Alumni get an up-close look at change in the Arctic

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October 30, 2017

Go to Norway, and then head further north, three hours by plane. You’ll end up in Longyearbyen, the main settlement of the not-quite-sovereign archipelago of Svalbard. Formerly a mining town, Longyearbyen focuses now on tourism and climate research, an area of obvious interest, given its position in the Arctic. If you leave the settlement on foot, you’ll have to carry a rifle to protect against polar bears.

The Arctic manages to both follow and upend your expectations. Polar bears present a threat, but they’re rarely seen. Svalbard has quaint limitations—its governor doubles as the region’s chief justice and head of police—but also luxuries: Longyearbyen has an airport, a university, and a number of museums. On the ocean, the wind whips but rarely stings; increasingly, the water can be traversed without breaking ice. Perhaps that’s the greatest shame: The Arctic is disappearing before people truly know what it’s like.

This June, a number of Duke alumni (myself included) made this northern pilgrimage before hopping on the National Geographic Explorer for a week at sea. The Lindblad Expeditions “Land of the Ice Bears” trip itself marks the decline in Arctic conditions. Launches are trending earlier each year; the next time Duke offers the trip, in 2019, it will be even earlier in the month. It’s a simple pattern: Less and less ice covers the ocean.

“There’s always good ice years and bad ice years, but what we’re seeing is a string of consecutive ‘light’ ice years, which results in really bad conditions for these animals,” according to David Johnston Ph.D. ’04, associate professor of the practice of marine conservation ecology in the Nicholas School. Previous extremes of low ice levels have become the norm. “What we were seeing would happen once every five or seven years; it now happens every year or four years in a row with only one good year in-between.”

As the ice that’s so iconic in the region— that’s so elemental to the region— disappears, an already-fragile ecosystem becomes threatened. Loosely speaking, the food chain flows steadily to its terminus of the polar bear, and the polar bear diet relies upon a surplus of seals. (To maintain body weight, a grown polar bear eats roughly one seal a week.) Johnston has studied harp seals at length in Arctic Canada and Greenland, and in numerous papers he has documented declines in seasonal sea ice and associated deaths of entire cohorts of their pups. He also explains how tenuous the situation is for another type of pinniped, the hooded seal. Like harp seals, they can’t give birth to their pups in the water, nor can birth/reproduction occur on land, as those seals would be sitting, well, seals for the predatory polar bears. What they need is pack ice—the floating ice that forms seasonally and increasingly unpredictably during their breeding season each spring.

“They’re kind of walking this amazing evolutionary dance, where they’re using this ephemeral habitat, and they time their reproductive stuff so closely to take advantage of that,” Johnston says. “So if the ice is just a week late, then it makes a big difference to the animals, because then all their pups die.”

What we saw in the Arctic, primarily, were hungry polar bears prowling the ice, looking for their next meal. The bears bolster the trip’s allure, certainly, and the expedition leader admitted to feeling relieved when the passengers saw polar bears in the first few days, as that freed up the chance to explore other wildlife and natural elements, like reindeer, walruses, and arctic foxes, or glaciers and ice floes. We became expert ornithologists capable of spotting kittiwakes and eider ducks at a distance, even finding interest in their guano and the purple saxifrage (flower) that it aids in fertilizing. Since every species affects one another, and because there aren’t that many species to account for, the Arctic system makes sense. Its barrenness, however, stands out.

“For me, one of the moments was flying into Longyearbyen. You’re seeing all the snow-colored mountains, the lack of vegetation,” said Juliet Sadd Wiehe ’85, who traveled from Raleigh for the trip. “It really felt otherworldly to me—it was like a landing on a different planet.” We spent many an afternoon making landings and trudging through snow and melted permafrost. On the second-to-last day, we floated up above the 80th north parallel, a region where only perhaps expeditioner extraordinaire Peter Hillary (an onboard guest speaker) honestly felt comfortable. More tangibly, our satellite connection failed often, leaving us at times without the Internet; while the trappers who preceded us here were undoubtedly brave, we were far from the comforts of home.

But while we adapted to the environment, the mammals have the harder adjustment. Early on during the trip, we witnessed a polar bear experience her floor fall out from underneath, the ice melting away and depositing her in the water. We saw a second bear hunting for food for over an hour, so hungry and apparently undisturbed by the ship to allow us the best photographs of the excursion: Wiehe later referred to the bear as “the poser.”

“To me, the polar bear is the mascot of this whole climate change thing that’s getting discussed,” said Rich Frost M.D. ’73, a physician and travel writer who had been looking to take this trip for fifteen years. “I don’t think there’s any question that we saw things that people in the future won’t be able to see.”

The last day on the ship, with the captain steering us down the western edge of the archipelago back toward Longyearbyen, we stopped in the cove at the 14th of July Glacier. As we gathered on the bow, we witnessed two distinct sights: the harsh brown moraine that the glacier has already left in its wake, and the pure blue ice, time after time, breaking off from its shelf and plunging into the ocean below. It made for a memorable image, showing what we’ve already lost, and what will be next to go.

 

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.