In August 2008, I was fortunate enough to join an expedition ship on a circumnavigation of the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic Circle, going as far north as 81⁰N. I was on a personal mission to experience and celebrate this Arctic wilderness. Life on a grand scale in this far away place of rock and ice. The exhilaration we felt on our first landing demonstrated the majesty of this remote wilderness with teeth, tusks and claws. Big sky country that commands your attention, keeps you cold, and teaches you many lessons. This was indeed a place of “ultimate consequences” where if anything serious happened to us we were on our own. Just the weather could kill you in a matter of minutes. Read here about personal discoveries in the Arctic wilderness and the growing realization that this is a place in decline with receding, ever thinner pack ice, eroding glaciers, widespread pollution, declining wildlife numbers, continued hunting, and expanding mining operations and oil/gas exploration. If we do not fundamentally change the way in which we value wilderness areas and prioritize the protection of the ecosystems that support them, we are going to lose this vast Arctic wilderness and others around the world to the ravages of climate change, development and exploitation in the next 10-15 years…
Vital statistics and methane gas!
According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, sea ice levels in November 2011 were 13% below the average from 1979 to 2000 (see graph below). This was, however, 66,000 square miles above the average for November 2006 – the lowest extent recorded for that month in the satellite data record. Not only are the ice sheets declining as we move towards ice-free summers in the Arctic Circle by 2050, unprecedented plumes of methane gas bubbling to the surface of the Arctic Ocean on massive scale. Methane is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Russian scientist, Dr Semiletov, released their findings for the first time last week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. His group estimates that there are hundreds of millions of tonnes of methane gas locked away beneath the Arctic permafrost. The absence of sea-ice in summer coupled with rising temperatures across the region may suddenly release this reservoir of methane into the atmosphere leading to rapid and severe climate change. Even without methane gas the Arctic is changing rapidly and remnant populations of Arctic wildlife are struggling to adjust to changing patterns. This is a wilderness that is having to re-invent itself much too fast to support biodiversity…
“Sense of place” in the wilderness
The “sense of place” in the wilderness instantly commands your respect and captivates all of your senses. Suddenly you feel alive, you know exactly your place in this natural place, and every fibre of your being is ready for life as you walk unarmed through this wilderness. Every animal that you encounter is a life-changing experience that makes you feel humbled in this pure, untouched place. You are stressing about all the dangers surrounding you, the polar bear that may be over the rise sleeping, or the freezing cold water below the ice that could kill you in minutes, while the puffin, fox, little auk, polar bear, humpback whale, and walrus are the masterful creatures that live their entire lives, at least seasonally, in this amazing, dangerous wonderland where we sometimes feel out of control and they simple live free and at peace.
I learnt about my sense of place in wilderness during my years living and doing PhD fieldwork in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Unimpeded from the its source in the Angolan highlands to end of the delta itself, this is one of Africa’s last-remaining wilderness areas where the wildlife are still in charge and you can feel it! We have been searching for similar places around Africa and the world ever since…
While living in the United States in 2006, we hiked between the High Sierra camps in Yosemite National Park (California) and rafted the Middle Fork of the Salmon River (Idaho) in pursuit of the sense of place in wilderness. We found “rock and ice” in far away locations that supported remnant wildlife populations. These often breath-taking landscapes were being managed and protected by us for us. As a result it always felt like someone was watching over us and the wildlife at all times. Yes, we can effectively manage landscapes to be beautiful and scenic, but we have no idea how to manage them for balanced biodiversity over a long period of time. Nature takes thousands of years to engineer perfect balance and being in the presence of this untouched perfection creates a spiritual connection to eternity. John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Gifford Pinchot, Charles Dudley Warner, Isabella Lucy Bird, Thomas Bewick and Edward Abbey found profound enlightenment in the wilderness, learning from the natural rhythm of nature and their own interactions with wildlife. Wild animals that are proud owners of their own destiny are powerful beings to be around and learn from. An animal, however, that knows you are in control of its destiny gives up and lives until it dies. To save our planet, we need to celebrate real life and that begins in the wilderness with the animals and plants that live there… Let them be free in the wilderness.
By mid-August 2008, I was very excited to board the Akademik Shokalskiy in Longyearbyen and continue my search for that sense of place in the Arctic wilderness. Day-to-day life in the Arctic Circle once made resident peoples, like the Inuit, live completely in-tune with the wild. Simply surviving in this vibrant, untouched place of seasonal abundance under the ever-burning sun and impenetrable darkness and hunger during winter necessitates balance and respect for this wilderness of ultimate consequences. I wanted to identify with the sense of place that they must have felt in this unforgiving and dangerous place by interacting with the animals that became their totems like the reindeer, polar bear and walrus. Every wilderness has its people… and untold stories.
As an African, this expedition was a life-changing experience that included sea-kayaking under the midnight sun, witnessing climate change in action with every glacial carving, watching polar bears hunting on the pack ice, and visiting massive kittiwake, guillemot and little auk breeding colonies. At first glance, the Arctic landscape appeared desolate and lifeless, a frozen wasteland – the most inhospitable place on earth. Perhaps this initial perception was a reaction to not be able to process the information being provided by my senses. The freezing cold headwind on the ship, endless daylight, expansive fjords, imposing snow-capped mountains, glaciers flowing from almighty ice caps, and stark contrasts of red and black lichen-covered rock faces behind rocky, green Arctic tundra, all leave the observer dazed and somewhat shocked on their first day. Perhaps this was the Russian vodka I had the night before? Either way, this was true wilderness… How could it not be?
“Belly Botany” – Amazing Arctic Tundra
Arctic tundra. Ahhh…Arctic tundra…my new mantra…Arctic…tundra. Arctic tundra will keep you on your knees for at least three hours the first time you experience it, on your knees photographing and identifying flowering plants, mushrooms, lichens and mosses – “belly botany”. From a distance of 30m, the tundra is grey, rocky and uniform, but on your knees you are overcome by bright colours and intricate architecture on a scale that necessitates a magnifying glass or reversed pair of binoculars. Sunny slopes, good drainage and mature soils produce a lush carpet of flowering plants including a variety of saxifrages, Arctic bluebell, shinleaf and poppies (including the endemic Svalbard poppy). Arctic tundra is the most recently evolved biome on earth, comprising a patchwork mosaic of tough, perennial herbs and one tree, the Arctic willow, all under a few inches in height. Every now and then, you see some independent movement, you look again and you see it, a fly, again, it’s an Arctic bunting, then later, a lemming. All you’ll ever see is a flash and then they’re gone, hence no photographs this time round. It seems these creatures have their lives in fast forward trying to cram a year of life into six months of 24-hour daylight. Whether 6am, 3.30pm or 2.45am, you’ll find insect, bird and beast doing exactly the same thing, moving quickly, and if you’re a bird, making a noise. Added to this underlying energy, is the underlying threat of the omnipresent polar bear, the undisputed Lord of these lands. All in all, it can’t be beat, if you like that kind of thing. Well, I do, and I could spend the rest of my days learning about this fascinating ecosystem.
Life at its harshest – Delicate Arctic deserts
Next, we looked in the Arctic desert to see what we could see… These are terminally dry, cracked, crumbling places, representing one of the harshest environment on earth in which to exist. From a distance Arctic desert appears as a completely uniform, smooth series of hills backing away to the mountains. No signs of ice or water, no green, absolute silence, nothing. Silence, ahhh, silence, the silence of the desert was soul-opening, leaving you exposed and almost emotional. Unexpectedly, the Arctic desert was the hardest to walk on, as the fields of glacial till, crumbling slate hillsides and coarse sandy beaches were covered in lichens, covered to the extent that the landscape was practically held together them, red, black and white, some areas so thick it looked like artificial turf. Every step had to be carefully considered. These lichens take over one hundred years to grow to the size of a dinner plate. What a peaceful place, a place that will make you believe in your connection to this planet.
Life on an epic scale – Summer paradise for Arctic birdlife
Out on the open ocean, we were trailed by Northern fulmars that zoomed past the bridge, using the wind shadow and slip stream behind the ship to accelerate past, Tour de France-style. They weren’t feeding, although I am sure one eye was glued to the water, but mainly, their flying seemed to be for the fun of it. They were our permanent companion. As we entered a fjord, the fulmars would peel off back out to deep ocean, as this new spectacle came into view. In well-sheltered fjords, reasonably close to deep water, but far enough from the glacier to have clear blue water, we would find kittiwake, Brunnich’s guillemot, and Little auk colonies. Kittiwake colonies are numbered in tens of thousands, guillemots in hundreds of thousands, and little auks, who are, in some circles, reputed to be the most abundant bird on earth, in their millions. In amongst and between these chaotic, ranting colonies of hundreds of thousands of birds were breeding pairs of Glaucous gulls and black guillemots. On new perfectly flat and uninhabited islands exposed by the receding glaciers, we would find pairs of Arctic terns and sanderlings tending their eggs. Witnessing hundreds of thousands of birds perched on every available ledge, on top of each other, awake 99% of the time, strangely, seems very normal in this grand place. These birds come for one reason, the unrivalled bounty of the Arctic Ocean during summer. The sea literally goes emerald green in the early summer, as green algae proliferate in the 24-hour sunlight. From space the entire ocean literally goes green. Then as the zooplankton devour the algae, the ocean gradually turns bluer and bluer as the summer progresses. The result is a teeming soup, a myriad of copipods, polychaete, amphipod, euphausiids and pteropods, that support these millions of breeding seabirds, the surviving pods of Minke and Beluga whales, and the fish (mostly Arctic cod, white fish and salmonoids) that feed the seven seal species that feed the polar bears that, as a favor, feed the ivory gulls. To complete the circle of life, the Arctic bird colonies, ducklings, and Arctic lemmings feed the Arctic foxes. A frozen wilderness frenetic with life through summer in preparation for the harshest winter on earth, life on the edge. Or is that? The brink.
Climate change and pollution threaten the Arctic
Although still cleaner than the both the North Sea and the Baltic, traces of contaminant have been found everywhere in the Arctic environment, in the air, in the soil, in the sediments, in the snow and ice, in the salt and fresh water, in fish, birds, mammals, and humans. Persistent organic pollutants, including chemical contaminants from organo-chloride insecticides and industrial chemicals (e.g. oil refineries, mines, etc.), have probably led to the weakening of the immune systems of polar bears, glaucous gulls, Arctic charr and harp seals. In addition, Polychlorinated Biphenyl levels in polar bears around Svalbard are 2-6 times higher than polar bears from Alaska and Canada. Pollution levels cannot be diluted anymore in this vast environment. These animals have a right to a clean environment. At present, we have heavily-exploited wildlife populations with varying degrees of protection that are struggling to recover population numbers due to a failing ecosystem that cannot adjust to changes brought about by man. The dawn of the Anthropocene will be heralded by the collapse of our polar ecosystems, thus handing over the regulation of the global climate to human beings.
The Arctic is not so far north that it is beyond the reach of global sea and air pollution, as well as the dramatic effects of climate change. In fact, due to global warming temperatures increase a staggering 12 times faster at the North Pole than at the equator. Many of the fjords we navigated were uncharted due the fact that they were below 50–100m of ice ten years ago. Cartographers cannot chart the fjords quick enough to keep up with all the receding glaciers. Some of the glaciers had retreated all the way back to their ice caps. Once these are melted away, it takes over a thousand years to re-establish an ice cap, which functions as the beating heart of a glacier. We walked on glaciers on several occasions and had opportunity to listen to these massive ice flows groaning and cracking under the pressure of rising temperatures. On walks we would lay on the glaciers for several minutes at a time to listen to the murmurings below. In these moments of realization we become acutely aware of the role we have played in the catastrophic changes we are witnessing today. It was almost as if the glaciers were telling us a sad tale of a extraordinary species that turned on the earth, resulting in the situation we are in today. Tornadoes, typhoons, hurricanes and monsoons all set new records for frequency and intensity last year and the year before. Lake Chad dried up, sparking the unrest in that region of Africa we see today. We urgently need to make the decision now to protect our last-remaining wilderness area through the turbulent times ahead. We need conservation action and a significant shift to a sustainable future that supports ecological balance. Right now our global barometer is spiking and we need to sit up and take notice.
Plundering the natural resources and leaving nothing
For hundreds of years, the Arctic Ocean has been plundered for its natural resources. The region is rich in oil, gas, gold and coal resources, but for hundreds of years before the discovery of these hidden resources, the abundant wildlife was the focus and blubber was the business. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of whales, walrus, and seal were rendered into fat, polar bears killed for sport, and Arctic foxes for their luxuriant winter coats. To feed this rush on blubber and fur, whaling boats would stock up on thousands of eggs, Arctic puffins, geese and much else. Just to put the killing into context, the quota for a whaling boat 120 years ago was 50 blue whales or equivalent for the season. Even today, there are trapper’s huts at every walrus haul out, bird colony or secluded bay. Next to two of these huts that we visited were massive piles of walrus and beluga whale bones. Now, at last the whaling, seal clubbing, puffin harvesting, polar bear hunting and Arctic fox trapping are under control, and the Arctic wildlife are trying to recover… There is no doubt that they need our help to do this.
The Arctic wildlife are less capable of recovery due to increasing levels of persistent organic pollutants, rising temperatures and continued development in sensitive ecosystems. Polar bears, for example, are protected, but are now finding it harder to find and catch seals on the thin ice, resulting in females being unable to recover sufficient condition to breed and males wondering hungry into human settlements. Our solution is this problem to either kill them or scare the life out of them by helicopter lifting them back to where they worked so hard to leave. Human beings are consistently selfish and cannot see past the problem of having a polar bear in town. No matter that the bear is starving and soon there will be none left. Have we simply given up? If we protect our wilderness areas and endangered species, will they bounce back? Have we gone too far? Regardless, of the answers, the time is now, we need to change and make decisions towards a new future. Otherwise, one day we will wake up alone, in control of every aspect of our world with no truly free, wild places, few fellow Earth citizens to share the warmth of the sun.
Our responsibility as Earth citizens
It our responsibility as a global community of Earth’s citizens to reach out to those who do not have the opportunities we have for reflection on the changes happening around us, on the imminent threat to species survival in our forests, at our poles, in our oceans, and across landscapes. Credit crunch or not, we need to tighten our belts, live with less and give more. I am not necessarily talking about donating money, I am talking about investing your mind power and energy in a new future. We do not need to riot or burn things. We need to act for the good of each other and break the cycle of mistrust that fuels the current destruction of our planet. Think about other people, think about climate change, live a mindful life that recognizes the impact of your decisions and actions.
Dr Steve Boyes
National Geographic Grantee