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Northeast Passage: Lighting up the darkness

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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.

By Geoff York

Today we pass just south of St Mathew Island. We are not planning on any stops until Dutch Harbour as there is weather brewing in the North Pacific. None of us want to face a full Bering sea storm if we can avoid it, so we push on.

St Mathew is interesting in that it used to regularly support several hundred polar bears during the summer in a situation much like Churchill, Canada. The bears would come ashore when the ice receded and basically wait for its return. They were discovered by early explorers and whalers in the 1800’s and exterminated from the island. They have not returned.

So if polar bears once survived on this “southern” island, why are they not returning to this now protected area? Well, several things have changed, the first and perhaps most significant is the change in sea ice cover – both extent and duration. Back in those days, the ice-free period was relatively brief. Just as the early melt of sea ice in western Hudson Bay is leading to declines in that population, perhaps changes in the speed and timing of the melt in the Bering sea have prevented successful recolonisation. Conventional wisdom tells us that there were also far more seals whales, walrus, and even the now extinct sea cow prior to western exploitation of this region. Lastly, there were far fewer people on the planet pumping far less CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

With the changes in sea ice across the Arctic, some outside the polar bear research community have suggested that polar bears can simply come ashore and survive from eggs, berries, and fish. This is simply not possible. First off, most areas of high arctic tundra already have predators in the form of the tundra grizzly, wolverine, and wolf. These competitors occur in low densities because there is not an abundance of food. The tundra grizzly is also the smallest of the brown bears for this very reason, though it is not small in attitude and would not welcome its white cousins.

Nutritionally, it also just doesn’t add up. Polar bears are often referred to as “lipovores” or fat eaters because this is what they evolved to efficiently process in the unique arctic environment. The rely on seals primarily to provide this fat and it in return help keeps them warm and provides some hydration when digesting. There simply are not enough bird eggs, berries, or fish available at the right times, in enough places, or the needed volumes, to sustain a large number of polar bears. New research from the University of Alberta is currently examining this in a quantitative manner – look for a new paper within the year.

Phosphorescent sea life ... Photo by Flickr user amirjina, under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs licence.Phosphorescent sea life ... Photo by Flickr user amirjina, under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs licence.

The boat pitches, yaws, and rolls all day and into the night. 30 degree rolls now seem normal. Phosphorescent sea life light up the otherwise dark seas as they are disturbed by our passing wake. While I have seen phosphorescent diatoms in the Gulf of Alaska, some of these appear to be jellyfish as they are large and very brightly lit. It is magical to see and somehow comforting as I sit alone in the dark wheelhouse. I am reminded of the Bob Marley line – “light up the darkness” which leads to the refrain “every little thing gonna’ be alright” … at least for tonight.

« Northeast Passage: Saving the Arctic, one walrus at a time | Northeast Passage: Sustainable fishing in the Arctic »

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