A Journey to the Edge of the Earth: Svalbard, Norway
There is still so much beauty in the world, but Svalbard and other places like it will soon be gone, unless...
Raw, isolated, unspoiled, awe-inspiring landscape. Brilliant, shimmering white interlaid with dark rocky texture. Glaciers that seem to glow an otherworldly, pale blue. Walruses. Polar Bears. Arctic fox. Reindeer. Seals. Vast, craggy mountains. Arctic water smooth as glass. The silence here creates an unforgettable atmosphere that is virtually unrivaled anywhere else in the world.
Svalbard is located at the top of the earth within the Arctic Ocean. It’s about midway between Norway and the North Pole.
Around 2,000 people call Svalbard home, but even though it’s largely uninhabited, these citizens still enjoy a strong sense of unity and fellowship. And even within the small settlement where this contained collection of people lives, you get so close to wild, pristine nature that it’ll take your breath away.
This place, however, along with many others, is in danger and disappearing rapidly, if we do not do something significant, and right now, to change it.
So, why is Svalbard worth doing something for, in order to save it?
The people of Svalbard come here for various reasons. Some are wild spirits and bold explorers in search of an Arctic adventure. Others are researchers who have arrived to study the fascinating geology. And then some are normal families who yearn to live an ordinary life in a place that is anything but ordinary.
But everyone who ventures to this end of the earth has something in common: a passion for and a love of Svalbard.
Once you arrive, it’s hard to leave, and even then, Svalbard remains in your heart. It’s said that once a “Svalbardian”, always a “Svalbardian”.
Over half of Svalbard is covered by glaciers! There are more than 2,100 glaciers of various sizes here, and almost 60% of the total area is covered by ice. The largest are called ice caps and are found mainly on the eastern side of Svalbard. The largest ice cap, Austfonna, is on the island of Nordaustlandet and covers an area of about 8450 km². It’s the largest in the world if you don’t count the vast sheets in Antarctica and Greenland!
Around 170 plant species have been registered in the Svalbard archipelago. All of which is extremely vulnerable. Thus, anyone traveling to and in Svalbard must take great care to avoid causing any damage, because the destruction of vegetation leaves permanent traces in the landscape.
The Svalbard reindeer and Arctic fox (both blue and white) are Svalbard’s native land mammals. They are found on most of the islands in the archipelago.
Moreover, the rodent species southern vole has found its way to the Isfjord area, most likely as a sneaky stowaway on boats!
Various seal species are found around Svalbard, including the ringed seal, bearded seal, common harbor seal, and walrus.
Of the whale species frequently visiting the coasts of Svalbard, the beluga (or white whale) is the most common.
The above photo is of two reindeer.
The below photo is of an arctic fox.
Nineteen species of marine mammals can be found in the waters surrounding Svalbard.
All birds are protected during the breeding season. This includes their eggs and nests.
It is not allowed to interfere with, catch, harm, or kill ANY animals and birds in Svalbard, period. This is a great thing, and a good start, but pretty soon, there might not be much of a Svalbard left unless we change our living habits.
And yes, you here in, say, Los Angeles, California, or New York, New York, or Seattle, Washington, or Boston, Massachusetts, or Frankfurt, Germany, or Reykjavik, Iceland, all of you can make a difference in Svalbard’s survival and preservation with your daily choices and actions.
Within this article, I’ll explain how, but first…the animal citizen of Svalbard that garners the most attention is likely the polar bear, the king of Svalbard!
Polar bears are the world’s largest land carnivores and for many people, they have become a symbol of the arctic wilderness.
Humans are considered an alien element in the polar bear habitat of Svalbard, far outnumbering the people here.
Most polar bears could disappear by the end of the century, though, scientists say.
Guess what’s to blame?
And guess who largely causes this? Us.
According to a recent study published in Nature Climate Change, most polar bear populations will be in serious decline by 2080. The cause is melting sea ice.
Polar bears hunt seals on the ice. Without ice, the bears must roam on the shore, where they are spending more and more time away from their main food source. That means the animals could and are starving.
“There’s not enough food on land to sustain a polar bear population,” Péter K. Molnár told the New York Times. He is the study’s lead author.
Lack of food leads to another problem: Mother bears may not be fat enough to produce milk for their cubs. Some bear populations could then stop having babies, leading to an even more rapid decline in numbers.
Polar bears are the largest land carnivores on the planet. They help keep other animal populations in check. Losing them would throw habitats off-balance.
“Their loss would reverberate throughout the ecosystem,” Marika Holland says. She’s one of the other authors of the study.
Arctic sea ice usually melts in the spring and summer, then grows in the winter. But now, the ice is taking longer to grow back.
Weather statistics say the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Ice in the region has declined 13% every 10 years since the 1970s.
The other problem with all this melting ice?
It is opening up previously inaccessible routes for shipping containers to use.
And they are doing so, despite the dangers of this and the damage it’s already causing.
Because many of us humans are all about money, money, money, and my needs and my immediate wants, and not so concerned with the life quality of others, yes? Or with protecting the earth STAT.
With increased boat shipping comes the risk of spills (both of the oil fuel and of the cargo), the increase of “black carbon” emissions that help to speed the rate of the Arctic melting (which is already happening at breakneck speed), and additional ship noises that affect whales negatively.
And there is no proven effective method to clean up oil spills in ice-covered waters.
So, if it happens, we are basically sh*t out of luck. The polar bears, even more so.
Contact with oil spills can reduce the insulating effect of polar bears' fur. The bear must then use more energy to keep warm and compensate by increasing its caloric intake—which may be difficult, given that their prey is already scarce.
Polar bears can also accidentally ingest oil through grooming and eating prey that’s been contaminated. The ingested oil can cause liver and kidney damage and has long-term toxicity. Bears can be poisoned by even just a limited amount of oil on their fur.
If a major oil spill occurs at or near areas with high concentrations of polar bear denning sites, for example, Hopen Island in the Barents Sea, it could and does have population-wide consequences.
All of this is affecting other animal species too.
Loss of sea ice is causing major problems for walruses. Around 35,000 walruses came ashore on the Alaska coast in September 2014. It’s the largest ‘haul out’ ever recorded. US government agencies estimated that at least 60 young walruses were crushed in the crowd.
Loss of ice also makes it harder for caribou and reindeer to find food. More woody plants, more precipitation, and warmer temperatures compromise the survival of grazing animals such as reindeer and muskoxen. Warmer winter temperatures have also increased the layers of ice in snow, making food more difficult to dig up in winter.
Sea ice is critical to Arctic marine life - and it's projected to nearly disappear in the summer within a generation.
The average temperature of the Arctic has increased 2.3°C since the 1970s.
What can we do to stop this? Quite a bit, actually.
The goal is simple. Carbon dioxide is the climate’s worst enemy.
It’s released when oil, coal, and other fossil fuels are burned for energy—the energy we use to power our homes, cars, and smartphones.
By using less of it, we curb our contribution to climate change while also saving money.
And if you choose to do nothing about this huge problem, you are effectively murdering animals. So, if you do not change your habits with this knowledge in mind, you are essentially choosing indirect murder and destruction of animals and our planet. Keep that in mind.
Here are a dozen easy, effective ways each one of us can make a big difference:
Speak up! Talk to your friends and family, and make sure your representatives are making good decisions. By voicing your concerns—via social media or, better yet, directly to your elected officials—you send a message that you care about the warming world. Encourage Congress to enact new laws that limit carbon emissions and require polluters to pay for the emissions they produce. You can help protect public lands, stop offshore drilling, and more here.
Choose a utility company that generates at least half its power from wind or solar and has been certified by Green-e Energy, an organization that vets renewable energy options. If that isn’t possible for you, take a look at your electric bill; many utilities now list other ways to support renewable sources on their monthly statements and websites.
Heating and air-conditioning account for almost half of home energy use! This is nuts! Make your space more energy efficient by sealing drafts and ensuring it’s adequately insulated. In the meantime, do not use air conditioning at all unless it’s, say, above 98 degrees out. Otherwise? Suck it up and use a box fan. The more we use A/C, the faster we are heating the earth. On the flip side, keep your heat at 68 degrees or lower.
Since they were first implemented nationally in 1987, efficiency standards for dozens of appliances and products have kept 2.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the air. That’s about the same amount as the annual carbon pollution coughed up by nearly 440 million cars. When shopping for refrigerators, washing machines, and other appliances, look for the Energy Star label. It will tell you which are the most efficient.
Saving water reduces carbon pollution, too. That's because it takes a lot of energy to pump, heat, and treat your water. So take shorter showers, turn off the tap while brushing your teeth, and switch to WaterSense-labeled fixtures and appliances. The EPA estimates that if just one out of every 100 American homes were retrofitted with water-efficient fixtures, about 100 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year would be saved—avoiding 80,000 tons of global warming pollution.
Stop wasting food and try to eat way less meat, especially beef. Approximately 10 percent of U.S. energy use goes into growing, processing, packaging, and shipping food—about 40 percent of which just winds up in the landfill. If you’re wasting less food, you’re likely cutting down on energy consumption. And since livestock products are among the most resource-intensive to produce, eating meat-free meals can make a big difference, too.
LED lightbulbs use up to 80 percent less energy than conventional incandescents. They’re also cheaper in the long run: A 10-watt LED that replaces your traditional 60-watt bulb will save you $125 over the lightbulb’s life.
Taken together, the outlets in your home are likely powering about 65 different devices—an average load for a home in the U.S. Audio and video devices, cordless vacuums and power tools, and other electronics use energy even when they're not charging. This "idle load" across all U.S. households adds up to the output of 50 large power plants in the U.S. So don't leave fully charged devices plugged into your home's outlets, unplug rarely used devices or plug them into power strips and timers, and adjust your computers and monitors to automatically power down to the lowest power mode when not in use.
Gas-smart cars, such as hybrids and fully electric vehicles, save fuel and money. And once all cars and light trucks meet 2025’s clean car standards, which means averaging 54.5 miles per gallon, they’ll be a mainstay. For good reason: Relative to a national fleet of vehicles that averaged only 28.3 miles per gallon in 2011, Americans will spend $80 billion less at the pump each year and cut their automotive emissions by half. Before you buy a new set of wheels, compare fuel-economy performance here.
If all Americans kept their tires properly inflated, we could save 1.2 billion gallons of gas each year. A simple tune-up can boost miles per gallon anywhere from 4 percent to 40 percent, and a new air filter can get you a 10 percent boost.
Choosing to live in walkable smart-growth cities and towns with quality public transportation leads to less driving, less money spent on fuel, and less pollution in the air. Car exhaust is the third leading cause of global warming. Less frequent flying can make a big difference, too. Air transport is a major source of climate pollution. If you can take a train instead, do that.
There is so much we can do to help preserve, slow the damage to, and try to maintain (as long as possible) important, beautiful places like Svalbard, as well as the entire earth and all its animals in general. Make a choice to take action, to do something, to put in the effort. Make that choice to be a good person and someone who cares about the quality of life of everyone on this planet.