A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: paulej4

6/9 Svalbard Beckons

If you don't know where that is, you're not alone

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View Polar Bears of Svalbard on paulej4's travel map.

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My morning routine is quite simple. Brush teeth. Weigh. Make coffee. Settle in with the New York Times--not online; I am a print edition addict which is testimony to my age. This particular Sunday morning, what I as a frequent traveller often refer to as "getaway day," I am slapped in the face by the lead article in the Times Travel Section: "Travel's Climate Problem."

The words of Andy Newman, a reporter for the Times, read as follows: "The glaciers are melting, the coral reefs are dying, Miami Beach is slowly going under. Quick, says a voice in your head, go see them before they disappear! You are evil, says another voice. For you are hastening their destruction." He speaks directly to and about me.

While I would prefer to not read these words on the very morning I depart for Svalbard--in the Arctic--to, hopefully, see polar bears on ice floes "before they disappear," I am verily and justifiably chastised. But, I am not canceling my trip. Going to the Arctic will increase my carbon footprint which will hasten the demise of that which causes me to sit in the seat that contributes all that carbon. (You can and should read his entire piece here:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/03/travel/traveling-climate-change.html)

Tell me what you think (and what you think I should think).

To assuage my guilt, I am going to write--and as I always do, pontificate--about what I see and experience but in this case, in part, so that you don't have to make the trip yourself. Maybe that will help.

I leave 80 degree weather and B4 behind--this isn't her kind of trek--and go far far north to where it is, and will continue to be, very cold. Perhaps, however, not cold enough.

My usual practice of each day posting entries supported by photography will be constrained by lack of access to the internet while I am aboard a small ship sailing amongst the ice floes farther north than most humans will ever go--or even dream of going. I am going north of the northernmost permanent settlement of earthbound human beings. Why? Polar bears. We are at risk of losing them. I hope I can be more a part of the solution than I am a part of the problem.

For the record: Delta conveys me from Kansas City to Detroit (where I write this) to Amsterdam to Oslo where I will stop before continuing to Longyearbyen, located in the Longyear Valley on the shore of Adventfjorden, a bay of Isfjorden located on the west coast of Spitsbergen Island, the largest and only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago. Longyearbyen, at last official count, is home to only 2,667 permanent residents (for comparison purposes, The Kansas City Music Hall seats 2,400). It is the largest settlement and the administrative centre of Svalbard, Norway. Wagering that description didn't help you to picture where I today go, I happily provide this map.
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Posted by paulej4 13:46 Archived in USA Comments (0)

6/10 As The Sea Ice Goes, So Goes The Polar Bear

See the 'icebears' while you can...

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View Polar Bears of Svalbard on paulej4's travel map.

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The world is a topsy-turvy, dynamic and ever-changing place. On May 6, 2019, the New York Times reported that "Over the past five years, the [Arctic] region has been warmer than at any time since 1900, when record keeping began." It went on to point out that scientists say, "The Arctic is heating up far faster than the world average." On the same day, Reuters reported, "Surface air in the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, and the ocean could be ice-free in the summer months within 25 years, according to some researchers."

On that same day in Rovaniemi, Finland, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said (and Time.com reported), "Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new naval passageways and new opportunities for trade, potentially slashing the time it takes for ships to travel between Asia and the West by 20 days.” His comment was greeted with "muted applause" from the foreign ministers of the other members of the Arctic Council — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden. “Arctic sea lanes could become the 21st century’s Suez and Panama canals.”

That same melting sea ice may, however, lead to extinction of polar bears in the Arctic. Unlike Canadian polar bears, the bears here swim for their food but they need a place to climb from the water to rest. If there is no ice, there is no place to rest. In addition, if there is no ice, there is eventually no food.

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Sea ice is like soil in a farm field. The ice contains tiny invertebrates, viruses and bacteria. Fish consume all of that as food. Seals eat the fish. Polar bears eat the seals. Less sea ice equals fewer polar bears. If the ocean is "ice-free in the summer months within 25 years," it will also be polar bear free within 25 years.

Just as the weather-caused American dust bowl in the 1930s resulted in tens of thousands of abandoned farms, resulting in losses estimated at $450 million in today's dollars, weather-caused diminished sea ice will have an economic and environmental impact on the larger planet. If the ocean is "ice-free in the summer months within 25 years," it will also be polar bear free in a way that Oklahoma became nearly farmer-free by 1940. (There is not room here to comment on rising sea levels resulting from melting polar ice flooding coastal areas. Perhaps on another trip...)

According to Florence Fetterer, principal investigator at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) in the US, sea ice is disappearing at an alarming rate.

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Today, I'm more than half way to the Svalbard archipelago where the polar bear population exists from Spitsbergen on the west to Russia's Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land on the east, containing the icy waters of the Greenland Sea, Barents Sea and Arctic Ocean. Polar bear sightings are still common east of Spitsbergen near where females give birth to cubs in snow caves. The cubs remain with their mother until they are around two years of age.

I go now to witness, while it is still possible, these amazing creatures, one of the world's largest carnivores--The King of the Arctic--while my destination still is home to an estimated 3,000 of them--more that there are human beings hereabouts. (globally, the estimate is that 25,000 polar bears exist in 19 subpopulations. These are possibly the most threatened.

Polar bear sightings are most common east of Spitsbergen but they can be encountered anywhere in Svalbard. The diet of mother and cub polar bears consists primarily of ringed seal. Ringed seal are the most common seal species in these waters. Since 1973, polar bears have been protected by international law. It is a criminal act to "hunt, lure, pursue, feed or disturb a polar bear." However, destroying their Svalbard habitat appears to not apply. Note that the bears are allowed, apparently, to attack us humans. Since 1971, five humans have been killed by bears. Three bears have been killed annually as a result of threatening encounters with humans.

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In April, 2003, an Alaskan polar bear attached the American nuclear Seawolf Class submarine USS Connecticut which had broken through the ice near Prudoe Bay.That is, of course, far from here but was too cool to leave out of this writing.

The polar bear (Ursus maritimus) is considered a marine mammal as it spends slightly more than half its life on the drifting sea ice. Prior to beginning research on these bears, I did not understand that polar bears don’t eat much when they are on land. They lose a bit over two pounds a day on land which is where they go to mate, gestate and give birth. In their dens from October or November through March or April, the metabolism of females slows down as they enter a period of “carnivore lethargy,” which is different from deep hibernation. They do not eat during this period and lose most or all of their fat stores. Cubs are born in December and weigh around one-and-a-half pounds. Nursing in the den for three to four months, they grow to a weight of twenty pounds or so. Then, the family leaves the den to find sea ice and hunt seals for food.

When there is less ice as habitat, the bears are forced to spend more time on land which lengthens their fasting period. They arrive ashore in lesser health and that compounds their smaller energy reserve for a week or two or more. If that continues, polar bears will likely become extinct because females do not have enough fat reserves to bear and rear cubs.

It is true that polar bears can and do den offshore but that must occur on ice that is thick and has a lot of snow on top so the bear can dig a den. That tends to be only “multi-year” ice which is already disappearing. Pregnant bears look for a place with lots of snow. On land, that will be on the lee side of a prevailing wind sheltered by an obstacle such as the bank of a lake or stream.

Less sea ice makes them walk further, fast longer and feed for shorter periods on less abundant food. Without abundant food, fat stores cannot be adequately built to sustain the long periods of dormant time.

There are no polar bear safaris so the best chance to see these magnificent creatures is to board an expedition cruise in the Arctic summer which takes people like me to remote parts of the archipelago. I'll be aboard the "spartan" M/S (Motor Ship) Quest--one of 53 guests on this 164-foot-long "Ice Class 1D" vessel. She is not an icebreaker but her upgraded hull is rated to get through ice up to two feet thick. Thicker than that and we'll have to go around. B4 staying home for this adventure. Can you imagine?

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Details: Delta from Kansas City to Detroit (from where the initial post came), Detroit to Amsterdam, KLM from Amsterdam to Oslo where I just arrived after my Amsterdam four-hour layover. My main immediate and short-term goal is to rest and catch a few hours of sleep to then hit the road rid of jet lag as soon as possible. I have a long and full day here tomorrow followed by a late night SAS flight to Longyearbyen.

Checking in at the Radisson BLU Plaza hotel, across the street and down a bit from the Oslo Central Railroad Station, the lovely young lady who checked me in, Aneeka, asked me if I needed a late checkout tomorrow and I offered that I would be leaving very late indeed. She asked where and I told her that I had a 9:45pm flight to Longyearbyen, "Oh, you're going to see the icebears!" She reiterated the new name for polar bears in a welcome note. It feels good to be made to feel welcome. And, her name for polar bears seems ever so appropriate.

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Home of the Nobel Peace Prize, Oslo is also the site of talks about the future of Venezuela. Two weeks ago, Juan Guaidó, leader of the opposition and self-proclaimed president of Venezuela and representatives of Nicholas Maduro’s Chavismo negotiated the future of that nation in crisis. The talks ended without agreement. About the crisis in Venezuela, The Washington Post reported just yesterday, "Here in the capital (Caracas) on any given afternoon, emaciated teens pick through rotting garbage for food. Children have been abandoned to extended family or orphanages by parents who can no longer afford to keep them. Newborns have been discarded in dumpsters." One hopes the parties return and reach agreement on something; anything at all.

Security is on the mind of Oslonians. Since the right-wing terrorist bombing and attack in 2011, the city has implemented “smart-city” technologies including cameras and heavy-duty bollards to protect against car or truck ramming. Last week, a Russian citizen—possibly under the influence of drugs or psychoactive substances—attacked a Filipino with a knife and was later subdued by police with a stun gun as he wandered through the streets. At the same time, Oslo is hosting a five-year “Oslo Biennale” which celebrates public art and is building a gigantic new National Museum.

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A few over a million-and-a-half people live in the metropolitan area, making Oslo the most populous city in Norway. Sitting at the end of the Oslo Fjord, the city is water based consisting of forty islands and 343 lakes surrounded by forests.

Edvard Munch is prominently featured at the Norwegian National Gallery—in particular by his most famous work, “The Scream.” There is the world’s most perfectly preserved Viking Ship at the Viking Ship Museum and the harbor-side Oslo Opera House and more. It is, admittedly, cold averaging 22 degrees in January. Often heard is the logical phrase, “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing choices.”

The King and Queen live at the Royal Palace, home to their ancestors since 1849. In addition to my favorite park and Vigeland’s work there is the Ekebergparken where you can view sculpture from Dali, Rodin and Renoir and a much more modern work, Skyspace: The Color Beneath, by American James Turrell.

That's my itinerary for tomorrow.

Posted by paulej4 09:59 Archived in Norway Comments (1)

6/11 A Day in Oslo

Last here on July 19, 2011, with my son, Cianán

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Perhaps the most notorious thing Americans might recall about Oslo is the massacre that occurred here on July 22, 2011, when a right-wing extreme nationalist killed 77 people, most of them teenagers. Surely, the event is for Norwegians the same as 9/11 or the assassination of JFK is to Americans for that "I know exactly where I was..." For more on that tragedy stream the Paul Greengrass film 22 July on Netflix. You'll learn about a bomb in Regjeringskvartalet, the government center of Norway, here in Oslo and then, two hours later, on the island of Utøya, a massacre where an annual summer camp was just opening for the season.

Cianán and I were here just three days before (aboard the Emerald Princess, a cruise ship like the Regal Princess which is here today) RegalPrincess.JPGPrincessBeyondBeach.JPGand saw hundreds of these kids, backpacks and walking sticks in hand, making their way to the wharf for the short boat ride to Utøya. The sight of those kids haunts me to this day.

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But I have other memories of Oslo, a more fond memory for us both was a visit with Cianán to the Oslo City Hall (near left), a place to which he returned last month (far left) when he was in Oslo for the annual European IDAHOT+ intergovernmental conference and LGBTI Focal Points Network Roundtable. He surprised me with an email where he had recreated the photo we had taken there eight years before. Oh, if only my trip on June 11, 2019, had coincided with his trip on May 14, 2019. Cianán now lives in Brussels and I get to see him all too infrequently--but will next month.CityHallPaul.JPGI went to City Hall to get my own photo but it was closed; out front will have to do.

Oslo days are long now, sunrise just before 4:00am and sunset a bit before 11:00pm. This day is partly cloudy and beautiful with a high of 71 degrees. Oslo is awash in scooters; four operators (Voi, Tier, Flash and Zvipp) are in business and five other operators are talking about entering the market. I saw only one real scooter crash but several more near misses. The blind community is up in arms about scooters saying they cannot hear them and that users leave them in the middle of sidewalks where they are easily tripped over. City officials, formerly boosting the low polluting devices are expressing surprise at the number of complaints they are receiving. If I lived here, I would be complaining but not about the scooters so much as about those who are operating them.

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After strolling to the Central Station--home to the Oslo Tiger--I bought--for 108 krone ($12.44 U.S.)--a day pass for the tram and, after first boarding the right vehicle going the wrong direction (TOURIST!), eventually made my way to Frogner Park and the remarkable Vigeland Installation. It is the world’s largest sculpture park consisting of work by a single artist; admission is free. I was blown away the first time I visited and am, on this second trip, less surprised and more interpretive. The most popular tourist attraction in all of Norway, Froger’s Viegland Installation draws “between 1 and 2 million visitors each year,” admittedly a wide spread. The Daily Mail calls the work here “the weirdest statues in the world.” It has drawn a vast harvest of tourists today--two cruise ships are in port.

In 1924, Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) began planning and his work, statues depicting naked people engaging in typical and atypical pursuits, was installed in 1932. Of interest to ej4 folks, please know that Vigeland was born Adolf Gustav Thorsen but, in his twenties, changed his surname to match the name of an area where he had briefly lived.

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There are a few abstract works but most of the 212 bronze and granite sculptures are straight forward while imaginative and worthy of contemplation. The capstone work, a 46-foot high monolith is composed of 121 human figures climbing over each other to reach the sky. Vigeland is also the designer of the Nobel Peace Prize medal.

Returning to Oslo airport on the express train (198 krone or $22.57 U.S. roundtrip) I leave Oslo on Scandanavian Airlines flight 4496, a Boeing 737-800 single class airplane with me and 180 other intrepid travelers aboard. We depart in daylight, just prior to ten o’clock at night to arrive three hours later, 45 minutes after midnight, 1,269 miles north northwest of Oslo in Longyearbyen, Norway. The sun is up; but then at this time of year it is always up.

At 78.2232° N, 15.6267° E, Longyearbyen is the planet’s northernmost city. There, daylight will extend the full 24 hours. The summer solstice is but ten days away. Solstice, from the Latin words ‘sol’ and ‘sistere,’ translates to “when the sun stands still.” On this day, the sun reaches its northernmost position in the sky; its zenith moves neither north nor south on this day, beginning its annual southward drift the following day. It’s the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and this is as far north as you can get and still find plumbing. Earth is farthest from the sun and the planet’s axial rotation is at its greatest. Were this a pinball machine, “tilt” would illuminate.

The solstice is the only day of the year when all locations inside the Arctic Circle experience a continuous period of daylight. It is The Midnight Sun. This is the time to go there because from October 25th until February 25, the sun does not rise. After their long dark winter, Longyearbyenders celebrate the sun's return on March 8th, the day the sun rises high enough to illuminate the steps of the old hospital (at precisely 12:15pm) in a celebration (and I suppose it is one heck of a celebration) called Solfestuka. It lasts a week. One presumes excellent alcohol sales during this period. But, then, one presumes excellent alcohol sales here year round.

But, back to now, I am to arrive just after midnight in daylight, hoping the blackout shades at the Radisson BLU Polar Hotel are good ones. I'll let you know tomorrow.

Posted by paulej4 08:52 Archived in Norway Comments (1)

6/12 A Day in Longyearbyen

Earth's Northernmost City

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View Polar Bears of Svalbard on paulej4's travel map.

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The Radisson BLU Polar Hotel boasts only so-so sunlight blocking window curtains, an amenity that I suppose ranks right up there with hot water and clean sheets--at least during the summer months. It is pretty bright in 2010, the room I am assigned on arrival. It's nothing fancy. Upon entering the "second building," there is a shoe rack. The custom is to remove your shoes so I do. Weird but it makes for cleaner carpeting.

Built on permafrost (permanently frozen soil) that ranges from 30 to 130 feet deep, and home to 2,667 people of 50 different nationalities and 4,000 snowmobiles (called snow scooters here), Longyearbyen is the planet Earth’s northernmost city. On the way up, the view from the air makes it clear: there is nothing but snow and ice and cold cold water surrounding this place.

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Here, after the sun sets on August 25th, it does not rise again for eight months until April 18th. Then it does not set until the following August 25th. Said another way, winter lasts from October to March. It is certainly up for our final approach. The video is Longyearbyen from the air on final approach. At the 36 second mark, you can begin to see a blue ferry moored on the shoreline. Immediately in front of the ferry is a small blue ship; that's my vessel, the M/S Quest.

d5fcd050-8cb7-11e9-b2c5-bb13c0e09043.JPGThe airport is about what you would expect; one runway, no jetway. What you don't expect is to arrive in the middle of the night to light like the middle of the day.

Named for John Longyear, an American who founded the Arctic Coal Company here in 1906, Longyearbyen, (the suffix “byen” translates to “city”) is built on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, strategically located between Asia, Europe and North America; you must orient yourself on a globe to understand it. Look for it about 800 miles south of the north pole just north of Norway at 79° north.

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In the 1920’s, a dispute motivated several countries to agree to “The Svalbard Treaty.” Any citizen of a signatory nation has the right to come here and mine or fish or hunt or engage in other commerce, “visa free” with no immigration or work documents required. Article 9 of the treaty prohibits naval bases or fortifications or the use of Svalbard for warlike purposes. There are plenty of guns here but they seem to be intended for protection from bears rather than our fellow humans. Norway has sovereignty despite all that international meddling. Forty-six countries, including the United States, are signatories but only Russia still mines coal in the region.

Now June, the average temperature here is balmy: 41° as the average high and 35° as the average low. In winter, the situation changes: February boasts average highs of only 15° and average lows of 2°. However, a Norwegian Meteorological Institute researcher, Inger Hanssen-Bauer, says the climate here is probably warming faster than in any settled community on earth.

To be built on permafrost, buildings here (most of them painted in pastel colors) must be constructed on pilings sunk deep into the permafrost because its top—or “active” layer—melts when summer temperatures rise above freezing. Local newspaper editor Mark Sabbatini recently noticed cracks in his apartment walls because, he says, his building started sinking into the softening ground. That means the permafrost is softening at deeper depths which could prove catastrophic here. One solution? Christiane Hübner set her home on a huge sled and moved it 262 feet inland. CNN reported, “We can’t trust the permafrost anymore,” said Hege Njaa Aschim, communications manager for a Norwegian government agency responsible for real estate (which owns three quarters of the buildings here).

Burials were banned seventy years ago because bodies do not decompose in frozen, sub-permafrost temperatures. One corpse, thawed in 1998, still supported live samples of the deadly flu virus present during the pandemic of 1918.

There is on earth no church, post office, museum, cinema, university, bank or airport farther north than the those located here. Their track record of having “virtually no crime” was spoiled in December, 2018, when the northernmost bank robbery in history took place. It seems that a Russian man, not wanting to return home, decided to kill himself. He had second thoughts. He decided to get arrested instead. Police inspector Vidar Arnesen told the BBC that the man would be charged with threatening behavior with a firearm rather than bank robbery even though he did make off with the equivalent of $8,000 U.S. There is no road out of town, no boat connections and few flights so it was determined that he had no escape plan; he will have to serve his 14-month prison sentence elsewhere as there is no prison here either.

Three weeks ago, two Polish scientists were swept away by an avalanche in nearby Hornsund and killed.

Unlike Oslo and mainland Norway which, from 1940, was continually occupied by the Nazis during most of World War II, Longyearbyen was under German control for only a very short while. Nazi forces here were defeated and the archipelago was then occupied by Canadian and U.S. forces in 1941. Germans attacked the Allied forces here in 1943 but were repulsed.

Even though virtually all the food consumed here must be flown or shipped in, there is nonetheless a fine dining restaurant with a 20,000-bottle wine cellar. Huset serves wild reindeer (if any remains from the handful annually allocated). You would expect lots of fresh seafood but there is no fishing industry but you can look for cod caught by the chef at nearby Isfjord. There is tartar of bearded seal “caught by a local guy a couple of mountains away” and there are fresh herbs and leaves grown at Polar Permaculture nearby. Not your cup of tea? Stationen and Svalbar are nearby “pub grub” options.

The Arctic bird population is so revered that cats are banned. Occasionally, docile reindeer stroll through town but then so do dangerous polar bears. The local guide brochure states, “The polar bears are never far away, so it’s a necessity to carry weapons when we venture outside the settlement.” The local custom is to check your gun and remove your shoes when indoors, including in shops and restaurants (a holdover from the old coal dust days). Usually, slippers are provided. There are no roads that lead outside the town to neighboring settlements of Barentsburg or Ny-Alesund.

For the most part, the surrounding terrain is glaciers, mountains and fjords and would likely be deserted were it not for coal. But how did coal occur here? 360 million years ago this was the tropics, just north of what was then the equator. The land was swampy and covered by the ancestors of modern ferns which were 30 to 90 feet tall. Over time the vegetation was covered by mud and sand and, later, the sea. That became the coal that lured John Longyear which resulted in the town which, in turn, lured me.

For electricity, there is a coal fired power plant. The hot water generated as a byproduct of that plant is piped around the town and used to provide free heat for the homes and businesses here.

The economy today is less coal and more tourism and research which accounts for the university here. Were it not for a warming planet, Longyearbyen would be locked into ice and I, seeking a water passage, might not be. Those who may follow me hope it does not get much warmer because the lack of ice will decimate the habitat for polar bears and walrus and nullify the touristic yearning for adventure here.

After walking the place, one gets the impression that those who are here are in search of something, escaping from something or desiring to become something. Whether it is escape or adventure, they are here and, mostly likely, they are alone in knowing why.

In June, the average high temperature here is 41 and the low is 35. In July, the range is 48 to 41. But, in February, the average high would be only 15 degrees with an average low of two.

So, the sun does not go up and down on a daily basis here as it does elsewhere. Instead, its everpresent altitude in the sky is low; there is no such thing as “high noon.” It is “low noon.” Summer actually begins on June 21 when the sun reaches the highest point in the sky at any time during the entire year. The summer days are perpetual twilight because the sun is more ahead than overhead. Conversely, six months from now on December 21, the sun will not rise and Longyearbyen will be in the middle of its six-month-long polar night.

Climate is important in Longyearbyen.

Last December NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, delivered its 2018 “Arctic Report Card.” It wrote: “warming air and ocean temperatures continued to drive broad long-term change across the polar region, pushing the Arctic into uncharted territory,” adding that the Arctic was undergoing its “most unprecedented transition in human history.”

The impacts of that can be felt far and wide. Warmer Arctic air causes the jet stream to become “sluggish and unusually wavy.” Scientists say that has possible connections to extreme weather ranging from severe storms in the continental United States and a bitter cold spell in Europe.

One simple fact is made clear in their report: snow and ice reflect sunlight while open water (which is darker) absorbs it, creating heat. That begins a “feedback loop” with the warmer water melting more ice more quickly creating more heat absorbing water and so on and so on.

Another fact: very old ice tends to resist melting. Not so with “new” ice. With recent warming, NOAA reports that there has been a decline of 95 percent of very old ice within the last 33 years.

Warmer water also coincides with a rapid expansion of algae species in the Arctic Ocean and that is associated with harmful blooms that can poison marine life and people who eat contaminated seafood. B4 and I saw these vast algae blooms very clearly last summer in Alaska and in Florida as well. Dead fish were abundant.

The aforementioned report was issued as delegates from nearly 200 nations were meeting in Poland for the most recent round of climate talks called for in the Paris Agreement, the “deal” from which President Trump has vowed to withdraw. The U.S. is joined in that position by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia. Interestingly, the New York Times reported in December, 2018, that “there are commercial and geopolitical implications” from less Arctic ice. “New shipping routes may open, and rivalries with other countries, including Russia, are intensifying.”

Frankly, the bears don't give a damn about geopolitical implications; they care only about survival implications.

Posted by paulej4 05:00 Archived in Svalbard Comments (1)

Mark Twain said it

The reports of my death have been wildly exaggerated

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View Polar Bears of Svalbard on paulej4's travel map.

large_93bb3c80-8d12-11e9-a779-83b141690d33.JPGAs I prepare to embark upon my voyage around Spitsbergen, I am told that the reports of internet capability aboard the M/S Quest may have been wildly exaggerated. That being the case, you may not be hearing from me for a week or so. B4 and family, please know that I am well even if I am unable to reassure you of that fact on a frequent basis. Of course, should it turn out that I can get posts to go out, I will do so, If that is not possible, I will send them a day at a time but after a week's delay.

Bon Voyage.

Posted by paulej4 06:17 Archived in Svalbard Comments (3)

6/13 M/S Quest

Icebreaker: A Conversation Starter

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Was it anticipation, unending daylight or jet lag? No matter; sleep was difficult.

But, when Elke came on the PA system with our wakeup call at 7:15 I was deep asleep. Breakfast at 7:30, into warm clothes and rented rubber boots and aboard Zodiacs at 9:00. The sky is overcast, the temperature in the high thirties but with windchill as we motor toward the glaciers it is much colder.

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En route we beach ourselves at Ossian Sars Fjellet for a hike, dividing into three groups: easy, medium and hard. I opt for medium. It is muddy and at times steep but we follow Rutger and enjoy ourselves, first footfall on true Arctic wilderness. There are reindeer and the remains of reindeer past, birds of many ilks and a lone fox fitted with a GPS collar. The view back to M/S Quest, particularly for Atlanta’s Bill and Nancy is sublime.

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Birds nest on the cliff safely away from predators. Rutger explains that their eggs are pear shaped--they won’t roll off the narrow ledge.

Back into the Zodiacs—there are five of them to handle all 46 of us—we make for the glaciers edge at Kronebreen. Seals lounge and swim here and there, the silence of the place only occasionally broken for the necessity of the outboard motors to get us from A to B. In my Zodiac are eight other adventurers and Rutger. Only Bill and Nancy and I have English as our first language but, unlike Americans, most Europeans don’t limit themselves to a single language so we communicate without difficulty.07BirdsOnCliffJuly15Bay.JPG12GlacierRetreat.JPG5fc77bf0-9262-11e9-a979-ffb2cdfedbd6.JPG08ArcticFox.JPG5fb8fd00-9262-11e9-806d-9128a19760a8.JPG

By 1:00 we are back aboard M/S Quest for a lunch of hot soup and wonderful chicken—and much else. I take time to write and organize the photographs you see here before a “mandatory” Ny-Alesund briefing from Elke scheduled for 2:30. And, soon after that, we arrive at 78 degrees, 56 minutes North, 11 degrees, 56 minutes East.

15Ny-AlesundStore.JPGd08a0fb0-9262-11e9-a6d8-f7c78474b2dd.JPGd085c9f0-9262-11e9-9ffb-df0a080c3a76.JPG16RoaldAmundsenBust.JPGd07a5840-9262-11e9-a979-ffb2cdfedbd6.JPGNy-Alesund is the northernmost permanent settlement in the world. Up to 200 hundred researchers and scientists live here in summer; 20 to 30 stay through the darkness of the winter months. Not nearly large enough to qualify as a city or even a town, it is a “research base” where ten countries do science in a “near pristine environment.” To ensure non-interference with sensitive scientific equipment, we are warned to turn off all cellular and wireless capabilities on all computers and phones before we leave M/S Quest. There are no networks for either here but the mere fact that devices are searching for them causes the scientists here undue stress.

Norway, Germany, Japan, Great Britian, The Netherlands, Italy, France, Korea, China and India have permanent stations. NASA has a couple of dishes mounted on trailers marked “Woolard Flight Facility.” Unique from my experience, their dishes—and others located here—all point straight UP.

B4 wishes she were here to see the planet’s northernmost store. More correctly referred to as a gift shop it has hours most retailers would find not conducive to profitability: 3:00pm to 4:00pm. The bar is open on Thursday and Saturday nights. A communal dining facility serves everyone; no kitchens are allowed in any of the residences here. It is said that the Italians alone import regional cuisine and everybody here loves it when it is their turn to make pasta. Behind the Chinese building is a maze of wires and posts. I ask what the experiment is all about. I am told, simply, “Everybody wants to know the answer to that. They won’t talk about it.”

Originally a coal mining facility, many died here extracting that filthy fuel. For both safety and economic reasons, that activity ended here in the sixties. From here, various assaults to become “first man to make it to the North Pole” originated. Many failed, many succeeded. Airplanes and dirigibles took flight to make it that final way—quite a long way—northward. Rutger explains about Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) who is commemorated here with a bust. We are mindful of the “STOP!” POLAR BEAR DANGER sign which warns, “Do not walk beyond this sign without your firearm.” Our guides have them; they always have them.

During our evening briefing, I enjoy a Svalbard Bryggeri draft, the local beer. Climate change is discussed as we analyze a map showing how far the glaciers we visited today extended in 1990 and, further back in time, 1936. That reduction in glacier size is just plain scary. B4 and I saw the same thing on our Alaska cruise last summer. What will it look like when my grandsons are 70?
18WindForecast14th.JPG20ElkeExplains.JPG0b232120-9263-11e9-a6d8-f7c78474b2dd.JPG0ac103f0-9263-11e9-9dfa-fd11b5307858.JPGTonight, we stop at 14th July Bay. We do this tonight because tomorrow is predicted to host bad weather which will keep us in fjords and out of major channels; and, more significantly, out of the zodiacs. We expect 15-18 knot winds unlike today which was still. The wind moves the ice which restricts our potential path; we do not operate in fast moving pack ice. The forecast for wind prevents Elke from making a plan for Saturday and onward. Simply put, she packed a lot into today because the future may not be conducive to a similar concentration of off-ship adventures.

The captain hosts a cocktail party tonight. The hotel department head and ships doctor are both from Honduras. The safety officer and chief officer hail from the Russian Federation and the navigation officer hails from Romania. The captain himself, Alexi, is Ukranian. He works on both poles; he likes cold seas. He also allows for visits to the bridge, but while there “do not touch any buttons or our voyage will be a little bit shorter.”

At dinner, salad just completed, lambchop just coming out, the PA came alive with Elke’s voice, “Humpback.” We scrambled up to the outside decks to find a small one, alone, diving. I got just a bit of tail.
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After dinner, we piled one final time into the Zodiacs for a trip to July 14 Bay in search of puffins. We found some, along with another Arctic Fox and more Reindeer and, of course, more nesting birds.22Puffin1.JPG

Back on ship, the PA crackled a final time. “If you are prone to seasickness, kindly take a tablet now as we are heading soon into the outer sea. If you plan to shower, do that now as well. And, please take all your valuables and place them on the floor of your cabin so that they have nowhere to fall.” Clearly, we expect rougher seas tonight. I hope to sleep through it.

Posted by paulej4 00:13 Archived in Svalbard Comments (1)

6/14 Seen Lions & Tigers, Now Walrus & Bears

Oh my

sunny 32 °F

01IcePatterns.JPG02FogBank.JPGAfter Elke’s dire warnings last evening, I was prepared for an unpleasant night and day ahead. Instead, I woke to clear sky illuminating snow covered ice flows atop calm sea. Beyond the ice lay mountains covered in snow, obscured by hanging fog from sea level to, perhaps, 300 feet above sea level.

My practice has become to visit the lounge and brew a cup of coffee—or two—and slowly begin my day. I am joined this morning by Jonas, a young Swede who has earned his way aboard this voyage by winning an incentive trip—along with ten other young people. They are apparently very good at selling lottery tickets.c35abf40-9264-11e9-a979-ffb2cdfedbd6.JPGSoon Elke is on the PA letting us know that we will be boarding Zodiacs in half an hour. I join her in Zodiac #2 along with a wonderful Swedish family: Stefan, Petra, Ludvig (19) and Bella (13). [
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They adopt me and we enjoy zipping in and out of ice flows, between narrow ice channels and occasionally bumping into the ice flows once or twice in search of whatever we can find. Lone walrus are discovered offering the chance for a photograph or two.

11PaulOnIce.JPGSoon, and unexpected by me, we toss an anchor onto one ice flow and disembark our Zodiac. Photographs are taken and a snowball fight—all friendly fire—ensues; we are a convivial group. Back aboard M/S Quest (greeted with hot chocolate), I download some photographs, meet Nancy and Bill, the only other Americans aboard, for conversation in the lounge and prepare for lunch. Stefan, Petra, Ludvig and Bella invite me to join them and I do. Stefan and Petra are both filled with technical expertise, she as a cell biologist and he as a physicist and computer scientist; they lived for a time in Palo Alto. Ludvig will be doing a year’s mandatory military obligation soon and Bella, still in high school, is a riding champion aboard her horse, Shamrock. The food is very good aboard M/S Quest but the conversation is even better—at least among those who are happy to communicate in English.

After a rest of about 45 minutes, we are off on a second Zodiac outing so I again dress accordingly. That means waterproof calf high boots (rented for $40.00 in Longyearbyen for this week), waterproof insulated winter pants—suspenders help keep them up—a long-sleeved ski t-shirt under my puffy down-filled hoodie under a ski jacket that I’ve owned for 30 years. A neck gator and stocking cap finish off my body. My hands are covered with glove liners and then ski gloves—also from 30 years ago. I am toasty warm even with the windchill created by the fast-moving Zodiac and other complications from spray created by our bow. Sunglasses protect my eyes. I’m completely warm and dry.14PaulReadyToBoardZodiac.JPG

We depart for a phenomenally dull afternoon. We disembark on an island and get a way-too-long lecture about the turn of the century whaling and the whale-oil business here. For a man (me) who made a living by distilling the message into as few well-chosen words as possible, the wordy and overlong presentation was agony. Plus, we all came here to see polar bears. My impatient mind screams: Why are we listening to this when we should be bear hunting!
Back on the Zodiacs we search and find nothing. Finally, a couple of walrus are spotted so I take countless walrus photos and then we head back to M/S Quest.
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In the lounge before dinner, Elke does a “recap & planning” presentation where she is preparing us for bad weather tomorrow. You can feel the stress she is under and my heart goes out to her. After her presentation everyone leaves for dinner and she and I remain for a bit to chat. She needs us to get a bear sighting. She is more anxious about it that I am and that’s the whole reason I came all this way.

I’m off to dinner and join Nancy and Bill and an elderly Scandanavian man who speaks nearly no English. We enjoy our soup. Coincidentally, we all ordered the pork loin which comes out hot and delicious. Three bites into our main course, the PA crackles. There is a polar bear on shore, 500 yards of so off our bow. We’re launching the Zodiacs. Get dressed. It’s about 8:15.

12PolarBearToShore.jpeg13ZodiacLaunch.JPGThe dining room empties faster than the air from a popped balloon. Half eaten food is abandoned. The wait staff tells us to not worry about it; they know we didn’t come for the food. We quickly re-dress for the outside and line up to board the Zodiacs which the ship’s crew has hastily re-launched. That requires hooking them, one by one, to a crane and gently lowering them, guide and rifle already aboard, from the top of deck five to the water, unhooking and then repeating the process five times.

Before they can get the hatchway open—through which all of us board the Zodiacs—the announcement comes: “The bear has entered the water and is swimming.

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By law, we cannot view a swimming bear because the proximity of Zodiacs could stress the bear and cause it harm. We will monitor the bear’s progress and, when it returns to shore, we’ll let you know. You should return to the dining room and finish your dinner.”

As quickly as the adrenaline pumped, it stopped. We were dressed for the cold, not for dining. The food we left would no longer be hot. The vibe turned sour. But then, as many of us went to the bow to watch this swimming bear from afar—its head was a mere dot in the waves—it quickly became clear that it was heading away from land rather than back to shore. It remained in the water, swimming from left to right around 200 yards from shore, for well over a mile—taking nearly an hour to do it.

Then, however, word came that the bear had turned and appeared to be looking at land. We were instructed to prepare to board the Zodiacs…which we anxiously did. It takes about as long to load five Zodiacs as it does to board a Southwest flight. It just takes time. I was the last to board. I was in Zodiac #1 with Erik as guide. Four Belgians (delightful people to be sure), two Swedes and the elderly gentlemen who had been sitting across from me a dinner made up Erik’s charges. “Erik to bridge,” he spoke into his radio, “I have eight passengers and an unloaded rifle and am leaving the ship.” (This communication is routine at each Zodiac departure and return) The announcement made it real: I’m about to get up close and personal with my first polar bear in the wild.

15PolarBearBetweenRocks.jpg16PolarBearCheckingUsOut.jpeg17PolarBearSlidingJPG.jpeg18PolarBearSlidingOnBack.jpeg19PolarBearOnRocks.jpg20PolarBearDarkBackground.jpeg21PolarBearYawningOnRidge.jpg22PolarBearLastShot.jpegI’ll let the photographs tell the story other than to say that we spent nearly an hour with this bear. I am flabbergasted at the quality of the photographs I got given the fact that we were in low light aboard a rocking Zodiac, off shore and the bear was, well, see for yourself. The evening’s entertainment was top drawer.

We were all giddy.

By the time we got back to M/S Quest, it was 10:30pm in this land of the midnight sun. Poor stressed Elke was stressed no more. The announcement came: “Breakfast is at 7:45. There will be no wakeup call. We won’t make an excursion before 9:00.” A cheer could be heard.

Is this opportunity going to be available forever?

BBC America airs some of the best, most creative programming available. Killing Eve is amazing; Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer redefine who women are. One of my favorite actors, Amy Adams brings a Missouri-based story to Sharp Objects. However, coming to mind on this trip and on the nature front, there is Planet Earth: Blue Planet II

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narrated by David Attenborough. An impactful episode of that series is ‘One Ocean’ which originally aired January 20, 2018. That episode hooked me.

I cannot improve on the script writers' words nor on Attenborough's dignified reading of them. So, with full attribution, here is his script:

"There are now worrying signs that conditions in the oceans that have remained relatively stable for millenia are changing radically.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Arctic. Here in the past 30 years, the extent of the ice in summer has been reduced by 40%. This sudden warming, most likely a consequence of human activity, is having a profound impact on its wildlife.

Walruses are among those most seriously affected. Every adult female needs to find a safe place where her 80-kilo pup can rest. The sea ice is retreating from much of the walrus’ traditional range so they now have to haul out onto dry land. But a herd of hundreds of quarrelsome walrus, some weighing almost a ton, is not an ideal nursery.

Walruses on land stick together for good reason: polar bears. A full-grown male walrus is gigantic, too big for even a polar bear to tackle. So, the bear is looking for a walrus baby. The scent of the bear spreads alarm through the colony. The walruses retreat into the sea. The bear knows it won’t be able to catch them there. But she too has young ones to feed. What is a mother to do?

A mother walrus still needs to find a place where her young can rest. A melting iceberg might do but she is not the first to find this one. Suitable places are already taken. Other mothers don’t want to share. They too need a patch of ice where they can protect their young. The desperate mother has no choice but to barge her way in. So, this time everyone loses. Finding the right place on these melting shores gets harder and harder. Solving these problems together helps create a bond so strong that the mother will stay in contact with her young for the rest of her life. But who knows now what their future will be?

As we understand more about the complexity of the lives of sea creatures so we begin to appreciate the fragility of their home: our blue planet."

Those are, of course, only the words; the pictures make the presentation all the more rich and moving. Do yourself a favor and watch this episode. Perhaps you too will be motivated to come here and see it for yourself. So far, I have seen no baby walrus; only adults. I don’t know what our polar bear was looking for during the long swim but one thing I noticed, verified by Erik: the bear was skinny.

Posted by paulej4 19:12 Archived in Svalbard Comments (2)

6/15 Svalbard Explained

Geopolitical hotspot or home of peace and stability?

sunny 32 °F

We spent the night snugly moored in Magdalenefjorden Harbor. The water here is billiard table smooth and the environment is marred only by the hum and vibration of the M/S Quest generator. Now through Sorgattet passage into sheltered Smeerenburgfjorden, we are escaping the weather’s impact on the open sea and on the effect of the wind pushing the ice flows together which would block our passage ahead, and, more critically, behind. The ice is ever moving, opening passages and closing them in a matter of minutes in a breeze and seconds in a gale.

01WalrusConvention.JPG02WalrusScratch.JPG03WalrusFlipper.JPG04WalrusLongTusk.JPG05WalrusWater.JPGAt 9:00 we boarded our five Zodiacs to cruise across the fjord to a flat outcropping upon which a convention of walrus was occurring. We estimate 36 animals were gathered there with males and females and adolescents (but no pups) all together, something that won’t happen later in the season. Males tend to go off by themselves. Part of that might be due to the fact that the dominant male is the only one to mate; younger walrus won’t get the chance to mate until they are nine or ten, I am told. As happens with males, they get into scuffles. Better to leave than press your luck and get the big strong males tusk embedded into your inexperienced and smaller body. Save your testerone for a day when you have the size and strength to back it up.

06Glacier.JPG07GlacierCrevass.JPG

The Gravneset glacier is at the back of the Magdalenefjorden and we took time to cruise near to the calving edge where deep cracks indicate that the ice will fracture and tumble into the water soon; no one can tell exactly when. Glaciers are more than abundant here, each of them unfortunately retreating. It is quiet and cold here with only a few other visitors encountered by Quest.

Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, speaking at the Arctic Forum in St. Petersburg, Russia, in early April, said, “Now and then I hear the Arctic described as a geopolitical hotspot. This is not how we see it. We know the Arctic as a region of peace and stability.” That is wonderful to hear but increasingly hard to believe as Norway, NATO’s far-north eyes and ears, just ordered 52 $89 million F-35 American stealth fighter aircraft to replace its aging fleet of 40-year-old F-16s that are today on 15-minute alert to intercept the Russian military emerging from their base on the Kola Peninsula—home to the Russian Navy fleet on the Barents Sea. Nearby on the sea and in the air, there is everything from nuclear-capable Russian bombers to the new Severodvinsk series of nuclear guided missile submarines. Of course, we actually see none of this; there is no visible presence for much other than ice, birds and a few mammals hardy enough to call this home.

Last year, however, the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, Harry S Truman, was in these waters to support 50,000 troops, 250 aircraft and 65 ships in Operation Trident Juncture, a wargame to defend Norway against an “unidentified country.” It was the first time in history that this American aircraft carrier sailed above the Arctic Circle.

If you look at a global map of undersea fiber optic cables, the pair that stand out run from Tromsø on Norway’s mainland to Longyearben. The ground station there, SvalSat, is the only one on the planet that covers all 14 daily passes of orbiting polar satellites. The 1920 Spitsbergen treaty does not allow military facilities in Svalbard but for years speculation has been that military information is downloaded through here.

It is with this backdrop that I make my first foray this very far north to see what can still be seen.

As lunchtime approached the feeling of satisfaction at having found our polar bear and communed with walrus has settled over the ship and the mood is one of peace and satisfaction. I cannot understand many—if not most—of the conversations which occur around me but the tone of voice gives this international meeting a definite sense of conviviality as binoculars come out (I’m in the lounge) to spy on a walrus pair snoozing atop a flat, snow-covered chunk of ice the size of an average sized American living room. Interestingly, two days ago, a mad scramble for cameras would occur but now, we veterans with storehouses of walrus photos, are satisfied to savor the moment rather than record it.

Like other places I have been privileged to visit—in Africa or Brazil, far from civilization—there exists here no ambient noise. No rumbling traffic, no horns or sirens, not even the obtrusive sound emanating from a jet passing overhead, taking vacationers and businesspeople from point A to point B. I live in point C, “Flyover Country.” This, then must be point Z. Nobody flies or drives near here; there are only vessels on water and most of them are—unless you are aboard them—silent like the place they scour to provide placid peace for those fortunate enough to sail aboard them. Count me among those lucky few on this Saturday afternoon. As I miss and think of B4 and what she might be doing about now, it occurs to me that here, rather than diamonds, binoculars are a girl’s best friend.

As we sail away from Magdalenefjorden, the announcement comes from the dining room that lunch is being served. I skip lunch to savor the scenery as only a solo traveler can. That was a fortunate choice. Belgians Christine traveling with Greta and Paul Andre and Luc spotted something in the distance and alerted the Captain. It turned out to be, well, just see: 09PolarBearEarly.JPG10PolarBearEarly.jpeg

The afternoon, previously thought to be more Zodiac excursions instead became a sublime meeting from the bow of M/S Quest. I suspect that thousands of photographs of this encounter were taken, quite a number by our guides and the ship’s crew. “The most amazing sighting of the season,” they said. A remarkable find, by all accounts, one not often experienced even by the experienced hands who surround us. At one point we closed within about 100 yards of this magnificent feasting creature but only after an hour or so of creeping up. All concerned had the primary goal of not spooking the bear in any way. Not once did she seem bothered by us as she ate the ring seal she had bested, rested and ate some more. Between 2:45 and 6:00 she feasted as did we all. 11PolarBearStaringEarly.jpeg13PolarBearTeeth.jpeg8971e3a0-9267-11e9-a979-ffb2cdfedbd6.jpeg15PolarBearCU.jpeg16PolarBearSeatedLickingPawJPG.jpeg17PolarBearIceFormationBehind.JPG

OK. Goal met. Twice. All relax, there is no pressure from here on.

As Americans, we primarily think of sea ice in the southern Beaufort Sea located north of the Canadian Northwest Territories, the Yukon and Alaska where a reduction is Arctic sea ice is both clear and observable. Once, more than 1,500 bears lived there; now 800 to 900 do. The bears that survive are pushed farther and farther north where there is more ice which means more places to hunt seals, their primary food source.

Polar bears are not alike in personality. On land, some seem unfazed by human activity such as snow machines or all-terrain vehicles or trucks passing by. Others are spooked and retreat. The presence of small cubs makes most females more prone to retreat from disturbances. Far from here, oil and gas exploration near dens make such an eventuality more likely. Cubs prematurely moved from their den run a greater risk of failure to thrive and, ultimately, death.

Adult polar bears vary in size from 200 to 800 kg. Humans are considered alien in the polar bear habitat, and a polar bear may see us as potential prey. The polar bear is incredibly strong and even cubs weighing under 100 kg can be extremely aggressive and dangerous. Polar bears attack extremely quickly and without warning. On land--not aboard ships--tourists are told to be accompanied by a guide or a local with a firearm when leaving settlements.

Polar bears are marine mammals and can swim for hours and miles. Their fur features hollow hairs that provide both floatation and insulation.

One can encounter polar bears anywhere in Svalbard all year round. All humans are reminded to be cautious when moving outside the settlements and preferably be accompanied by a local guide.

A bit of research turned up advice for avoiding confrontations with polar bears. I quote various sources here:

"It’s important to prepare well and think in advance about how to act in the Svalbard nature. We strongly recommend going on an organised trip. However, if you choose to explore alone, the following points are extremely important:
• Be extremely observant and try to move only in open areas.
• If you see a polar bear, retreat calmly and never pursue it!
• Most polar bear visits are at camps. Find a location with a good view in all directions and, if there are several in your group, sit facing different directions.
• Avoid setting up camp near the seashore as the water and ice edge are natural places for polar bears to search for food.
• Set up tripwires around your camp. Polar bear watch (someone always awake) is regarded as the only safe strategy when it comes to camping in the outdoors.
• Store food away from tents but within view of the tent opening.
• Avoid cooking inside your tent as the smell remains on the canvas and may attract polar bears.
• Arm yourself correctly. A high-powered big game rifle (7.62, 30.06 or 308 calibre) and a signal pistol are the best weapons for protection against polar bears.
• Ensure you have knowledge of the weapons and experience using them before you set off.

Polar bears often approach humans out of curiosity. However, it’s important to treat all polar bears as threatening. If a polar bear walks towards you, make yourself visible early and try to scare it away by shouting, clapping your hands or waiving your arms around. Load your firearm. Fire a shot with your signal pistol into the ground in front of the polar bear or a warning shot with a rifle if the polar bear is within 50 metres."

Or, book an expedition aboard M/S Quest and let others do both the planning and worrying. Don’t expect lavish surroundings inside the ship as more significant surroundings will envelope you outside. I remember very few hotels rooms I have occupied—even the lavish ones. I shall never forget, however, watching a polar bear, oblivious to me and my fellows, stroll, then slide and then stroll some more as we spied on him from thirty yards away—ensconced safely in a mini-fleet of Zodiacs. I shall never forget, as well, watching a polar bear, again oblivious to us all, devour a ring seal she—or he as we cannot be absolutely certain about gender—had bested on an ice flow far from everywhere as we spied on her from one hundred yards away—ensconced safely aboard M/S Quest.

Youth.JPG

Remarkably, the teenagers aboard on their incentive trip were non-plussed by this spectacular event and spent most of the encounter in a lounge-based game of Uno. Life is wasted on the young. What they believe to be important isn’t while what they believe to be unworthy of their attention could have, had they only known and paid heed to it, helped to shape enrich their lives.

Posted by paulej4 15:28 Archived in Svalbard Comments (2)

6/16 Watch Out For Medium Hikes

No Velcro...

sunny 32 °F

01MollesfjordGlacier.JPG

Elke woke us with a 7:15 announcement; breakfast was at 7:30. The day is blindingly bright even with the sun low in the sky. The snow on the side of the fjord reflects the light and sunglasses on the deck are a must. The temperature is just above freezing and there is a breeze so, for our excursion, we dress warmly—but in layers.

Did you know that you can watch the videos included in this blog in FULL SCREEN by clicking on the "four arrow" icon at the bottom right of the video's screen, just to the left of the word: vimeo. To get back to the blog entry, press the "esc" key on your keyboard.

We are in Mollesfjord at the glacier where the waters are calm if cold. Launching the five Zodiacs we head for a beach about a mile from the face of the glacier to hike. The 46 of us are divided into four groups: the “young people,” and easy, medium and difficult hikers. As with last time, I opt for medium.

Under foot the terrain is rocks punctuated by snow punctuated by mud at spots where melting ice creates a stream of water making its way to the sea. There are large rocks and small rocks, stable rocks and rickety ones. Nancy and Bill have advised me that only a fool would attempt this hike without a walking stick so I grabbed one as I left M/S Quest to board Zodiac #1 piloted by Malenthe for the ten minute ride to the beach.

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At one point we achieved two goals by sitting on rocks to rest and being completely silent; “no talking, no Velcro, no camera shutter noise please.” Our timing was auspicious as a noise that I can only compare to a clap of thunder in the distance radiated from the glacier. There was no visual evidence of what caused that sound; I had expected to see the glacier “calving” but that was not what happened. Nothing happened. Except for whatever made that amazing sound deep inside the dense blue ice.

Back to M/S Quest, I had lunch with three Dutch passengers who accommodated me by speaking English. We discussed their recent journey to Antarctica. I sought advice about how to do that and they were happy to oblige.

There was an hour to rest and write in peace and quiet and ponder the unique place this spot occupies on our planet.

The resting hour over, at Mollerfjorden, it was time for another hike at Signehamna. Again, I opted for medium but a surprise was in store. Whether by design or accident, we embarked on the hike of my life. Over hill and down slopes, across snow fields, fording streams of icy water, through deeper snow where your foot sinks in to your thigh; it all happened on this afternoon’s “medium” hike. We all made it but just barely.

Here are a few highlights. That is Jennifer in the red jacket making a record setting time getting across. Do not fall during the fording of this stream. The rocks are not worn smooth because they are not in water for most of the year. The water is cold, very cold, as cold as water can be in a liquid form.

Want to relax? This is a fine place to do it. But then, when you least expect it, you run across something man made, left behind many years before. It turns out that this was the site, during World War II, of a German weather station, used by the Nazis to assist their navy in sailing here and in the Baltic Sea.

Watch your step. From time to time the snow underfoot gives way--up to your thigh perhaps. large_07HikeTumble1.JPGlarge_08HikeHeadedHome.JPGlarge_10ZodiacsQuestinMollesfjord.JPG

Back on board, I checked my step counter: 13,039 of the most difficult steps I can ever recall taking. But then I’ve never before trod in Kollerbreen, Signehamna and Liljehokbreen. I retired to the lounge for TWO vodka tonics and was quickly off to dinner for TWO glasses of barely passable white wine. Then, it was up to the lounge as we basked in the glory of the largest glacier face I have ever seen. The panorama doesn’t begin to do it justice; you had to be there.large_11GlacierPano.JPG

Tonight, I am beat and I’ve no clue what is happening tomorrow but M/S Quest is steaming somewhere as I write this. In the land of the midnight sun one has no sense of when to call it quits. It is 11:00 right now and a small minki whale just surfaced outside my window as I pulled down the blackout shade because it is as light outside right now as it was during our hike. The setting sun provides no signal to give up and go to sleep because it does not set.

I think that tonight I may have made a preliminary commitment with a Dutch party of three to go to Greenland on another trip with Elke in, perhaps, 2021. I’m not sure because as I said I have had, after a very strenuous day in the Arctic, two vodkas and two glasses of wine and plans made in that situation are fuzzy at best.

Let this video close out this entry to give you an idea of peace. At least it is peaceful once you have defeated the obstacles that you confront and can relax.

(The candid photo below the video was taken by Jennifer as a 'thank you' trade for the stream crossing video. She asked for a copy to share with her two young sons and I happily obliged.

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Posted by paulej4 20:49 Archived in Svalbard Comments (1)

6/17 When to come?

Foxy

sunny 32 °F

It was difficult for me to decide what time of year to visit Svalbard. If you wish some input for your own trip, here is some insight I can offer.

The “Northern Lights Winter” lasts from October 1st until February 28th. The middle of that period, November 11th until January 30th, is totally dark here while the edges of that timeframe are twilight. It is cold. That does not appeal to me at all.

“Sunny Winter” follows from March 1st until mid-April when “Midnight Sun” begins, lasting until mid-May. It is still cold and there is a lot of ice blocking one’s path. That didn’t appeal either.

“Polar Summer” takes over and lasts until late August. That is “Now.” I chose this for all the reasons made clear as I write this blog. These are the things that happen during this time—June 12-19.

“Golden Autumn” runs from late Autust until the end of September and the cycle repeats itself. Too late for bright snow, the place has turned black and grey.

During “Midnight Sun” and again in “Golden Autumn” the ice tends to close up making navigation difficult if not impossible.

So, for me, it is “Polar Summer” that sounded best. But, one must decide when during that three month period is “really best.” Early on the snow has not yet melted and everything is pristine white, unsullied by bird droppings which taint the landscape. Later, the snow melts and what was white becomes an unsightly brown—the color of the rocks. There is precious little vegetation and no trees whatsoever. We did see, on spots where the snow has melted, tiny blue flowers.

All that means that there are six “sub-seasons.” Each lends itself to a different reason for a visit. I have opted for mid-June when the “Midnight Sun” shines, the colors are brighter, the shadows create a greater contrast adding depth to the glaciers, mountains and tundra. It’s when longer cruises around Svalbard are most active around the remote parts of the archipelago’s pack ice where polar bears hunt seals for food. Simply put, the light is better, the air is warmer and the water is navigable. Will you see polar bears? It’s the luck of the draw. They don’t make appearances for the sake of tourist satisfaction. My sightings—amazing ones—are just plain Russell Luck.

Today begins as each day does, bright as you open the curtain. However, the same scene would have presented had I opened the curtain at 1:00am or 3:00am or 5:00am as it is when I finally do open it at 7:00am. Overnight, the difference was not the light but the sea. At about 2:25am the wind came and with the wind came waves and with waves came a rock and roll party aboard the relatively small M/S Quest. I thought of Edward who does not much care for rough seas as I slept fitfully. By 6:00am, we were in less choppy water. Rough seas are quickly forgotten when calm waters are one's new home. We are in Alkhornet and will later head for Ekmanfjord.

My brain fries trying to get acclimated to the lack of darkness, reminding me of the old commercial where the close up is of an egg saying, “This is your brain.” Then the shot shifts to cracking that egg and dropping it into a frying pan saying, “This is your brain on drugs.” My brain is on Arctic drugs—24 hours a day, every day, of light. Weird and difficult to comprehend as it functions much as might Daylight Savings Time on steroids.

The sea terrain from our morning stop (not anchorage because the water here is too deep) lacks sea ice. To our port side—I don’t know whether that is east or west because the sun does not rise to give you a reference point—is a plateau flanked by a mountain. From experience that tells me that this is a hiking day.

“Good morning, good morning, dear expeditioners!” It is expedition leader Elke’s voice, bright and happy as it always is. She confirms that this is a hiking day, looking for animals. “There are reindeer and geese about. Breakfast is at 7:30 and we will be ready for you at the Zodiacs at nine o’clock.” Then she repeats in Swedish. We depart for Alkhornet Isfjorden.

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Far from being a geologist, I do lay claim to loving contemporary art. Here I find rocks that I would happily submit as commission inspiration to the artist who painted our Kansas City living room canvas. These are, to me, fine art.

This is the hike of reindeer and foxes, one of which, having stolen a barnacle goose egg from a ground nest was making an escape when another fox determined to steal the egg from the thief. The thief won out and made a burglar’s escape. The goose? It lost its egg either way.

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Reindeer could not care less about our appearance here unless we make a sudden movement which we are cautioned to avoid. Good learners we are as coexistence became the status quo. The water here is pristine as evidenced by our expedition leader refilling her water bottle at a stream.

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The morning weather was perfect. Not hot, not cold, not windy; in all ways that which, if you could, you would order up. This afternoon we are down the nonexistent road at Nordfjorden. We’re off as always aboard Zodiacs but this time there is fast ice to our port side. Seals lie on fast ice so we go in search for them. Only one bearded seal is near the edge but he slips into the water on our approach so we abandon our seal hunt.

large_12BeardedSealOnIce.JPGlarge_0baaf520-926b-11e9-bf13-992889f3708e.jpeglarge_15BirdsLaunching.jpeglarge_14BirdsLeaving.jpeglarge_16HikeBigStag.JPGBeluga whales appear so we watch them for a while. Beluga’s don’t pose well for pictures, preferring to keep both their heads and tails under water--revealing to trekkers only their backs--so the best I could get are these; one with a mom (white) and two calves (dark). Birds are everywhere using ice flows as waypoints between dives for tasty fish.

Next, my favorite, a hike. We beach the Zodiac and set out seeing a big reindeer stag along the way to a waterfall of ice melt making its inevitable way to the sea. There is much snow and thawing tundra and muck to get through and get back but we do and it’s worth it.

Back to M/S Quest, there is a Bar-B-Que on deck four aft with everything you could want and more. Music blares, food is served, people dance; it’s a fitting next-to-the-last-night aboard ship. I extend my thanks to the crew of M/S Quest as they have gone out of their way—sometimes way out of their way—to make this voyage perfect for their guests. I extend my thanks to the guides (Malenthe, Rutger, Manda and Erik) as they have done the same. Did I mention that Malenthe and Rutger are newlyweds? GuidesAtBBQJPG.JPG18SternBBQ.JPG

Elke is a tight-rope walker, pushing when she needs to, backing off for a bit when that is called for, but all the while getting the guides to work together, getting the guides to work with the ship’s crew, getting the Captain to work with her; she is very good as what she does. Were someone of a mind to write a leadership profile, Elke would be a subject worthy of examination. She reminds me a bit of another inspirational leader I know and with whom I am privileged to live.

Posted by paulej4 16:26 Archived in Svalbard Comments (1)

6/18 Here vs There

Which is which

overcast 45 °F

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I am now where I--and maybe you--have never been: at the top of the world, scene of the midnight sun, home to ice and those who call it home and who we can see and visit as it is daytime here. It is nighttime at the bottom of our planet, winter to my summer. This is my final day at sea. I am up before Elke’s announcement for my coffee in the lounge where Miguel makes a few preparations for our day.

We sail just a bit south in Nordfjorden to Yoldiabukta for a glacier cruise.

Arriving there, aboard our Zodiac,I get lucky with an iPhone video and capture a calving event. There were three ice-shedding events like this one while we were here, one larger chunk and one smaller. This is but one more example of The Russell Luck; most visitors never see the ice fall and many many fewer are lucky enough to capture one on with their outstretched ungloved very cold hand carefully clutching an iPhone that they surely do not want to drop overboard.

When you can hear the wind, know that you can feel the cold. Icebergs, relatively small here, are the uncut diamonds of the north.

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The water is deep here so there is no risk of a large wave coming from the ice fall. In shallower water, we would keep a greater distance. It is explained that we use the “rule of thumb” to gauge our limit of approach to the glacier. You hold your thumb up at full arm’s length and if the top of the glacier’s front is less than the length of your thumb, you are too close.

Later on, at Nordenskjoldbreen, the temperature is much, much warmer—47 degrees—but the wind is brisk and it vaults over the glacier so, onboard Zodiacs, we are colder today than before. There is a bit of ocean spray to get us wet; waterproof clothing is the rule here. I am lucky to have packed the correct wardrobe. If anything, I have more than I require.

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After lunch it is Billefjorden with a landing at Brucebyen. The sun is bright and the temperature has risen to about 50 degrees.The birds here are mostly oblivious to us as they dash here and there in search of food but occasionally are curious at these humans in their rubber boats who, while offering no threat, do represent an encroachment.

The temperature warm up, coupled with virtually no wind, means I dress light knowing the risk of change that is always afoot. We set off for the pack ice in front of still another glacier and spot scores of beluga whales surfacing at breaks inside the ice pack. Belugas are not photogenic but you get the picture from the picture.
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From time to time a seal spies upon us and we are constantly surrounded by birds feeding on nearby fish. large_64a3e030-926e-11e9-9831-c5b1467153ea.JPG
Elke works her Zodiac further into the ice than Malenthe will venture so we get to watch her become enmeshed among ice flows. She extracts herself but only with a strong effort.

Since the dawn of the internet, and my adoption of all it has to offer--and exploit--I have not been so separated from the world as I have been during this week above the Arctic Circle. There is no web site for research, no news sites to know the state of the nations on our planet and, most critically, no email or text to keep, while far away, emotionally close to the ones I love. B4 has been so truly missed. There is no way, given all that happens with her each day, that I can ever completely catch up.

What adventures have occurred among my children and grandchildren? Have Mandy and Ryan yet welcomed Simon to the world? I know nothing of everything. I am ready to retreat from the end of the earth to occupy, once more, its more hospitable midsections. Contradicting myself, however, I am pondering a trip south this winter. Penguins anyone?

The ends of the Earth, south and north, are similar in some ways: There is complete darkness at the crux of winter; they contain large unexplored regions; and only certain wildlife survive in such extremes.

However, for all the similarities these two regions of the world are actually quite different. Aside from Miles’ and Elliot’s awareness of Santa’s North Pole hereabouts, there are pronounced distinguishing features of the two polar regions, one from the other. The origin of the word “Antarctic” stems from the Greek antarktikos meaning “opposite to the north,” from ant- ‘against’ + arktikos.

First, there are no Penguins here in the Arctic. Here, they would be eaten en mass. Penguins are only seen in Antarctica. In the Antarctic, penguins are safe on land because there are no predators; in the water seals await, their source of danger.

Second. Polar bears only exist here, not there.

Third. Antarctica is a continent surrounded by oceans; the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents. Oh, and humankind make their homes around the Arctic in North America, Europe and Asia. There are no humans making their homes around Antarctica. To be clear, Svalbard is on solid earth, albeit frozen. North of here is only ice.

Fourth. Arctic winter runs from October through March; Antarctica’s winter is from March through September.

Fifth. There are over 900 flowering plant species here. The Antarctic has very little vegetation, mostly lichens and algae with only two flowering plants.

Sixth. There are over 40 different indigenous populations (not just scientists) living in the Arctic such as the Inuit in Alaska, Northern Canada, and Greenland, the Saami in the "circumpolar" areas of Finland, Norway, Sweden and Northwestern Russia, and the Chukchi in Siberia and the Russian Far East. There is no indigenous population in Antarctica; actually no permanent population at all other than seasonal workers and small settlements at research stations.

Seven. There are lots of regional seals seen in Antarctica and nowhere else. They include Leopard seals, Weddell seals, Crabeater seals, and Elephant seals which do not exist here.

Eight. Here there are walrus, narwhals, Arctic fox, wolves, Arctic hares, reindeer, oxen and puffins. None of these exist in Antarctica. Note that I have seen no narwhals, hares, wolves or oxen.

Nine. Lands here are claimed by and belong to specific nations: Alaska is the US, Canada has a lot of Arctic regions. Seven nations have made territory claims far from "home" in Antarctica. A Treaty System set up in 1961 mandates collaboration on scientific and environmental preservation however.

Ten. Antarctica is much colder than the Arctic. That is because Antarctica is a high solid land continent covered by a very thick layer of ice. The Arctic is ice atop ocean water. That water, even as cold as it is, moderates the air temperature.

We were tied to the pier back in Longyearbyen even before dinner ended at 9:00pm when we were serenaded by the wonderful kitchen staff (our chef is Jamacian). After dinner we retired to the lounge. Bittersweet announcements by Elke and a slide show (quite good) by Rutger finished the evening. Then it is back to the cabin to pack all the cold-weather gear, get a good night’s sleep and be prepared to begin a long and perhaps arduous travel day tomorrow followed by still another the next day.

After sleep and disembarkation from M/S Quest--the first time the gangway has been needed for that purpose in a week--there is time to meander up the Longyearbyen main street for the coffee shop that PolarQuest has persuaded to open early so we expeditioners, needing to leave M/S Quest early so it can be prepared for the next group of adventurers--all German speakers this trip--can take up residence. The shop boasts great internet connectivity so I can read the news, upload and download and eavesdrop on a very nerdy local guide explain to his newly arrived and wide-eyed client about not wandering out of town without a rifle.12HomeInLongyearbyen.JPGIMG_8587.JPGIMG_8586.JPGIMG_8588.JPGIMG_8590.JPG

Svalbard aboard M/S Quest hosted and led by Polar Quest’s Elke Lindner comes highly recommended by a man who is both discerning and critical. Bravo.large_IMG_8311.JPG

This is the final episode describing this journey; I'll not bore you with news of flights home.

I would, however, like to leave you with this commentary as the summation of all that has happened to me these few days. Unlike many of my political leaders, I believe that climate change is caused by human activity, is real and it will touch us all. The ocean is warming. Scientists tell us that there is less oxygen in the water. Sea ice is provably and observably waning (now at the lowest level in four decades). Algae grows on and within sea ice. Amphipods eat that algae. Whales and fish eat those amphipods. Seals and birds eat the fish. Polar bears eat the seals.

Climate change equals a disruption of the food chain. That, my friends, means that our world is changing and, I submit, not for the good.

I have seen during this journey what my grandchildren may be unable to see when they are old enough, wealthy enough and in possession of free time enough to follow in my footsteps. When polar bears can be observed only in zoos, we will have lost a bit of what makes us earthlings.

Normally one to embrace change, I relish the unknown. This unknown, however, I fear. Post a comment if you will. I'd be interested to hear your take on that and on all we shared during this week at the top of the world.

Posted by paulej4 16:08 Archived in Svalbard Comments (5)

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