The Arctic Circle
The Arctic Circle
It’s been a few weeks since I was in Svalbard, and I really don’t feel any more equipped to talk about my experience there than I did before. In the same way that a photograph lacks context: the sounds and smells; the people and peripheral vision - so too does any attempt to summarise what happened lack the essence of the experience.
So instead of trying to get at the whole, I’m going to try and get at some of the parts. Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting thoughts, facts, insights and anecdotes from the trip that go with the (rather amateur) photos that I took. These will be made available here, and you can subscribe to email updates if that’s your cup of tea.
Glaciers are literally rivers of ice, forming over decades and flowing over centuries, but in many ways they are just rivers. This is the place where two glaciers meet: and just like when two rivers meet, there’s turbulence. You can see the same wave-like interference pattern that you get in water as the two bodies of ice smash into each other. My guess is that the only reason that glaciers form different (and generally more jagged) shapes to watery rivers is that gravity runs much faster in relation to the flow speed of a glacier.
We saw a lot of glaciers in Svalbard, and stopped to explore quite a few of them. In this case, we hiked up a nearby hill, slid down the side of it and then walked back across the glacier (the flat, stable, crevasse-free bit of it, that is). Nemo (pictured here) joined us, as he did for almost all of the landings. You can just make out some tiny ant people on the glacier (another group from the expedition), which is the only way to get a feel for the size of a glacier.
This is the very first glacier that we explored, and it’s a surge glacier. These are white-water glaciers, moving at up to 10m per day and creating wild peaks across their surface. Glaciers like this will surge for years to decades before settling down again.
I like to think of these as the result of a broken dam: a pressure builds up behind some sort of barrier, and once the barrier breaks, the ice flows violently for a bit before calming down again. The exact causes of surges isn’t clear and so I’m not sure if the metaphor holds (there’s a good chance that it has more to do with the glacier sliding over meltwater at the base of the glacier than an actual dam), but it’s a nice image.
While we were visiting the surge glacier, we saw some of the first flowers starting to bloom as the landscape thawed in the never-ending sunlight. We saw more and more of them throughout the trip.
This really puzzled me, as I didn’t see any pollinators - and generally flowers exist to attract pollinators. Apparently there are some pollinators (flies), but they’re scarce. Because flowering plants can’t rely on pollinators, they’re able to reproduce asexually as well, ensuring they survive either way.
On our first day in Longyearbyen (the main town in Svalbard), we were walking into town when we ran across this reindeer. Reindeer in Svalbard are a bit different than elsewhere: most noticeably, they are completely unfazed by humans, as they don’t have any natural predators (even polar bears don’t actively hunt them). That doesn’t mean it’s easy for them to survive, though, and long, brutal winters have shaped them into a quite different animal. They’re shorter and slower than other reindeer, (they don’t need to run away from predators), they don’t move in herds (the ecosystem can’t support that many of them), and have a goat-like ability to climb mountains.
Moraine and Tundra
As the snow and ice melts in the arctic summer, two types of terrain are revealed: moraine and tundra. Moraine is a combination of mud and dirt that’s just been blended through a glacier and dumped out the other side. It’s muddy and just starting to support life, and walking through it can be dicey (I almost lost my knee-high wellingtons quite a few times to mud). Over time it turns into tundra: more settled terrain, generally covered in moss and flowers and surprisingly springy to walk on. This island has both moraine (above) and tundra (below): you can actually see where the glacier last advanced to before it retreated once more.
Fractals in the Mud
While walking in the moraine, we found large stretches of cracked mud like this. According to our guides, cracks in moraine mud tends to make pentagons over other shapes. These fractal patterns appear because of the properties of the mud and the weather conditions, and different muds and clays will create different polygons.
One of the strange things about Svalbard is that any human trace before 1945 is automatically protected under cultural heritage. This is largely because Svalbard doesn’t have any indigenous population, and so its history is both sparse and recent.
The result is that throughout the island, you can find the remains of huts, traps and random pieces of wood that you aren’t supposed to touch. What’s more incredible is that the wood doesn’t rot: it just survives like this, frozen in time.
Polar Bear Tracks
Polar bears move a lot: they’re constantly walking at a languid pace that’s faster than a human can run. So they cover a lot of ground. We found polar bear tracks on at least 4 separate occasions, in both mud and snow. There’s something unnerving about realising that you’re following a set of polar bear tracks, but it’s very unlikely that you’ll catch up with the bear which made them.
Polar Bear Encounter
We were exploring an area near a mostly-destroyed Swedish cabin, about a 15 minute walk from the landing area, where we’d left our life jackets. I’d been doing some writing in a quiet area when I was called back to the centre of the area. There were a few islands near the chunk of land that we were on, and on the furthest one (which was also closest to the life jackets) was a polar bear.
The guides quickly gathered us and made a game plan. A zodiac was dispatched to retrieve the life jackets, and they found a tiny inlet (basically the width of a zodiac) where they could land to pick us up. We gathered our things and quickly prepared to leave.
Meanwhile, the bear had been slowly moving, swimming from island to island towards us.
We loaded up the first zodiac, prioritising those with the most equipment. The plan was to send us all back in 2 zodiacs (rather than the usual 3), so each of them would be packed. The first, weighed down by sheer numbers, got a little stuck on the rocky beach and had to be pushed out. By the time we started loading the second zodiac, the bear was in the water again, except now there weren’t any more islands between it and us. It swam to the right of the inlet that we were in, and then turned to swim across the inlet: across our escape path.
In the middle of this swim, it paused, turned and considered us. Kristen (one of our guides) had a flare gun raised, ready to scare it away if need be. It lowered its head, and continued swimming, completely out of view. We finished loading the Zodiac, freed it from the rocky beach (as it inevitably got stuck with the heavy load), and were off.
The Midnight Sun
Svalbard in July has no sunset: the closest we got was on this walk late at night, when the sun disappeared behind a mountain for a while. It was pretty surreal having 24 hour daylight, and I was really thankful for the routines that shipboard life gave us (set meal times and 9am briefings stopped the days from drifting completely). But it also meant that you could easily change your schedule: I went on watch a couple of times between midnight and 4am (once to vomitous effect when we were sailing in rough seas).
Trees in the Ground
These two images were taken on different days: the top was taken on a beach; and the bottom is a piece of coastline we sailed past the next day.
Both, through different forces of water and erosion, have arrived at a similar pattern: tracing out the shapes of trees (though the top image is undoubtedly more spectacular). It never ceases to amaze me how these forms and structures tend to appear throughout the natural world.
You can find rocks all across glaciers: they get picked up, ground down and tossed around by the turbulence, and sometimes they end up on top of the ice. Rocks trap and radiate heat, so as soon as these rocks are in the sun, they’ll start melting the snow and ice around them. In summer, rocks end up sinking into the ice, creating these small puddles all across the glacier.
The sound of glaciers
One of the most striking things about glaciers is the sound of them: if you’re quiet, there’s a constant popping as the ice melts and air bubbles are released. Every so often, there’ll be a crash that’s almost indistinguishable from thunder: the glacier has calved (or sometimes, a rock has fallen from it). Often this happens deep in the glacier, so you can never see what actually fell. And just like thunder, the sound is delayed: by the time you hear it, seconds later, it’s probably too late to see it. It’s just one of the hints to the stupendous scale of glaciers: it’s too dangerous to get close enough that you could actually hear it in real time.
The Northernmost Rock
We were incredibly lucky on this trip: the wind and weather allowed us to sail all the way up to Rossøya: the northernmost rock in Svalbard. It’s part of Sjuøyane, a small group of at least seven islands helpfully called “Seven islands”.
Getting here involved sailing overnight, and being on watch from midnight to 4am, helping the crew log the trip and check the engines. The sea thankfully wasn’t too rough, and it was an amazing experience.
Not so much luck on the way back: I ended up barfing over the railing while holding on in the wind and rain.
The rules of Rock Jenga:
- You can play Rock Jenga whenever there’s lots of rocks around. Ideally, there’s a good combination of smaller and bigger rocks to play with.
- Choose a large rock to be the base
- Take it in turns to add a rock to the base or to any other rock in the structure on top of it
- You can take as much time as you want, but once you pick up a rock to use, you must use it
- If any rock from the structure falls off/hits the ground, you’re eliminated
Climbing the Mast
While on board, we were allowed (after signing a waiver or two) to climb the mast of the Antigua. You get a harness and 2 clips that you have to constantly move as you move up and down the rigging.
When I was about halfway up the mast, a strange quiet came across the deck of the Antigua. I didn’t think much of it, my mind focused on getting up the mast with my slowly freezing hands (pro tip: if you have suitable gloves for climbing, wear them if you climb a mast in the arctic). When I got to the platform, Shohei (one of the other artists who’d climbed up the other side) pointed out 2 polar bears that were making their way down the coast.
We ended up following the bears for a few hours, watching them steadily walk and swim through the arctic landscape.
It was an afternoon, and the Antigua was engulfed with fog. The zodiac left with our guides and disappeared into nothingness, and we joked about never seeing them again. The fog cleared a bit to reveal a spit of land, before reclaiming it once more. We were told that the guides had found a landing spot, and that there was ‘wildlife’ nearby. It was important that we stayed quiet.
I was in the second zodiac. As it approached the shore, we saw a glimpse of an animal in the water: the head of a walrus peeking above the surface. We slowly made our way to land and quietly unloaded, only to find that it had followed us to shore. It came right up to the zodiacs, at one point less than 5 metres away as the sounds of 30 or so cameras clicked around it.
Once it left, we began slowly walking up the spit as a group. Because further down that path was a whole huddle of walruses: around 40 of them. We spent about an hour slowly making our way closer to them, taking pictures and watching them laze and flollop. Eventually, we slowly made our way back to the zodiac and to the ship.
We saw a lot of plastic on our landings across Svalbard, and it was sobering to realise that none of it came from visitors to Svalbard (as people are careful not to leave anything behind). Instead, it was all plastic that had floated all the way north from the rest of the world.
It was strange to see a place where the more remote areas often had more plastic: visitors tend to clean up when they arrive, so the more heavily trafficked areas can often be cleaner.
The World's Northernmost ATM
At the end of the trip, we returned to Longyearbyen, home of the World’s Northernmost ATM, the World’s Northernmost Church, and a bar called Svalbar.
Towns in Svalbard are unusual: they’re the only place where you’re allowed to walk around without an armed guide (in case of polar bears), and all doors are unlocked (so you have somewhere to go if a polar bear shows up).
My time in the arctic was a fantastic couple of weeks, a truly once in a lifetime experience that I won’t forget for some time. I feel like I should say something to summarise it all, but I don’t really know what. So I’m just going to leave you with this image of the Svalbardic landscape through the porthole.