the largest animal ever to roam Earth.

My long journey across the Norwegian Arctic is coming to an end. Over the course of four months I have covered everything from glaciers and reindeer to ski marathons, dog sledding, the petroleum industry, seabirds, trawlers, geopolitics, and polar bears. In these last two weeks, I have feasted my eyes on both the humblest and the grandest forms of life known to science. Turning my sights toward home, I reflect on the tremendous challenge all nations face in protecting this amazingly rich legacy for millennia to come.

PHOTO GALLERY: Uncharted waters of climate change

August 23, 2013

“What you are looking at,” laments marine biologist Haakon Hop of the Norwegian Polar Institute, “is the melting of the Arctic Ocean.”

We are nearing 82 degrees North latitude aboard the research ship R/V Lance, just 800 kilometers (500 miles) shy of the North Pole, in search of continuous ice.

“In 1992 we came to a full stop in the middle of the Barents Sea at 76 North,” recalls Hop.  “We hit solid ice and couldn’t go any farther. Now look at it.”

Circumpolar ice approaches its annual minimum in August-September, but we have traveled far north of the Svalbard archipelago into waters nearly 4000 meters (2.5 miles) deep and still not encountered the ice that once extended much farther south, even in summer. Since records first began in 1979, satellite imagery has tracked a 50% decline in the circumpolar minimum, but this year the meltdown halted after rapid retreat in midsummer, actually expanding 20,000 square kilometers in late July.

Increasing ice is unprecedented for this time of year, but such data is deceiving. While storms in the second half of July brought counterclockwise winds and cooler conditions that spread the ice out, age and thickness are far more important than actual coverage, which may be thinly stretched out or thickly concentrated. Most of what we see around our ship is thin, first-year ice, not the 10-year-old, meters-thick variety that used to dominate the Arctic Ocean and ensure good coverage year in and year out. (Later satellite imagery eventually placed 2013 as the sixth lowest sea ice extent on record.)

Arctic skuas perch on ice edge 500 miles from North Pole. © Randall Hyman

Does this matter if you’re not a polar bear dependent on a frozen platform for hunting seals? Only if you need air to breathe. On the underside of the Arctic Ocean’s frozen lid grows ice algae, blooming like a rainforest each year when intense, 24-hour sunlight returns in April. Zooplankton and the entire Arctic Ocean food chain depend on this phenomenon, as do humans. This algae and all of the phytoplankton in the Arctic Ocean sequester vast quantities of carbon dioxide, a climate-warming gas, and produce abundant oxygen.

For 10 days, our retinue of 17 scientists and scuba divers has been sampling and analyzing ocean temperatures, salinity, chemistry and plankton at varying depths to track shifts in marine ecosystems. Starting with Kongsfjord near the Ny-Ålesund research village and sampling at specific GPS points in the Fram Strait toward Greenland, we concluded with a similiar set of measurements in north-facing Rijpfjord, 270 kilometers (about 175 miles) to the northeast at the northernmost tip of the Svalbard archipelago. The two fjords are normally affected by dramatically different ocean current systems. While Kongsfjord faces westward and receives warmer Atlantic waters, Rijpfjord points directly toward the North Pole and has a deep-water sill that impedes the last, weak push of the Gulf Stream. Despite this, our measurements this year show that Atlantic waters have invaded farther north than ever.

Meanwhile, we continue north in search of ice, an increasingly elusive prey, with some scientists predicting that the North Pole will be ice-free by 2030. (See earlier post, Climate change: Going bananas in Greenland)

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Scientists gather marine samples in Arctic Ocean north of Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

At sea on research ship

July 29, 2013

I am currently aboard the R/V Lance for the MOSJ-ICE cruise, which travels from Longyearbyen to Rijpfjorden sampling plankton, ocean currents and water temperatures and will continue as far northward from Svalbard as possible to anchor on ice. Due to the limited satellite internet connection, there will be a two-week delay on all posts.

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Research ship Lance moors beside ice pack 500 miles shy of North Pole. © Randall Hyman

VIDEO: Toxins, the other Arctic nemesis

July 26, 2013

While climate change steals the headlines, scientists at the Ny-Ålesund science village on Spitsbergen Island have devoted much of their attention for many years researching an equally serious threat to Arctic ecosystems: toxins, transported by wind and ocean currents from Europe, North America and Asia. The Norwegian Polar Institute, under Norway’s Ministry of the Environment, allocates an entire department to this issue.

“I am made in Ny-Ålesund,” quips department head Geir Wing Gabrielsen, whose parents worked for the coal company that built the village and left in 1954 when his mother became pregnant. Gabrielsen has returned to his roots nearly every summer for the past three decades to conduct and direct seabird research, collecting blood and feathers to track the industrial toxins that have invaded this once-pristine environment.

That toxins exist at all in this industry-free environment is surprising. Prevailing winds and ocean currents transport pollutants on a one-way conveyor belt from western Europe, Asia, and North America directly to the Arctic. Frigid temperatures capture the airborne toxins in snow and ice. Intense, high-latitude sunlight grabs mercury from power plant emissions and chemically bonds it with sea salt. Agricultural and industrial chemicals complete the toxic cocktail, arriving by ocean currents and entering the food chain via phytoplankton.

Glaucous gull (Larus hyperboreus) flies along shore in Krossfjorden, Svalbard. © Randall Hyman

Trace amounts of chemicals exponentially multiply as they pass up the ladder through zooplankton, fish and seabirds, ending up in upper-tier predators such as glaucous gulls, seals, polar bears, and humans. Some of industry’s most dangerous toxins, called “persistent organic pollutants” (POPs), take centuries or even millennia to degrade because they are not water soluble. They are, however, lipid soluble, easily absorbed by animal fat, eggs, and breast milk.

“For Arctic animals,” Gabrielsen explains, “fat is vital. It supplies energy and insulation to get through the cold winter. When animals tap these reserves, stored toxins are released. Since eggs and breast milk have a lot of fat, this impacts the young.” (See eider duck reference in earlier post, Tromsø: City life, ducks and geopolitics)

In recent years, toxins like PCB and DDT have been joined by newer cousins such as PBDEs used in electronics as fire retardants and PFCs found in waterproofing and stainproofing compounds. Polar bears, Arctic foxes, whales and seals have become among the most toxin-tainted species on the planet.

Scientists like Gabrielsen see Arctic seabirds as an early warning system of future trends since their total biomass outweighs most marine mammals, and their small bodies make them sensitive to pollutants. They are plentiful, but getting a hold of them requires perching above or below the same ocean cliffs where they breed. It can be hazardous duty.

“I once had an entire cliff collapse where my colleague and I had just been working minutes before,” recalls Gabrielsen. (See earlier posts, On the brink: Life as a field assistant and Seabird diaries: Science on the rocks)

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Ecotoxicologist Geir Gabrielsen wtih kittiwake. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: Seabird diaries on the rocks

July 25, 2013

“This is where a huge boulder wiped out a big part of our trail a few days ago,” says Dagfinn Breivik Skomsø as I puff behind him, climbing hundreds of meters up a sixty degree slope to his study site. A long, ugly scar of naked brown earth cuts the trail in two, littered with freshly-broken, angular chunks of broken boulder. “It must have happened sometime during the night, but it fell right near where we work, so it’s a good thing we weren’t here then.” (See later post: VIDEO REPRISE: Seabird diaries)

It’s already late evening, but with 24-hour sun lighting the Arctic island of Spitsbergen throughout summer, night and day make little difference. We won’t return to the Ny-Ålesund science village until sometime toward midnight. Skomsø’s fellow Masters students, Solveig Nilsen and Martin Kristiansen, are already wedging a tall aluminum extension ladder along a skirt of earth beneath a sheer cliff where kittiwakes wheel to and from nests jammed along narrow rock ledges.

Nilsen climbs the ladder with no hesitation, toting a pole with a mirror on the end and stretching it along the ledge to count chicks and eggs in nests she can’t quite see into. Kittiwakes swoop past her head and scream wild protests. She gets the job done quickly and scampers back down, looking like she took a few direct hits from the birds in a paintball fight. When I ask to climb the ladder for some photography, she has one piece of advice: “If you look up, don’t open your mouth!”

Each of the trio of Masters students has a different dissertation attached to this kittiwake colony. Skomsø and Kristiansen take blood samples to monitor hormones and toxins while Nilsen measures body temperature of specific birds using a thermocouple inserted in the cloac to establish a database for calibrating stress associated with capture and handling. Veteran biologists have spent decades tracking the effects of climate change and ocean toxins on various Arctic species, but this trio and their peers will soon inherit the problems of a warming planet. Like this study site, the way forward promises to be a rocky uphill struggle fraught with dangers.

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Scientist atop ladder on high cliffs checks kittiwake nests along ledges using mirror attached to long pole. © Randall Hyman

 

VIDEO REPRISE: On the brink

July 24, 2013

This brief video perches readers atop the precipitous cliffs of Spitsbergen Island where two field assistants snag Brünnich’s guillemots from narrow ledges to track the health of a breeding colony.  (For more details on their work, see  On the brink: Life as a field assistant.)

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Field tech secures Brünnich’s guillemot just snagged from narrow ledge along high cliffs of breeding colony. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: Life as a field assistant

July 24, 2013

Want a two-month summer job that’s ten hours a day, seven days a week, perched atop sheer cliffs in freezing rain snaring seabirds off narrow ledges? Then this job’s for you: field assistant for the Norwegian Polar Institute in Ny-Ålesund, Spitsbergen Island. Icelander Saga Svavarsdóttir and Frenchman Delphin Ruché wouldn’t have it any other way. “We are lucky to have this job,” says Svavarsdóttir. “We work more hours than we have to and stay out in the field as much as we can.”

On a typical day, they cut across stormy seas to Ossian Sars, once connected to land by glaciers until ice began rapidly disappearing in the late 1990s. As we hike up the back side of mountain cliffs, the terrain becomes grassy and green, fertilized by guano. This is paradise for foxes, skilled climbers who prey upon kittiwake chicks, often pushed from ledge nests by larger siblings. Days earlier I watched a hungry fox with pups chewing on a kittiwake wing near this same site.

Topping a blustery ridge, we scuttle down slippery, grass-covered hummocks and boulders to the edge of precipitous cliffs overlooking a foggy fjord clogged with ice from calving glaciers.  Kittiwakes and Brünnich’s guillemots, or thick-billed murres, crowd sheer ledges and fill the frigid air with shrill complaints and deep groans that sound like a mix of wild children screaming and demonic clowns laughing.

Sliding over a cliff on a rope tied around a boulder, Ruché lowers a pole with a snare on the end and expertly snags a guillemot by its neck. He whips the pole skyward to Svavarsdóttir who grabs the noose and deftly loosens it while cradling the bird in her lap, stoically ignoring a nasty cut on her hand delivered by the guillemot’s sharp beak. Ruché joins her topside and the pair weigh, measure, band and blood-sample the bird before lofting it back to its comrades below.

By day’s end they sample four birds and log hours of notes on individual nests, eggs and chick survival. Their efforts help scientists monitor the health of seabird colonies by measuring breeding success, blood toxins and hormonal balance. As climate change brings warmer waters and consequent shifts in zooplankton and fish populations, several cliff-nesting seabird species have suffered, placing them on the brink in more ways than one. (To view a video of their work, see VIDEO REPRISE: On the brink.)

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Field tech releases guillemot after weighing and sampling blood and feathers atop cliffs of breeding colony. © Randall Hyman

 

 

VIDEO REPRISE: Mother Goose

July 23, 2013

This short video reviews the work of Dutch research biologist, Margje de Jong, as Mother Goose of the Arctic, tracking growth differences in barnacle geese as she hand-raises them to measure the effects of degraded grazing lands.  (For details behind the video, see previous post, Mother Goose as Scientist.)

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Mother Goose with her brood. © Randall Hyman

 

PHOTO GALLERY: Mother goose as scientist

July 22, 2013

“Oh look,” exclaims a visitor standing on the main road into the Ny-Ålesund science village on Spitsbergen Island, “they think she’s their mother!” The scene she beholds is admittedly endearing, but it’s all about science. Ten downy goslings, stubby winglets stretched outward for balance, waddle frantically behind Masters student Margje de Jong as she heads back to the Dutch science station calling, “Kom, kom, kom!”

Borrowing a page from early field experiments of renowned ethologist Konrad Lorenz, de Jong raised her flock of barnacle geese as hatchlings and imprinted them on herself as head of the brood. Being Mother Goose has its perks, but tending a flock of disobedient goslings isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. It is a 24/7 commitment no matter the rain, wind and cold, day in, day out. (Also see VIDEO REPRISE: Mother Goose)

“They have a mind of their own,” she laughs, “and don’t always want to follow.”  Sitting in a sunny field of spongy moss the next day, she shows a grudging affection for her fuzzy charges, despite the scientist in her, calling each one by its colored leg bands, read left to right. “Green-green is the independent one, always wandering off and then coming back to make trouble. Green-red was looking sick for a few days but now he’s bounced back. Yellow-white is one of the the really big ones.”

As they tumble over her legs and nestle in her lap, she smiles and tickles one of them, but hers is a serious mission, simulating wild conditions as best she can with semi-captive animals.  Stopwatch and notebook in hand, de Jong meticulously records the feeding habits of each gosling. Having set up a series of cages in the field that prevent wild geese from foraging her plots, she is able to feed her own brood in two consecutive groups, the first enjoying choice pasture, the second getting lower quality.

She hopes to simulate conditions in the Netherlands, where geese are overgrazing, and see what happens in the Arctic. Will second-class goslings here exhibit decreased growth and increased disease? What will this mean for the Svalbard-Scotland population (see previous post Return of the Terns),  which has exploded from 243 birds in 1943 to over 33,000 today?

Ny-Ålesund fields that were once lush with summertime grasses and provided precious habitat for phalaropes and other waders are now bare. Should winter hunting in Scotland be reinstated, or should humans bow out of the equation?  Policy makers depend on scientists like de Jong to make sure no one leads them on a wild goose chase.

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Dutch scientist studies feeding patterns of goslings. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: Sysselmannen’s Svalbard guardians

July 21, 2013

“We are the face of the governor’s office,” says Cecilie Sørensen, one of two regional field inspectors based in Ny-Ålesund. She and her field partner, Ragnhild Røsseland, hold two of six coveted summer positions for which more than 100 outdoorsmen apply each year to patrol the high seas and mountain wilderness of Svalbard making sure everyone, from scientists to cruise ships to yachtsmen to adventurers obey the laws protecting nature and cultural artifacts. These two women, tough as nails and expert in wilderness survival, work for Svalbard’s administrative governor, or Sysselmannen, an appointed position akin to a police chief and national park superintendent rolled into one.

“Thousands of visitors come to Svalbard each year,” she adds, “so it’s important that we are here for Norway, in the fjords, checking that everyone has permission and insurance from the Sysselmannen’s office.”  In an Arctic wilderness where 3000 polar bears roam and storms materialize from nowhere, helicopter rescues (when they are even possible) can cost $25,000.

Patrolling from mid afternoon till 3:30am this particular day and night, they catalog artifacts and GPS position of an old trapper’s hut, then discover another one miles away that even a helicopter had failed to spot tucked beside a glacier.  In between we visit a popular wilderness hut and come upon a grisly crime scene: a reindeer skeleton with its antlers inextricably tangled in a fishing net someone foolishly left uncovered.  It is clear from the pile of fur and broken pieces of antler that it suffered a slow, miserable death futilely trying to free itself. It takes three of us to carry the heavy net to our boat and prevent a repeat tragedy, but sadly we find another net the women also remove, washed up on shore near the glacier hut.

On the happier side, we get up close and personal with puffins so tame we can nearly touch them… and a polar bear so huge we’re glad he cannot touch us!  After a magical afternoon and night of mirror-smooth seas, mosaic clouds and midnight sunshine so brilliant that the landscape looks surreal, we stop our engine in mid fjord and sit in pristine paradise.  We bask in utter solitude in a place and time no one will ever witness again as a massive sigh breaks the silence on our port side.  Almost as a tribute to this rare moment and experience, a minke whale seamlessly glides past, intermittently spraying the seas with its breathing, and disappearing into the deep.

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Regional field inspectors Cecilie Sørensen and Ragnhild Røsseland patrol the waters and coastline of Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman

 

VIDEO REPRISE: Return of the terns

July 21, 2013

A short video takes viewers behind the scenes to see how Dutch biologists capture, measure and tag Arctic terns in Svalbard to study their amazing annual roundtrip between Antarctica and the Arctic, during which they log over 80,000 kilometers, the world’s longest bird migration. For more details, see earlier post, Return of the terns.

CLICK PHOTO TO LOG FREQUENT FLYER MILES:

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Dutch scientist studies Arctic tern migration. © Randall Hyman

PHOTO GALLERY: Return of the terns

July 21, 2013

The Dutch research station at Ny-Ålesund is no fly-by-night operation, especially when it comes to Arctic terns, who literally fly to the ends of the Earth to avoid darkness.  As world record holders for long-distance migration, these terns bask in endless daylight in Antarctica, November through February, and return north when the sun dawns in the Arctic bringing summer-long continuous daytime. Like scientists on an avian treasure hunt, the Netherlands team searches the village for nesting terns, scooping them gently from their nests and retrieving ultra-light geolocator loggers from their legs to fit them with new ones. (see later post, VIDEO REPRISE: Return of the terns)

Wearing knit caps to protect themselves from the stilleto-sharp beaks and screaming dives of indignant terns, Arctic ecologist Maarten Loonen and Masters student Tim van Oosten work together capturing and tagging birds.  Loonen explains, “Our loggers show that the Svalbard population flies over 20,000 kilometers (12,500 miles) on a zig-zag route from the Weddell Sea on the Antarctic Peninsula, stopping first in West Africa, then Central America, then Greenland and finally back here. In total they fly as much as 80,000 kilometers (50,000 miles) per year. This was a surprise.”

Many terns have already bred now and fledged their young, but those who suffered egg predation from foxes or polar bears are still nesting and can actually lay up to three times a season if their eggs are taken. They depend on the fat capelin and Arctic cod in the waters surrounding Svalbard to breed and stay healthy. Despite steadily rising ocean temperatures, these fish have so far remained abundant.

“They are income breeders and come here to both feed and lay,” adds Loonen.  “Our other study species, barnacle geese (see later post Mother Goose as scientist), are capital breeders who converge in Scotland in huge flocks in spring to fatten up on grass before flying here to raise their young.”

Van Oosten’s work helps Loonen compare the health of Netherlands-nesting terns with the Svalbard population, which just begins nesting in the Arctic when Dutch terns are ready to fly south. The timing of upwelling ocean currents that produce good fishing along the migration route may be critical.

“The number of terns nesting here this year is one third of previous years,” says Loonen.  “I’ve noticed their tail feathers are worn and dirty, which could mean they had some trouble feeding during migration and arrived here in poor condition.”

Meanwhile, some terns have already begun gathering on islands surrounding Ny-Ålesund to prepare for their long flight back to Antarctica in August.  Loonen and Van Oosten wish them many happy re-terns.

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Arctic terns return from Antarctica. © Randall Hyman

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