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Monthly Archives: February 2010 − News & Stories


Environmental situation in the Barents Sea

The new environmental status report of a Norwegian working group that includes a number of research institutions has been published in February. It summarizes scientic data concerning various environmental developments. The report (Norwegian) is detailed and has yielded expected development as well as surprises.

Some important results:

  • As was to be expected, the ice cover of the Barents Sea has decreased noticeably from 1979 to 2009. 2005, 2007 and 2008 were years with extremely little ice. The proportion of multi-year ice has decreased, especially in 2007.
  • During the same period, water temperatures have experienced an increase of around 1°C, mostly due to an increased influx of Atlantic water. This has pronounced, but complex effects on nutrient availability as well as population dynamics of different fish (and other) species.
  • Seabird colonies in Spitsbergen and Norway have developed in different ways, but the short message is an overall decline over different species and geographical areas. In Spitsbergen, Brünich’s Guillemots have gone down significantly in numbers, the highest documented loss being 36 % within the last 5 years at Fuglehuken on the island of Prins Karls Forland. Kittywakes have suffered losses of up to 43 % (Bear Island) during the same time span, whereas the Common Guillemot, a bird that is more adapted to sub-arctic conditions, has increased by 38 % on Bear Island. The situation is even more dramatic in north Norway, where almost all seabird species have suffered severe losses at most locations, in some cases of more than 99 %.
  • The volumes of plastic rubbish seem to have gone back slightly in recent years. Since 1998, it is not allowed anymore to dispose any plastics into the sea.
  • Concentrations of long-lived environmental toxins such as BCPs and PAKs have decreased until about 2004, but have increased slightly again and are stable since then.
  • Radioactivity is still low. Main sources are nuclear weapon testing during the 1950s and 1960s, Chernobyl and the nuclear reprocessing plants of Sellafield (England) and La Hague (France). The Sovjet nuclear submarine K-278 Komsomolets, that sank 180 kilometres southeast of Bear Island in 1989 and is still lying at 1858 metres depth, has not emitted significant amounts of radioisotopes – so far.
  • Die Konzentrationen langlebiger Schadstoffe wie PCBs (Polychlorierte Bifenyle) und PAKs (Polyzyklische aromatische Kohlenwasserstoffe) gingen bis etwa 2004 zurück, stiegen seitdem aber wieder leicht an und sind seitdem näherungsweise stabil.

Plastic rubbish, mostly »lost« from fishing vessels.
Washed up onto and collected from a small part of a remote beach in Hinlopen Strait, northeastern Spitsbergen.

Environmental situation in the Barents Sea - Lundehuken

Source: Forvaltningsplan Barentshavet 2010

Eastern Svalbard Nature Reserves: potential closure of largest parts still on the agenda

A possible closure of most parts of eastern Svalbard has been discussed on these pages on several occasions (see for example June 2009). The Norwegian Directorate for Nature administration (Direktoratet for naturforvaltning, (DN)) had made a proposal to close most of eastern Svalbard for tourists. The Sysselmannen disagreed with the proposal, which would normally lead to major changes or discarding. The proposal has, however, been forwarded to further bodies of the law-giving process without making any significant changes, a very unusual step.

The main reason for the proposal was that the areas should be kept as »untouched scientific reference areas«. This rather vague reasoning could not be explained any further, other than claiming a »precautionary principle«. After this has met strong criticism, nature protection was added.

The proposal is strongly criticised, including:

  • Aims not well defined and reasons not well explained. For example, during a meeting in Longyearbyen in October 2008, leading scientists of the Norwegian Polar Institute said they did not see any principal problems with (controlled) tourism in the areas in question, considering both scientific and environmental aspects.
  • It is doubted that by excluding tourists from these areas, they can be kept as (or turned into) »untouched« (reference) areas, as scientific activities take place on a comparable, possible major, scale anyway: significant numbers of scientific and support staff visit the areas – including its remotest parts, which are hardly ever visited by tourists regularly, spending much more time in the field, using large, stationary camps (tourists sleep on ships) and using helicopters for transport on a large scale (completely banned within tourism).
  • More pressure on locations that remain accessible can be expected to lead to several problems, such as erosion. Another problem is that flexibility has, so far, been an integral part of the safety of passenger landings: if weather/sea conditions at a given site is not favorable or a polar bear is seen nearby, it is – so far – common to turn to another area within reach. Should such alternative sites not be available anymore, it can be expected that the pressure to land at a given site will increase, even under unfavorable conditions.
  • Part of the reasoning is continuous increase of touristic traffic. The fact that cruise ship tourism in the last 2 years actually decreased is not considered. The reason for the decrease is not only the economical crisis, but also the (lasting) effects of new regulations, such as a ban on heavy oil as ship fuel which effectively keeps some ships completely away, and new safety demands, which will lead to another couple of ships not returning, including some that have been operating in Svalbard still in 2009.
  • Intransparent discussion process behind closed doors, excluding the public and those involved, ignoring the Sysselmannen who is obviously a major official authority with considerable knowledge of the actual regional situation.

Despite being rejected by the Sysselmannen, the proposal has been forwarded by DN to the higher Ministry of the environment, where decisions on further steps have to be taken.

A result of the process could be a loss of public confidence into science and administration, if »science« is (ab)used as an argument by political decision makers without solid scientific argumentative basis, similar to Japanese »scientific« whaling.

Eastern Svalbard: Protected areas or exclusive playground for scientists?

Eastern Svalbard Nature Reserves: potential closure of largest parts still on the agenda

Source: Svalbardposten and other (including verbal discussions)

Coal mining economy

The mining company Store Norske could, in 2009, for the second time conclude with a profit of about 400 million Norwegian crowns (ca 48.7 million Euro), mainly due to good coal prices before the break-out of the crisis and advantageous financial business (»kull-hedging«). The lookout seems less bright: Store Norske has to deal with falling world market prices, cancellation of orders, and deteriorating coal quality in the largest mine, »Svea Nord«, near Sveagruva, where 2 million tons were mined last year. The mine is expected to be closed in 2014; Store Norske has plans to open another mine in the area.

The future of mine 7, the only mine near Longyearbyen still in operation, is uncertain as it has been producing deficits for a number of years.

Coal mining, quo vadis? He does not know either. (miner in Longyearbyen)

Coal mining economy

Source: Svalbardposten

Snow mobiles and alcohol

The Sysselmannen (police) controlled a group of snow mobile tourists who where just about to start their tour. The result was impressive: 10 out of 35 had alcohol in their blood and were not allowed to participate. The Sysselmannen calls attention to valid general traffic and special snow scooter regulations, which includes a very strict “don’t drink and drive” policy and potentially severe fines.

Watch out for snow mobiles with potentially dark background!

Snow mobiles and alcohol

Source: Sysselmannen

High pesticide levels in Spitsbergen

Recent analysis of snow and ice of glaciers in the Spitsbergen archipelago has shown significant levels of pesticides, which are not used locally and thus come from long-distance sources in Europe and overseas. The relevant pesticides are long-lived and take very long time to break down, especially in cold climate conditions. Today, they are mostly banned. The amounts thought to be present in Spitsbergen are up to about one ton of some pesticides, but vary locally.

Further research is needed to investigate potential threats to the environment.

Is the ice as clean as it seems, or…?

High pesticide levels in Spitsbergen - Alkefjellet

Source: Svalbard Science Forum

Gold rush in St. Jonsfjord

In 2009, the Norwegian mining company Store Norske carried out first investigations to find potential gold occurrences in St. Jonsfjord, north of Isfjord. Results show that the potential is significant. Store Norske intends to do drillings to further determine the potential of valuable metals. The authorities (Sysselmannen) have now given permission for the drillings under strict environmental conditions.

St. Jonsfjord is outside the protected areas, which means that the future may see a new mine in Spitsbergen.

St. Jonsfjord

Gold rush in St. Jonsfjord

Quelle: Svalbardposten

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