Mesmerized, I could spend hours alone leaning against the railing at the bow of the ship. For 10 days, there were no two identical moments. The Arctic world was constantly moving and changing around me as we slowly made our way through the ice and the open sea, past whales, walruses, birds and bears.
The clock did not matter, except to keep track of the time of meals; in summer, so far north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets close to the horizon.
And yet Svalbard, while it seems timeless, is perhaps the closest thing to a ticking clock.
I visited the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in 2017, getting on M / S Stockholm, a classic ship built in 1953 and refitted in 1998 thanks to sheer luck. (A last-minute cancellation and a chance encounter with a South African dentist somehow gave me a cabin the size of a wardrobe.) I stepped on board excited but without much anticipation.
Longyearbyen, with a population of about 2,400, is the largest settlement in the archipelago. This is definitely an unusual place. Named after American mine owner John Munroe Longier, the city is home to a nearly destroyed coal mining industry, a university campus, a global seed bank, and a small but thriving tourism industry that focuses almost exclusively on Svalbard’s natural beauty.
From the sea, Svalbard appeared to be the epitome of wilderness: a vast expanse of mostly pristine water, ice and islands, free of human habitation and infrastructure, aside from the occasional passing boats. This, of course, was the reason that I could not tear myself away from the deck, eating food and sleeping as little as possible.
I have always been drawn to open spaces – deserts, mountains, meadows. The sea is completely different, it moves around us, even when we try to stay in place. Watching ice drift through thick fog, waterfalls flowing down the slopes of giant glaciers, or when the sky is perfectly reflected in suddenly frozen water, it was difficult to shake off the feeling that it was somehow ethereal and eternal.
Unfortunately, climate change almost guarantees a possible (and probably quite inevitable) collapse of what is in fact an extremely fragile ecosystem. The 29 national parks and other protected areas that cover two-thirds of the Svalbard archipelago can protect its wildlife from hunting and pollution, but not from rising water and air temperatures. Each year brings us new news about ever-shrinking glaciers and shrinking ice sheets – the ice on which the 3,000 polar bears in the Svalbard archipelago and the Barents Sea depend for survival.
“During my stay here, the map was completely redrawn,” said Fredrik Granat, author, photographer and expedition leader with 20 years of experience in Svalbard. “The routes we hiked or snowmobiled just 10 years ago are now only accessible by boat. It gets worse every year. “
Tourism, as is often the case, turns out to be both part of the problem and part of the solution. On the one hand, air travel is a significant contributor to climate change, accounting for about 2.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions. (According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the tourism industry as a whole accounts for 8 to 11 percent of total greenhouse gases.) Choosing fewer flights is undoubtedly important, especially given that global aircraft carbon emissions will be will triple by 2050.
On the other hand, tourism can be an invaluable conservation asset. In many parts of the world, wilderness remains wilderness largely because of tourism’s ability to generate jobs and income, enabling conservationists to compete financially with agriculture, mining and logging. While far from perfect, parts of the tourism industry can fund and fund research, anti-poaching patrols, and community development. It also means that there are people – locals, guests, journalists – who can testify, spread information, raise funds, and sometimes devote their lives to a cause that affects them.
“It’s impossible to describe the brutality of what is happening with pictures or words,” says Mr Granat. “Svalbard is at a turning point. Some people need to experience this firsthand or this incredibly important story will unfold unnoticed. “
All this passed in my head as the motor ship Stockholm continued its journey across the Arctic Ocean. Moments of breathlessness from stunning beauty will be followed by others, triggered by grief over the prospect of its extinction, of a future in which healthy populations of polar bears and thriving Arctic ecosystems will remain mere memories.
For better or worse, the future of Svalbard will not be decided locally. However, with perseverance and luck, constant attempts to peer into the Arctic world – be it our own experience or the experience of others – will continue to weaken resistance in order to properly protect the remaining wilderness of this planet.