“All the wonders of modern civilization are palsied in the presence of the eternal ice and snow.”
—The Times London November 21, 1849
Svalbard is mythic. Covered with 200 meters of ice and 6 percent of the world’s glaciers outside of Greenland and Antarctica, it is one of the most haunting archipelagos on the planet. The world’s northernmost town, Longyearbyen, lies only about 600 miles from the North Pole. The cold and mist and sea and ice and mountains hangs over one’s shoulders like a giant shroud from Hyperborean times. While there may be no giants up north, the greatest predator on earth, the polar bear, lurks everywhere and if one leaves town, one had better have a rifle. We first went there over ten years ago when our ship could not even navigate past the Hinlopen Strait because of the near invincible pack ice. It was a time, when climate change was real but had not yet caught up with humanity. This magical land of 1,000 glaciers is one of the fastest warming regions on Earth, where about 3,000 polar bears outnumber the local population of about 2,400. What a rare island indeed.
According to the “Icelandic Annals,” Svalbard was first seen in 1194 and the Old Norse name means “ old edge or side” and the reference to Svalbard almost drops off the cliff of history. Fritjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer exclaimed, “Surely no great geographical discovery has ever been more briefly recorded in literature.” It was “discovered” by the Dutch navigator William Barents in 1596 when looking for the northeast passage to Asia. On June 9th the expedition’s two ships crossed the 80th parallel and saw a “high land and entirely covered with new snow.” The Dutch and English started their whaling exploits a few years later in 1619 followed by other European nations including Russians who arrived in 1715. After the heyday of whaling, coal, ironically, began to be mined and considering global warming, became increasingly popular as a resource. Svalbard has been the launching pad for many Arctic explorations — it is the closest habitation to the top of the world, the North Pole.
There is a reference from the famous Muscovy Company, a group of London merchants who had ties to Russia going back to the 16th century. Supposedly they had recruited some criminals from London who were under a death sentence. They were offered provisions, warm clothes and building materials and most importantly full pardons if they fulfilled a stint on Svalbard. They sailed to the archipelago and settled in on their designated site but as the cold autumn began encroaching the men decided they would rather go back to London and be hanged rather than have to brave the coming infernal winter. They were returned home but thanks to the Muscovy Company, pity was shown the men and they were pardoned.
Eleven years ago in 2012, the first time we went to Svalbard, we were awed by the ice pack, walrus colonies, caribou marching, cliff sides raging with nesting and flying Guillemots, and marauding polar bears who walked past our boat headlong into the great white emptiness like messengers from a bygone ice age. it was also the second lowest recorded ice melt of our time. As of the 1980’s Svalbard’s glaciers have been receding and fast. Partly because they lie at a low altitude of only about 400 meters above sea level as opposed to twice as much for Greenland’s glaciers, they have become unstable the last few years. Shaped like domes with steep sides, with flat interiors, this shape makes Svalbard’s glaciers particularly fragile.
A teacher at a nearby elementary school told us about the British teenager who had been mauled to death by a polar bear, which also injured four students who were on a British Schools Exploring Society trip near a glacier on Spitsbergen. The unrivaled lord of the north, the polar bear, is one reason people do not leave town without a rifle. They can leave their credit cards at home, but not their guns. One woman a few years back decided to climb up the outskirts of Longyearbyen without her gun. She had climbed to the top of the hill and there was a polar bear waiting for her a few hundred feet away. The bear rushed for her and within a few seconds chased her down and swiped her head off. Asked if she would feel better if there were no bears lurking around, the teacher answered confidently, “No they were here first. We are second.” In a time when polar bears are barely holding on, the conviction that polar bears need to be saved for their own splendid selves is paramount in few places in the world. One knows one is a visitor here. And yet even this magnificent stronghold is fast changing under the weight of the European, Asian and North American countries fast burning through their oil stockpiles.
In July 2020 Svalbard had record high temperatures, 4 degrees Celsius over what the average was in 1970. It is one of the reasons Hilde Falun and Sunniva Sorby for the Hearts in the Ice venture spent almost nine months in a small hut in Bamsebu on the archipelago with no electricity or running water. Their work collecting sea ice and examining phytoplankton is a labor of concentrated love for a region that has changed their life and that has led to a book that can in essence be likened to "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson from 1962. One of the ironies of their self imposed exile was that the world came to a standstill while they were doing their research because of the virus. While they didn’t have to deal with avalanches and hungry polar bears, the cold at times was extreme. But their hermetic retreat gave them an insight few have had the chance to experience in this stark wonderland of northern latitudes, at one point coming face to face with a breathtaking pod of dozens of beluga whales.
Others, mercenary in their taste, have been interested in the extreme landscape of Svalbard including Chinese billionaire Huang Nubo, who years ago showed interest in buying real estate on Svalbard, leading many to speculate that this was a first step in China getting a foothold in the Arctic and its abundant natural resources and minerals. Huang has since changed his mind and decided to concentrate on a piece of land on the mainland of Norway near Tromso. But years ago he was also interested in a 100-square mile piece of land in northern Iceland. That deal fell through to the great relief of many Icelanders. But Svalbard could potentially be a gold mine. The rush for Arctic resources is expanding. That piece of property in Svalbard is still up for sale, now that members of Parliament fought to keep the land in Norwegian hands. Christin Kristofferson, the mayor of Longyearbyen, said of the cancelled land purchase, “This is not an area for a new Klondike. We have to tread carefully. We should own this island. This is not anti-Chinese, but pro-Norwegian.”
When we returned in 2019, the pack ice was passable in most areas and much less compact than a decade previously. While we have never had the pleasure of having to brave below freezing temperatures for a season, there is the story of 14 men who did. In 1743, they were seacoast dwellers from Russia, called the Pomori, from a small town called Mezen on the White Sea, who planned to spend a summer on the west coast of Svalbard. And survive they did but barely subsisting on walrus, fox, reindeer and even polar bears. All they had were muskets, axes and lances to catch their prey. Could they have imagined that their home of such insufferable cold would ever become a litmus test for global warming? After their ketch boat was torn to shreds by the ice floes, their ventures would become legion and enter the annals of Arctic survival stories almost unmatched in a book called "In the Land of White Death." Today’s visitors may not have to deal with such furious conditions as those of almost 300 years ago.
Svalbard is melting and the changing weather is affecting its wildlife. A few months after we were last there, heavy rainfall that would freeze made it impossible for a herd of 200 caribou to get at the vegetation below the tundra. The herd starved. That kind of climate change would have been unthinkable even 50 years ago, let alone 300.
Back in 2008, Svalbard become famous for its Global Seed Vault which was drilled 120 meters into the side of a sandstone mountain containing millions of crop seeds that civilization might need in the case of agricultural blights, war or any other disaster provoked by civilization or beyond. The bunker contains about 250 million seeds of about a third of the world’s most vital seed crops, the ones on which our existence depends on. While the temperature within the permafrost is -6 degrees Celsius and the vault is supposed to withstand the melting polar ice, located hundreds of meters above sea level, the vault was ironically breached in 2017 when melting permafrost entered the vault and then froze again. It seems that the Norwegian government and humanity’s best laid plans were no match for nature’s fury. Asmund Asdal of the Nordic Genetic Resource Center exclaims his surprise at what happened in the so called Doomsday vault, “This is supposed to last for eternity.” For how long we are supposed to hold onto eternity on this marvelous planet is anyone’s guess.
While many know about the Doomsday vault, few realize that Svalbard was also chosen as the site for a very different kind of safety deposit box, another bunker that contains 21 terabytes of source code written on 186 reels of digital archival film called piqlfilm. It is open source so it can be freely shared with developers around the world. It can supposedly withstand extreme electromagnetic exposure. Locked inside this vault is all the information necessary for microprocessors, semi conductors, electronics and even pre industrial technologies. We should all feel much safer knowing that if our species wipes out all life on Earth and our entire food supply and Netflix, we can start all over with the seeds that have a home in the seed vault and computer codes safely nestled in the far north in Svalbard.
All the while, temperatures continue to climb in far off Alaska, where Conoco Philips’ infrastructure used to drill for more oil is having problems. The company cannot drill because the permafrost is thawing and the ground beneath their feet is collapsing. They seem to be having trouble going after the oil, the very substance our species needs to wean itself from and whose extraction is causing climate upheaval all over the planet. Devices can’t get through the ground, so they have to try and cool the tundra which is taking energy in a giant feedback loop of giant proportions. If that is Big Oil’s answer to the climate crisis, then at some point we are going to have to find a good priest and not just an engineer to answer our prayers.
It is perhaps not too ironic to mention the modern Noah’s Ark that would take 335 million samples from 6.7 million species to the moon to be stored in vaults underground, which would take 40 rocket launches to achieve. Some like doctoral student Alvaro Caminero at the University of Arizona are excited that the Ark is the incipient stage for humanity to become an interstellar species with bases on the moon and later Mars. The project was conceived by professor of aerospace and engineering Jekan Thanga at the University of Arizona, who reminds us that 75,000 years ago, humanity had a close call with the Toba super volcanic explosion that caused a 1,000-year cooling event and according to some, a decrease in human diversity. Earth’s environment is inherently fragile so the Ark would in essence consist of a “global insurance policy” for life on Earth. If so many scientists fear extinction, catastrophe and the possible loss of the biosphere, maybe equal effort should be exerted to saving the living ark of what we have left on Earth. We have the means, we just need the ambition and the vision.
Meanwhile on Svalbard, the GitHub library with all its software codes and impressive archives is supposed to last more than 500 years. We’ll see. Or rather we probably won’t.
Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson's work at their website.