As I leave the town of Longyearbyen aboard a Coast Guard ship bound for the Lofoten Islands, snapshots of Svalbard life play through my mind… kids riding bikes on snow and ice, a high school parking lot filled with nothing but snowmobiles, schoolchildren skiing into the mountains on a field trip with teachers carrying rifles, lone skiers trudging 700 feet up fjord walls above town for 45-second downhill thrill rides (no ski lifts here!), moms driving kids to school in snowmobile cabs past the occasional reindeer.
Svalbard gun laws are unique, too. You can carry a gun once you’re 18, but no training is required unless you join a hunting club, legal age 16. Student dorms, where I stayed, all have weapons lockers. Snowmobiles never head out of town without at least one rifle strapped on the back. High school sports teams snowmobile 55 kilometers (34 miles) south over the roadless tundra to the Russian coal mining town of Barentsburg to compete four times a year and hang out afterwards partying and staying the night.
This relates to Svalbard’s unique status in the world of geopolitics, where it has long been an outpost for staking claim to Arctic Ocean resources. After WWI, over 40 signatory nations agreed it would be a non-militarized Norwegian territory open to all treaty nations for resource exploitation. Few nations aside from Russia ever exercise these rights, but as polar ice disappears, fishing boats, cargo traffic and petroleum exploration push increasingly farther north. The Norwegian government recently awarded Longyearbyen $40,000,000 to build a new port for accommodating cruise line traffic that has nearly quadrupled in the past ten years.
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Longyearbyen in April snows of Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman
Aside from coal and the University Centre, which specializes in Arctic studies, tourism is a major revenue earner in Longyearbyen. From snowmobiling to dog sledding to ice caving, Spitsbergen Travel (www.spitsbergentravel.com) is an easy one-stop-shop for accessing and arranging tours with the various companies specialized in each activity. Guests are given the opportunity to take on as much of a challenge as they like, and excursions can be four hours or four days.
Dog sledding includes learning how to fetch your own team and harness it before hitting the wide open spaces. Ice caving requires suiting up with crampons and spelunking helmet before squeezing down ladders into an underground glacial river channel. Snowmobile tours travel to distant fjords and wilderness.
It seems all fun and games, but talk with a guide long enough and you’ll often hear uneasy references to changing weather patterns and how it may affect the tourist season. Early ice melt floods glacial caves, slushy snow and early break up of fjord ice cuts into snowmobile travel, and less snow overall makes dog sledding a challenge. It’s all happened occasionally over the past decade, but seasonal cold has returned each time to save the season. Nonetheless, locals have begun wondering what the future holds in store.
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Dog sledding in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman
Each year, over 700 enthusiasts come from all over Europe (and even Australia!) to participate in the world’s most northerly ski marathon. With guards posted at intervals carrying rifles to protect against polar bears, it may also be the world’s most unusual such event. Kids get into the act the next day, closer to town, but also with dads posted like Secret Service agents atop strategic mounts surrounding the valley race. Norwegians like to say they are born with skis, Svalbard folks add their rifles.
This year’s race barely got off the start mark, however, with sudden temps well above freezing the week before. Last year, Longyearbyen experienced practically unprecedented rain and flooding in January and February while mainland Norway sat frozen far to the south. So far the legendary marathon has never been cancelled, but changing climate could lead to changing patterns in tourism.
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Start of Svalbard ski marathon. © Randall Hyman
From high above, springtime in Svalbard appears as a solid sheet of snow and ice– hardly an inviting place to build your nest and breed. But when 24-hour sunlight returns to the Arctic, birds don’t wait. During my last two days in Longyearbyen, the odd silence of daylight at midnight has suddenly transitioned into a continuous cacophony of thousands of trilling, complaining, rejoicing seabirds, teeming high above on narrow cliff ledges.
As quickly as daylight has returned, lengthening by 40 minutes each day until the sun no longer set, the birds have returned to reclaim their timeless birthright. Despite appearances, climate change has dramatically reduced the annual coverage of sea ice, diminishing specific zooplankton that certain birds, such as the little auk, depend upon for successful breeding. Could this glorious annual rite of spring be at risk?
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Aerial view over Pretender mountain at junction of Kronebreen and Infantfonna glaciers in April near Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman
The biggest predator of reindeer is climate and starvation, not polar bears. As the climate wavers in the Arctic, alternate periods of rain and freeze encase tundra forage in an impenetrable layer of ice. Terrestrial ecologists Åshild Pedersen from the Norwegian Polar Institute and Brage Hansen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology conduct regular census programs related to climate change.
In a recent study, glaciologist Jack Kohler worked with Hansen and Pedersen to identify icing events over the years and correlate them with reindeer population fluctuations. To a large extent, arctic foxes depend on the reindeer’s bad luck for their own survival, feasting on cadavers. In a good reindeer year like this one with little icing, foxes may suffer, but even in the best of times the Arctic wind and cold is unforgiving for all species, including the Svalbard reindeer, a unique, stockier subspecies of its mainland cousins. Click photo below to see what it’s like out there.
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Scientists track reindeer in Svalbard. © Randall Hyman
Ice physicist Sebastian Gerland and marine chemist Agneta Fransson of the Norwegian Polar Institute work with marine chemist Melissa Chierici of the Institute of Marine Research atop fjord ice below an outlet glacier. They core the ice to measure ice thickness and analyze the carbon cycle below and within the ice.
Gerland is interested in how ice thickness and snow cover affect the absorption or loss of solar radiation. Fransson and Chierici look at microscopic aspects of the carbon cycle to understand ocean acidification and atmospheric warming due to carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, marine ecologists monitor changes in the population of micorganisms living in tiny tubules and fissures in the ice as well as algae that thrives year round on the bottom of the ice itself.
Tiny things lead to big questions. How do shifts in ice chemistry and biology drive climate change? Less snow allows faster ice melt and less ice means more dark ocean surface absorbs the sun’s heat. This, in turn, drives more climate warming. Warmer Arctic Ocean waters mixing with even warmer Atlantic waters results in upwelling of “sequestered” carbon dioxide, normally locked deep below the surface.
One opposite paradox: when ice freezes, salts such as calcium carbonate are squeezed to the surface as ice “flowers,” reacting with the air to create more carbon dioxide. Could this also contribute to atmospheric warming when the system is off balance? Scientists get dizzy and excited constructing models that connect all the tiny aspects with the big ones. Journalists get dizzy trying to understand them!
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Scientists take core samples of frozen fjord ice in Svalbard, Norway. © Randall Hyman
Speeding by snowmobile across Kongsvegen Glacier on Spitsbergen island, Norwegian Polar Institute glaciologist Jack Kohler and his team core snow high atop glaciers, focus GPS positioning points, and update instrumentation and poles staked deep into the ice that track glacial movement and changes in ice mass.
Svalbard glaciers run the gamut, from those that surge forward into the sea once a century to those that are receding. Kohler focuses on the ebb and flow of ice among four glaciers. Trends show a net loss of mass as the local climate rapidly changes. It’s cold work at an elevation of 750 meters (2460 feet) atop a glacier with a stiff wind at -14° Celsius (7° degrees Fahrenheit) and nowhere to hide.
Fortunately, glaciologists often dig pits to core the snow and stay nice and toasty. Unfortunately, foolish photographers often stand above those pits taking pictures of the glaciologists for hours. Brrrr! Pay off? The photog gets the honor of filling in the pit and work up a sweat afterwards. Welcome, hot work!
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Glaciologist Jack Kohler snowmobiles to sea from summit of Kongsvegen. © Randall Hyman
When it comes to the complexities of climate research, it DOES take a village. By a coincidence of history and location, the former coal mining town of Ny-Ålesund provides a remote international science base for the interaction of different sciences and researchers plumbing the dynamics of climate change.
Glaciologists methodically study ice atop mountains as well as at sea, marine chemists examine carbon uptake and release in the oceans, marine biologists assay plankton, and zoologists census mammal populations such as reindeer, now suffering from starvation amid increased melt-freeze cycles that encase tundra in impenetrable layers of ice.
It does “take a village” to explore the rapidly changing Arctic ecosystem and climate, and nowhere does this apply more than here, 780 miles from the North Pole above the 78th parallel on Spitsbergen Island.
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Svalbard’s Ny-Ålesund science village in spring snow and ice. © Randall Hyman
German and French climatologists of the combined AWIPEV Institutes at the Ny-Ålesund science base probe the atmosphere with all the tools at their disposal, from weather balloons soaring 30 kilometers high, to airplanes flying a few thousand meters up, to a giant orange blimp lovingly called “Miss Piggy,” who humbly hovers 800 meters above the weather station with six “tails” tied to her tether in 100-meter increments measuring wind and temperature.
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AWIPEV scientists launch Miss Piggy. © Randall Hyman
Arrival at Ny-Ålesund airport. © Randall Hyman
This is the start of my four-month project as a Fulbright Scholar in the Norwegian Arctic exploring science, technology, culture and tourism in the context of climate change and shifting paradigms in the Arctic Ocean. After passing through Oslo and Tromsø and traveling non-stop to Svalbard, the first day of this huge project is spent in the village of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen island, where I wait one day on the way to the science base at Ny-Ålesund. Snowmobiles and skis rule here. Still lots of ice along southwest Spitsbergen, but relatively ice free around Longyearbyen. Temps in low teens (for you Americans), minus 10 Celsius for the rest of world! Flying onward to Ny-Ålesund tomorrow above the 78th parallel, just 780 miles from the North Pole.