Witness the fragile splendor of Svalbard

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Hypnotized, I leaned against the railing at the front of the ship, alone, for hours. In the course of 10 days, no moment was the same. The arctic world was constantly moving and changing around me as we moved slowly through the ice and the open sea, past whales, walruses, birds and bears.

Except for keeping track of meal times, watches were irrelevant; in summer, so far north of the arctic circle, the sun never approaches the horizon.

And yet Svalbard, while seemingly timeless, is perhaps the closest thing to a clock.

I visited the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in 2017, having landed on the M/S Stockholm, a classic ship built in 1953 and refitted in 1998, by sheer luck. (A last-minute cancellation and a chance encounter with a South African dentist somehow landed me a closet-sized cabin.) I boarded, excited but with no particular expectations.

With a population of around 2,400 people, Longyearbyen is the largest settlement in the archipelago. It is a decidedly unusual place. Named after an American mine owner, John Munro Longyear, the town is home to a largely dismantled mining industry, a university campus, a global seed bank, and a small but thriving tourism industry that focuses almost exclusively on natural beauty. from Svalbard.

Seen from the sea, Svalbard seemed to be the epitome of wilderness: a vast expanse of water, ice and largely untouched islands, free of human habitation and infrastructure, except occasional passing boats. This, of course, was why I was unable to tear myself away from the bridge, gobbling up meals and sleeping as little as possible.

I’ve always been drawn to the great outdoors – deserts, mountains, grasslands. The sea is starkly different, moving around us even when we try to stay still. Watching ice drift through thick fog, waterfalls gushing from the sides of giant glaciers, or the sky mirroring perfectly in suddenly still water, it was hard to get rid of the feeling that it was somehow both ethereal and eternal.

Unfortunately, climate change all but guarantees an eventual (and probably quite imminent) collapse of what is, in fact, an exceptionally fragile ecosystem. The 29 national parks and other protected areas that cover two-thirds of the Svalbard archipelago can protect its wild inhabitants from hunting and pollution, but not from rising water and air temperatures. Every year brings us new news about ever-shrinking glaciers and shrinking ice cover – the ice on which the 3,000 polar bears that live in the Svalbard archipelago and the Barents Sea depend for their survival.

“The map was completely redrawn during my time here,” said Fredrik Granath, an author, photographer and expedition leader who has 20 years of experience working on Svalbard. “The roads that we traveled on foot or by snowmobile only 10 years ago are now only accessible by boat. It gets worse every year. »

Tourism, as is so often the case, happens to be both part of the problem and part of the solution. On the one hand, air travel is a significant contributor to climate change, accounting for around 2.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions. (The travel industry as a whole has an estimated footprint of between 8 and 11% of total greenhouse gases, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.) Choosing to fly less is undoubtedly important, especially that global carbon dioxide emissions from aircraft are expected to triple by 2050.

On the other hand, tourism can be an invaluable asset for conservation. In many parts of the world, wild places remain wild largely because of tourism’s ability to provide jobs and income, allowing conservation to financially compete with agriculture, mining and logging. . Although far from perfect, a subset of the travel industry can and does fund research, anti-poaching patrols and community development. It also means that there are people – residents, visitors, journalists – who can testify, raise awareness, raise funds and, sometimes, dedicate their lives to a cause that has touched them.

“You cannot describe the brutality of what is happening with pictures or words alone,” says Mr Granath. “Svalbard is at a turning point. Some people need to experience it first hand or this incredibly important story will go unseen.

This all went through my head as the M/S Stockholm continued its journey across the Arctic Ocean. Moments of breathlessness at the overwhelming beauty would be followed by others wrought with grief at the prospect of its demise, of a future where healthy polar bear populations and thriving Arctic ecosystems are but memories.

For better or for worse, the future of Svalbard will not be decided locally. With persistence and luck, however, continued glimpses of the Arctic world – whether through our own experiences or those of others – will continue to shatter resistance to properly protecting the last wild places on this planet.

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