Over the past 10 days I have had the opportunity to visit the archipelago of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean, travelling as far as 79.55 North before sea ice forced the National Geographic Explorer to return to Spitsbergen, the largest of the islands. I was with a group from the 2041 Foundation and ClimateForce, led by Robert and Barney Swan respectively. Robert is a true explorer and in the 1980s and 1990s was the first person in history to walk to both the North and South geographic Poles, with Shell sponsoring the South Pole expedition. More recently the Swans returned to Antarctica, again with Shell sponsorship, this time to mount the first expedition to the South Pole drawing its energy needs exclusively from renewable sources.
The trip to the Arctic was a first for the 2041 Foundation after many years of Antarctic Expeditions and brought a group of some 80 people face to face with the climate issue, while hearing about energy system solutions from the likes of me and others. The Arctic region presents nature in perfect balance, with the sea ice extent being just sufficient to allow polar bears to hunt for their prey but not so expansive that it prevents various whales from feeding in the cold waters over the summer months. But as is now widely recognised, the Arctic ecosystem is changing due to surface temperature warming, with diminished ice cover and shifting permafrost conditions. In a paper from the Max Planck institute, permanent Arctic sea ice loss was put at 3 m2 per ton of carbon dioxide emitted.
The expedition provided a unique opportunity to view this unique environment and learn about the issues facing it and therefore us. Below are a selection of my photographs from Svalbard up to 80N.
I have just returned from a personal vacation expedition to the European high Arctic, starting in Longyearbyen, Svalbard and ending in Iceland via the East Coast of Greenland. The trip was on the National Geographic Explorer, a 148-passenger expedition class vessel with ice strengthening.
It was an extraordinary trip and many aspects of it offered opportunities to reflect on the big issues of energy transition and climate change. This started in Longyearbyen itself, where it turns out that in the country of hydro electricity (Norway) this small town runs on coal, mined locally. Svalbard even exports coal, although some of the original mines have long been abandoned. Perhaps in this land of vast glaciers and freezing temperatures hydro isn’t practical, but there wasn’t a wind turbine to be seen either. Wind seems like an obvious contender here but even in the Arctic days of dead calm are possible; we experienced this for nearly two full days in the middle of the Greenland Sea. Of course solar is a non-starter with months of darkness. Powering such a location with dependable 24/7 electricity seems to come down to coal. Equally surprising was that some remote northern towns we visited in Iceland were powered by diesel generator, not geothermal.
It doesn’t require much travel in Svalbard to come across magnificent glaciers, but even here there were signs of change. Most of the glaciers we saw appeared stable, but one in particular was retreating rapidly and the early summer was already revealing large melt water streams on its surface. The retreat was clearly visible, with the slow moving foliage line marking the original and fairly recent (in glacial terms) position of the glacier.
Similarly in Iceland, all but one of that nation’s glaciers are reportedly in retreat. Observable rapid change in one Svalbard glacier isn’t sufficient evidence to reach a conclusion on the state of the Arctic, but it was interesting to see nevertheless. There was also an indication of change in the permafrost, although once again this was limited to a specific observation in one of the handful of locations we visited. Close to a site where we had come face to face with several curious walruses, the soft thawing ground had collapsed into the sea as a river of mud. This might well be a regular event, but if that were the case it was hard to see how the landscape had survived for such a long period.
Climate change was a constant topic of conversation on the ship, in part because there was a talk on the subject, further due to the link with National Geographic but also because of where we were. Being a relatively small ship it didn’t take long for most people to know of my link with the issue, so my vacation was filled with dinner discussions about carbon pricing (given the significant number of Australians on the passenger list), renewable energy and climate science. This wasn’t always easy, with a few of the American travellers arguing from the standpoint of information they heard on certain talk radio shows. But it was always interesting and I enjoyed the sparring on the issue. It was also very apparent that National Geographic travellers are deeply interested in the subject and for the most part, very well informed.
The wildlife was a highlight, but here again there was an interesting sign of change. We had two excellent encounters with wandering polar bears, scouring the ice edge for their next meal, and one sobering encounter with the remains of such a meal. This would normally be the carcass of a seal, but in this instance it was the remnants of a white beaked dolphin, a new phenomenon that has only very recently been observed in the high latitudes. These dolphins aren’t normally found in this area in spring when the pack ice is still widespread and therefore may have become trapped in shifting ice. They then become prey to the region’s most effective predator, the polar bear. The current view on this is that warmer waters may be encouraging the creatures to move north earlier in the year, therefore exposing them to this new and more dangerous environment.
But there is one constant in this part of the world and that is ice. Lots of ice. Although there is clear satellite evidence of ice loss from Greenland and declining sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, the ice nevertheless got the best of us. The trip included a passage through the Greenland Sea with one or more stops in Greenland itself, but the latter wasn’t to be. Thick multi-year sea ice kept us some 80 miles from the Greenland coast and no landing was possible. Although the ship is ice strengthened it is not an icebreaker, so we were defeated in a year when the ice cover was tracking below the 2012 minimum, at least until mid-June for the Arctic as a whole.
The ice provided a wealth of photographic opportunities, including one of the ship taken far out at sea from a zodiac, but in dead calm conditions.
We did get a consolation prize for missing out on Greenland, a visit to Jan Mayan. This is a tiny volcanic island in the middle of the Greenland Sea, but rising rapidly to over 2 kms the volcano itself was anything but small. Needless to say, it was spectacular.
You can see a complete set of my pictures of this trip here.
The recent rash of news alerts about the all-time-low, end of summer, Arctic sea ice extent has certainly given new food for thought about the state of the climate. Of course we shouldn’t be entirely surprised by this state of affairs as more rapid warming at the poles was anticipated long before the issue of rising emissions became a reality that we would have to deal with.
Back in 1895, Svante Arrhenius came to the conclusion that “temperature of the Arctic regions would rise about 8 degrees or 9 degrees Celsius, if the carbonic acid increased 2.5 to 3 times its present value”. Fortunately we haven’t reached this level of atmospheric CO2 or warming just yet, but nevertheless the message was there 120 years ago.
So it was timely to be able to hear from a current expert on the subject of the Arctic at the 34th MIT Global Change Forum held in Canada last week. The speaker was Professor Louis Fortier, Scientific Director, ArcticNet, Université Laval. Somewhat depressingly, the news was worse than the already worrying news of that week, shown above.
Firstly, Professor Fortier showed how climate models verified the findings of Arrhenius. In a 2070 world with CO2 at 550 ppm, warming in the Arctic is seen to be 5°C, compared to 2-3°C in lower latitudes.
But the really alarming news came when the discussion moved from 2D to 3D. Although we think of floating ice in the 2D context, it does have some thickness. This is caused by the buildup of ice from year to year, starting with ice that survives the previous summer melt which then increases in thickness during the winter. Thirty years ago, “old ice” (layers in the pack some 5-10 years old) made up some 50% of the floating pack at the end of the summer melt. Today, there is almost none of this remaining, with the ice at the end of summer consisting of the thin remnants of the winter freeze.
The 2D view shows that September ice extent has declined by about 50% since 1980.
But the 3D view which incorporates the measurements of ice thickness shows an even more worrying trend. Ice volume has declined by 82% since 1980.