A whisper from the woods

Community blog: An expedition to the High Arctic Circle, Part 1

Apr 24, 2023

Stephanie Brennan

An incredible and inspiring article, written by Stephanie Brennan, our dedicated community member, and retired Global Tree Initiative Australia regional coordinator.

Stephanie’s article will be covered over two Community Blogs. In the first part, we will learn about interesting statistics and about some of the animals she encountered.

In the second part, to be published in May, we will learn about the effects on the Polar Bear Population, Walruses, Seals and Reindeer, and that “What Happens in the Arctic Affects the Planet’s Forests”.

Please enjoy this amazing article and the beautiful photos!



Heading 80 Degrees North in an Icebreaker

In June 2022 I had the opportunity to join an expedition to the High Arctic – exploring the polar north on a commercial icebreaker. We had a team of around 20 scientists – glaciologists, ornithologists, marine biologists etc – to guide the 70 passengers, and present data on what we were seeing through lectures, photos and research. Both exhilarating and heart-breaking, this experience was a truly rare and precious one.

Of primary interest was to find out:
– How is climate change affecting the Arctic?
– How will Arctic warming affect the rest of the planet?

Of personal interest to me was, how could I use the beauty of this place to move beyond climate grief. The Arctic’s average temperature has already risen at a rate of almost three times the global average, warming faster than any other region on Earth!

This has resulted in the polar sea ice melting rapidly, causing large chunks of ancient glaciers to fall into the sea (‘calving’). On our expedition, we saw first-hand the effects of global warming on the vegetation, seabird and animal population, as well as on the snow and ice of the High Arctic.

We saw ‘calving’ glaciers in Svalbard. Photo: Kronebreen



This graph shows the size of the Arctic sea ice each September between 1984 and 2016


Our Route

From Aberdeen, we sailed through the Shetland and Faroe Islands of the North Atlantic Ocean, past Iceland to the volcanic island of Jan Mayen in the Greenland Sea, and then the Svalbard glaciers in northernmost Spitzbergen Island. Finally, we went beyond the 80 degrees latitude on our icebreaker, something rarely done, where we experienced freezing temperatures, storms, and seasickness.


Jan Mayen and Seabird Breeding Grounds

Jan Mayen is a Norwegian volcanic island, 600km northeast of Iceland, partly covered by glaciers. Old lavas flows have descended to the shoreline forming black cliffs, where huge colonies of seabirds have their breeding grounds.

The fog rolled in as we explored seabird breeding grounds on Jan Mayen. Photo: Souness


The island has been identified as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Bird Life International due to these breeding sites, where northern fulmars, little auks, thick-billed guillemots and black guillemots nest on the steep cliffs.

It is classified as a nature reserve, and we gained special permission to land at the Norwegian historic weather observation station, where rangers met us and supervised our hike up the volcanic hill overlooking Kvalrossbukta beach.

Later, we explored the bird colonies in our zodiac dinghies, making our way slowly and quietly along the coastline, listening to the thousands of birds above us, loudly calling and cawing from the cliffs.

Jan Mayen is the breeding and nesting sanctuary for many sea birds. Photo:Steiner


Reduced sea ice means that seabirds are more vulnerable to predators such as the Arctic fox, who is able to access the nests and eggs more easily. From our zodiac, we could see the foxes silhouetted, hunting high up on the cliffs.

Sea ice losses change the environment and geography of the High Arctic area and its eco-systems.¹ For example, the ivory gull flies to the nearby sea ice to fish through cracks in, and scavenge on top of, the ice. The sea ice edge retreating further from suitable coastal nesting sites, will have a dire effect on its population.


We saw this Arctic fox hunting birds and their eggs. Photo: Joris


The view of the volcano on Jan Mayen Island. Photo: DavidHynd



Svalbard’s Melting Glaciers

As we crossed to the island of Spitzbergen, we entered the world of the Midnight Sun and 24-hour daylight. Our destination was the Hornsund fjords, on the south-western part of Spitzbergen, home to some of the world’s most spectacular glaciers. We took the zodiacs further into the sound near Burgenbukta, where we spotted a polar bear mother and cub’s footprints just above the snowy shoreline.

Professor Mike Hambrey, one of the world’s most eminent glaciologists was on the small dinghy with us, and showed us where the glaciers had melted over the past few years in outer Hornsund. Near the head of the bay, the glacier recession amounted to several kilometers over the past 50 years. This area was once filled by glaciers, but now they are receding so fast that it is likely that a seaway will form within a few years between the main part of Spitsbergen and Sørkapp Land.


Glacier change, 1936 to 2010
Glacier loss-500ft (red)
Glacier Gain +500ft (blue)

Svalbard coastline reflects historical glacier extents. Source: Geyman et al., Nature. By Nadja Popovich/The New York Times


The Svalbard Islands are warming seven times faster than the global average. ² It is heartening to know that the glaciers and outcrops of Svalbard lie in national Arctic parks which aim to ‘preserve a virtually untouched environment in Svalbard with respect to continuous areas of wilderness, landscape, flora, fauna, and cultural heritage.’³


This Arctic fox we saw was still changing its coat from winter white to summer brown. Photo: Steiner


Historical whaling stations on Svalbard. This area is now a national park. Photo: Steiner


Thank you for taking us on this wonderful journey, Stephanie! We appreciate learning from you, and we are looking forward to the second part of your article!


¹ Climate change impacts on wildlife in High Arctic Archipelago – Svalbard, Norway. Sebastican Descamps, Joan Aars, Eva Fugei, Kit Kovacs, Christian Lyderson, Olga Pavloava, Ashid Ø, Virve Ravolainen, Hallvard Strøm.
² Temperatures in Svalbard Polar Research. Norwegian Polar Research Institute.
³ Svalbard Environment Protection Act, 2001.


Please share this. Thank you!


  1. Anrich Bester

    Great article, Stephie! Looking forward to part 2!

    • Carlene

      Touching article and beautiful photos. Thank you for sharing!

  2. Kika Gusmao

    Uau, great story, and amazing photos. Thank you for welcoming us into your journey.
    I’m looking forward to hearing more.

  3. Nerida

    Thank you for so beautifully immersing the reader in your journey Stephie. Fascinating but heartbreaking ????????❄️


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