I spent a few days last month in Svalbard, bringing back memories of past Arctic experience doing research in Iceland and Alaska. Svalbard had been a place where many of my colleagues had worked. The outpost of Ny Ålesund, where I was headed, lies at nearly 80oN, tucked in to a fjord on the north-western coast of the archipelago. It is the most northerly permanently inhabited settlement in the world and was the starting point for many early 20th Century expeditions to reach the North Pole.
Ny Ålesund isn’t somewhere just anybody can stay. The settlement is an international research station built within an early 20th Century coal mining settlement. Although cruise ships visit and disembark passengers for an hour or two, it takes an invitation from one of the 11 countries which have a presence at Ny Ålesund if you want to stay there. Surrounded by mountains, glaciers and the Arctic Ocean, Ny Ålesund is a microcosm of both the Arctic environment and Arctic politics.
Norway has sovereignty over the islands but, through the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 other countries, including the UK, have a right of access. The strategic importance of the Arctic is such that lots of countries want to have a foothold there even if they have no land or coastline which impinges on the Arctic itself.
The politics of the Arctic stand out as one of the major drivers for the Ny Ålesund community but the scientific research being done there is at least as important and it is a common objective which brings together all the national interests. The natural gregariousness and openness of scientists makes for a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere.
Being close to the North Pole, Ny Ålesund acts as a location used to download information from the polar orbiting satellites monitoring the Earth’s surface. These tell us about atmospheric pollution, forest cover, ocean currents and much more. On a mountain above the station is a building perched precariously on a sharp ridge which can only be reached by a small cable car. This is used to sample truly clean air – one of very few places on Earth where this is possible. And further around the bay is a couple of radio dishes pointing to the heavens to measure the regular beat of pulsars in the distant universe. These act like beacons which are reference points used to measure the drift of the continents to an accuracy of millimetres.
Then there are the glaciers nearby which are retreating fast under both the influence of climate change and also because the glaciers in Svalbard go through regular multi-decadal cycles of surge and retreat. But their walls of blue ice are a dominant presence at Ny Ålesund – as are icebergs calving off them which then float past down the fjord past the settlement.
The fjord, which once froze over most winters, is now influenced by warm water from the Atlantic pushing its way north in to the Arctic so it rarely freezes over these days. Harbour, bearded and ringed seals, and beluga whales, eat the polar cod which enter the fjord to feed on the rich food sources resulting from the effects of fertilization of the ocean by glacial dust. These are all subjects of study to unravel how the Arctic is changing as the climate gets warmer.
On-shore, the permafrost, which stretches to depths of many tens of metres is also warming and showing signs of melting. As the soils are churned by freeze-thaw for the first time in millions of years they release more greenhouse gasses thus exacerbating the process of global warming. The immediate practical consequence at Ny Ålesund is that the foundations of buildings are beginning to move. It is perhaps ironic that the reason which first brought people to this remote spot – coal mining – are also the reason they keep coming back in the present day – to observe the effects of burning these fossil fuels on the planet.
By the time I visited towards the end of August, the bright summer flowers of the tundra had largely passed over and had been cropped flat by the unusual, short-legged, variety of wild reindeer which inhabit Svalbard (see photo). The many waterbirds – geese, ducks and waders like purple sandpipers – which breed in these parts had largely departed for their wintering grounds, many around Britain, and were a reminder of the close connection which exists between this cold, treeless landscape and the biodiversity of Britain. The barnacle geese which breed on the offshore islands in the fjord are the very same ones as we value so much at the Carlaverock nature reserve on the Solway Firth.
The strength of the links between Svalbard and Britain go even deeper. How we respond to the challenge of climate change is going to depend on what happens here in the Arctic. British scientists are investigating the effects of warming on this delicate ecosystem. This includes experiments to understand how the tundra will change as the Artic warms up, potentially releasing more greenhouse gas in to the atmosphere. The west coast of Svalbard is especially good as a sentinel because it is warming unusually rapidly. This is because warm Atlantic water coming through the Iceland-Faroes Channel far to the south is making its way further north and starting to bathe the west coasts of Svalbard around Ny Ålesund. When the manager of the UK’s research station first started coming to Ny Ålesund rain was unknown – all precipitation fell as snow. Nowadays rain is common.
There could be nowhere better to understand how climate change will change the Arctic. Sediment and ice cores taken locally place the current climate trends in the long-term historical context and show how unusual they are.
All this is affecting the economy of the Artic as well. A tourist industry is beginning to turn Longyearbyen, the frontier town which is the capital of Svalbard, in to a thriving centre for tourism. Only a few weeks before I visited a Danish shipping company announced that it would be testing the idea of sending cargo vessels through the north-east passage, something which can only happen because of the retreat of the fields of Arctic sea ice.
The icon of the Arctic, the polar bear, is also likely to be affected and this is something people really care about. At Ny Ålesund, polar bears are respected if not feared. I had the mixed fortune to run in to a mother and cub (see photo). This is the ultimate predator. It is truly at the top of the Arctic food chain where humans are relegated to second place – which is a powerful message me as a representative of a species so dominant elsewhere.
By now, I hope it should be clear why Svalbard is important to Defra. The credibility of the UK as a leader in tackling climate change needs to be underpinned both by research examining its effects and presence of the UK in the international fora where decisions are made. Moreover, important components of the biodiversity of Svalbard are shared with the UK. And I have yet to meet anybody in the UK who does not care about the fate of polar bears. At present, they seem to be doing well in Svalbard partly because of reduced hunting but they are being confined to land more than in the past which means they hunt birds and their eggs. This will probably eventually affect those populations.
This is why we should care about Svalbard and the Arctic and why the UK needs to remain interested in its future. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, together with the Natural Environment Research Council, maintain the UK’s research station at Ny Ålesund but I think Defra should also be fully engaged too as it develops a more expansive leadership role in international environmental stewardship in future.