7/19/2012 5:16:31 PM
Svalbard: More Ice Bears than People
Standing alone in the North Barents Sea somewhere east of Greenland and far north of continental Europe lies a rugged series of arctic islands collectively known as Svalbard. This Norwegian territory is an arctic paradise largely unspoiled and unmarred by human settlement. It's a haven for modern day explorers and arctic scientists alike. Jagged mountain peaks stand stark against the low cloud cover, endless snowfields, and massive glaciers that meet the fjords in towering cliffs of ice.
Despite the barren rocky landscape and the harsh climate, Svalbard supports an extensive arctic ecosystem. Each summer as the sea ice recedes from the shoreline and the sun hangs overhead for 24 hours a day, the rich arctic waters erupt in a bloom of plankton which attracts seabirds in the millions. The rocky cliffs surrounding the archipelago provide perfect breeding grounds for birds, some of which travel thousands of kilometers to put them to use. The steep nesting cliffs also provide some protection from arctic foxes or even an ambitious polar bear moving inland from the sea ice and looking for a summer snack.
In Norway, the polar bear is called the isbjÌürn - or 'ice bear' - and on the Svalbard archipelago they are more numerous than human occupants! People here have a fantastic respect for polar bears and understand what is required to safely share such a small piece of land with so many of these majestic creatures. It's not entirely uncommon for a polar bear to wander by the edge of the major settlement of Longyearbyen during the summer months when forced ashore by melting ice. Because of this, local law states that a rifle must be carried at all times outside of the town limits, which are marked in all directions with very prominent polar bear warnings! It's often strange (especially for tourists) to see hikers and skiers walking through town with a rifle slung casually over one shoulder (the subject of many astonished photographs!) but this is simply a necessary precaution in this remote place.
In Norway, isbjÌürn are respected and protected. Hunting them is illegal and any bear encounter which ends in tragedy (for bear or human), albeit a rare situation, is a serious incident. Having spoken personally with several locals, including experienced guides, here in Longyearbyen, the consensus is that if you ever find yourself in a situation where you have to use your rifle, you have already made some major mistakes! A bear, no matter how curious, can usually be deterred with loud shouts from a group of people, barking dogs or a special flare gun which fires loud fire-cracker-type noise makers. All that being said, the centerpiece of the local museum is a very large male polar bear which had to be reluctantly shot at a range of less than 1.5m by an experienced local guide. A tragedy, no doubt, but an important reminder that these animals demand the utmost respect from those traversing their territory.
The major settlement on Svalbard is Longyearbyen, and I am here for six weeks taking a field course in Arctic Biology. Longyearbyen claims the prestigious title of the world's northernmost town, being only 700 miles (1120kms) from the North Pole. Originally founded over 100 years ago as a company town to support the local coal mining venture, it has since grown into a bustling community and ecotourism destination with a year-round population somewhere on either side of 2,000 people. Given the unique geographic location of this town, it has become an important hub for arctic research. Longyearbyen is home to UNIS (The University Centre in Svalbard - www.unis.no) as well as a branch of the Norwegian Polar Institute. Teams of students and researchers from these institutes are able to monitor and provide important insights into the changing arctic ecosystem via their unique location nestled in the very heart of it.
I am extremely privileged, as a new arctic biologist, to have the hands-on learning experience of working in this remarkable place with some leading arctic research institutes. Keep an eye out for my next entry dealing with my research and experiences here in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway.
Top and bottom photos, copyright Patrick Mislan. Bird rookery, copyright Kt Miller/Polar Bears International. Polar bear photo, copyright Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures.