This is the second and final article about Stephanie Brennan’s expedition to the High Arctic Circle.
If you missed the first article, you can read it here. Remember to use the comment section below, if you have any comments or questions for Stephanie!
Effects on the Polar Bear Population
Later that afternoon, from the ship we spotted a dark object on the ice. It was a male polar bear, patiently waiting by a seal hole in the ice. Polar bears are dependent on sea ice, which they use to transport themselves between hunting areas and their dens.
The shelf ice is also used to rest on, in between strenuous hunting and swimming activities. The mother polar bear will make a winter den in thick snow cover or ice, and emerges with her cub, in spring, having not eaten for 5 to 7 months!
In Svalbard and elsewhere in the Arctic, the polar bear population is starving as there is less sea ice to hunt on, which means the hunting season decreases. The weakening ice has resulted in dens collapsing, killing the cubs and mothers. Mothers and cubs are starving as their hunting season decreases due to less ice.
In the town of Longyearben in Spitzbergen, it is estimated that there are more than 3,000 polar bears in poor condition living close to a town of 2,300 people. They come into the village to find food wherever they can and are dangerous.
Whenever we went ashore on the expedition, our guides carried rifles and flares, and the team would do a safety reconnoiter beforehand. Strict laws apply regarding contact with a polar bear – flares and other non-lethal methods are used to scare the bears away (hopefully).
Later that afternoon we quietly maneuvered past a lone walrus on an ice floe. The photo below shows how isolated the ice is under him.
Walruses rely on sea ice for easier access to food. They hunt from the continental shelves of ice close to the shore which are full of marine life. They use the shelf of sea ice to rest in between diving to find the clams and seashells that they live on, which abide on the ocean’s bottom. As the sea ice melts it is moving further and further away from their food source.⁴
The next day (although with 24-hour sunlight it’s hard to distinguish between days) we headed westwards along the fast ice front Wahlenbergfjord, looking for wildlife. We spotted a large group of walruses on a raised spit of land on Prins Karls Forland. There were around 50 piled on top of each other, grooming themselves, napping, scratching and emitting wind. From time to time, one would make its ungainly way on its flippers to or from the water, where it would slide its huge body effortlessly in.
Strict rules applied to our observation of the walruses (and all wildlife). Absolute quiet. No noise whatsoever, including clicking cameras. We followed Annie the marine biologist and expedition leader, in small groups, slowly walking a step at a time. When Annie gave a hand signal we crouched, thus managing not to disturb the group. Their smell was overpowering.
We underwent strict and lengthy bio-hazard checks before and after our visits to each of these pristine locations. This included staff vacuuming the inner seams of our clothes. We were given brand new polar outerwear and boots at the beginning of the voyage.
Ice-dependant seals, including the ringed, ribbon and bearded seals are particularly vulnerable to reductions in sea ice because they rest, birth and nurse their pups on the ice. The ringed seal hardly, if ever, ventures onto land, meaning that the risk of pups dying due to premature ice break-up as well as their vulnerability to predators, is very high.
Tundra and Starving Reindeer
It is predicted that the tundra in the High Arctic will shrink to its lowest extent in 21,000 years by the end of the century due to vegetation changes and rising sea levels. This tundra is the food of the Nordic Reindeer and climate warming has seen spikes in temperature that result in rain on the snow, causing ice to cover the tundra. The reindeer can’t get to their food and in 2018 over 200 reindeer died in Svalbard because of this. In 2014 over 60,000 reindeer perished in Arctic Russia for the same reason.⁵
We encountered a number of (beautiful and soft-eyed) reindeer on the tundra in Svalbard. We were told that they were not expected to live more than 8 years because of the fact that they ground their teeth down so badly from trying to eat the shrinking tundra, but instead gnawing in hunger at the rock.
Climate grief can overcome us when we are witness to such things. It was heartbreaking to hear the baby reindeer gnawing incessantly, trying to find food. But learning more about how climate warming is affecting us means that we can be better equipped and determined to take the strong actions needed to make a change.
How Does What Happens in the Arctic Affect the Planet’s Forests?
In essence, the warming of the Arctic has meant that there is less sun-reflecting ice and snow and an increasingly darker ocean that absorbs and increases heat. The glaciers melt and sea levels rise across the world. Some scientific modeling predicts the complete disappearance of summer ice in the Arctic by the end of the century, with catastrophic results.
Already in the past 30 years, we’ve seen areas of Arctic sea ice melt, that are larger than Norway, Sweden and Denmark combined. Some experts estimate that the oceans will rise by 7 metres (23 feet) by the end of the century.⁶
Already thicker denser forests usually only found south of the Arctic Circle are creeping northward to the tundra and polar desert as the climate changes. It is anticipated that tundra and Arctic vulnerable vegetation is in danger of becoming extinct.⁷
Rutgers University researchers have found that coastal woodlands in the United States are dying as a result of heavy rain, saltwater surges, and rising sea levels.⁸
As the ocean water floods the forests, the freshwater which nourishes these forests is displaced, causing the trees to die. These ‘ghost forests’ can be found across the east coast of the United States and elsewhere.
We have seen storms, cyclones, and flooding of record-breaking intensity, which has affected sensitive forest ecologies such as mangrove swamps. This is in addition to the increasing wildfires and bushfires which have decimated millions of hectares of native forests, scrubs and grasslands across the world.
Our Actions Are Already Making a Difference
In Australia’s recent federal election, nine climate activists (called the teal candidates due to their campaign colors) won the balance of power in parliament, and are now in a position to start making the political decisions required to take action on climate. In fact, we heard this news whilst on our expedition, by satellite phone, and the expedition scientists and ourselves screamed and jumped about in delight!
We can take political action, local action, or personal action. We can plant a tree for the Global Tree Initiative and know that we are part of a growing community making a difference. We can support our friends, family, or those we admire to work for this planet. We can support the change from wherever we are. That’s why I wanted to see what was happening in the High Arctic, and use the beauty of the flora and fauna, the landscape, and its first peoples, to inspire me and to move me to continue to work for climate change, the most important issue of our time.
⁴Arctic Climate Impact Assessment – Impacts of a Warming Arctic.
⁵Nordic Reindeer Sea Ice, rain on snow and tundra reindeer nomadism in Arctic Russia. Bruce C. Forbes, Timo Kumpula, Nina Meschtyb, Roza Laptander, Marc Macias-Fauria, Pentti Zetterberg, Mariana Verdonen, Anna Skarin, Kwang-Yul Kim, Linette N. Boisvert, Julienne C. Stroeve and Annett Bartsch
Published:01 November 2016
⁷Arctic Climate Impact Assessment – Impacts of a Warming Arctic
⁸Impacts of Climate Change on Coastal Forests in the Northeast US. Rachael Sacatelli, Richard G. Lathrop, Marjorie Kaplan