This summer, WWF is helping support two expeditions that will take on some of the world’s most difficult waters, to see first-hand the effects of Arctic climate change. One expedition is sailing across the top of Russia, a journey of 6000 nautical miles through the Northeast Passage, while another is attempting a west to east transit of the Northwest Passage, also by sailing boat, a journey of about 7,000 nautical miles.
Tom Arnbom of Sweden was on the ‘Explorer of Sweden’ though the Northeast Passage, as was WWF Arctic Programme Director Neil Hamilton for much of the trip, replaced near the end by WWF polar bear coordinator Geoff York. On the ‘Silent Sound’ Cameron Dueck of the Open Passage Expedition is filing regular stories from the Northwest passage. Come back for photos and stories throughout the summer, and follow the progress of the boats as they follow in the wake of some of history’s most intrepid explorers.
I am sharing the dogwatch with Anders, the captain of Explorer of Sweden. The dogwatch is between midnight and four in the morning. We head northward along the west coast of Svalbard, and because we are north of the polar circle the midnight sun is shining. We are now getting closer to where we might see polar bears.
Suddenly, at distance we observe a small polar bear on the beach – it looks like it is gnawing on something. It does not take long before the next bear turns up – it is stretched out on a large ice floe.
The weather is fantastic so we survey one more bay – and a third large polar bear turns up, swimming. Incredible: in only a few hours – three polar bears, the largest landliving predator, have been in sight. We keep at distance so as not to disturb it. Outside on some ice flows I see both ringed seals and a bearded seal.
The Arctic is fantastic – but is it a vanishing world I am observing? In a generation, the Arctic might look totally different. New species will arrive and some might even be gone. The driving force is climate change.
At Ny-Ålesund I meet Geir Wing Gabrielsen, a scientist from Norway.
He tells us that in addition to the climate change directly affecting the escalating melting of sea ice, pollutants are having a larger effect on animals as a result climate change. The reason is that many of the top predators have a large storage of body fat, and in non-degradable pollutants are stored in the fat.
When the animals have difficulty find their preferred food, such as polar bears and ivory gulls, the pollutants find their way out in the organs, when the stored fat is all used up. The scientists in Ny-Ålesund have seen changes in some species already due to this heavier pollutant burden.
In addition to climate change, more pollutants are expected to come with currents, both in the air and in the water.
Walrus galore. Today we have been lucky to see some walrus ashore but also on a small ice floe. The Atlantic walrus was heavily hunted for several hundred years before it was protected. Today, they are slowly coming back in numbers, especially in Svalbard.
In eastern Russia and in Alaska, the Pacific walrus population is having problems. The main one is that the arctic sea water is warmer than before, which causes the summer sea ice to melt. Walruses usually rest on the sea ice between feeding dives, but when the sea ice is gone, walruses come ashore in large colonies to rest. The haul-outs can be far away from the feeding areas, and when many animals come together – there is a risk that they might stamp each other to death. This has happened during the last few years, and several thousand walruses have died.