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Home → March, 2012

Monthly Archives: March 2012 − News & Stories

Glaucous gulls threatened by environmental toxins

Long-lived environmental toxins from industrial processes and conventional agriculture endanger species that are high up in the food chain, including polar bears, ivory gulls and glaucous gulls. This is well known and a number of studies have been made on the phyiological effects of the harmful substances, which in the arctic are especially long-lived because of the cold temperatures, on the individual animal.

Scientists from the Norwegian institute for research on nature (NINA) have now tried to quantify the effects on a population level. The study has been made on glaucous gulls on Bear Island. One of the results is that glaucous gulls with high levels of toxins have alarming annual survival rates of only 40-50 %.

Every year, dead glaucous gulls are found on Bear Island that have high values of relevant substances in their tissues. Due to its position and local climate, Bear Island has some of the highest concentrations of environmental toxins in the whole Arctic.

Sampling a skua on Bear Island.

Glaucous gulls threatened by environmental toxins - Sampling a skua on Bear Island

Source: NINA

Bad winter season

The warm and wet winter weather has so far gone badly over the season. Both tourists and local touring enthusiasts are suffering from bad terrain conditions. Several spells of temperatures well above freezing and heavy rain have turned snow into ice. The fjords have largely remained open, rather than freezing over. Popular destinations such as Kapp Linné and Noorderlicht, the “boat in the ice” which is normally frozen in fast ice in Tempelfjord in mid March, can hardly be reached. The situation demands a lot of flexibility from tourists and tour operators.

Blue ice instead of snow: then it is better to stay at home.

Bad winter season - Sassendalen

Source: Svalbardposten (1112)

Drug abuse in Longyearbyen

In autumn last year the police caught 11 young people in Longyearbyen with drugs. 10 of them have by now been sentenced to fines or prison up to 60 days (partly suspended). Next to owning and selling amounts of up to 100 g of cannabis, one person was also charged for breaching laws regulating firearms because of improper storage. Two persons were expelled from Spitsbergen for up to 4 years. The local newspaper Svalbardposten found out last year (after the drug razzia) in an internet poll that 911 out of 1060 readers are in favor of expelling drug users and dealers from Spitsbergen.

The criminality level is comparatively minor and mainly directed at covering own demands, but has to be seen in the context of a small, isolated town with many young inhabitants. The cannabis was smuggled from Norway to Longyearbyen by mail.

In Longyearbyen, grass is not only growing on the tundra.

Drug abuse in Longyearbyen: Cottongrass, Longyearbyen

Source: Sysselmannen, Svalbardposten (1112)

Research permission denied

It seems as if permission for archaeological research is now more often denied than given. In summer 2011, veteran Russian archaeologist Vadim Starkov wanted to excavate a Pomor site in Bettybukta in southern Spitsbergen, but did not get permission from the Sysselmannen. Now another application from Starkov was turned down. Starkov wanted to document a Russian shipwreck, probably dating into the 18th or early 19th century, in Van Mijenfjorden. Parts of the wreck were probably used as firewood or building material. The wreck is lying on dry ground, but is mostly covered with soil. The intention was to remove the soil, document the wreck and cover it again. The Sysselmannen has now denied permission because of the potential risk of damage to the wreck from wind and weather during the period of work. A final decision will be made in Oslo (Riksantikvaren).

Less of a surprise was the decision not to follow a Russian application to build a reconstructed Pomor house at Russekeila, west of Barentsburg. The reconstruction should have served as a museum and tourist destination. Buildings outside the present-day settlements are hardly ever permitted. Additionally, the site in question is near one of the most important archaeological sites from the Pomor period and inside a Geotop (protected area because of geological values).

The Pomors had a large hunting station in Russekeila, between Barentsburg and Kapp Linné. The cross is a reconstruction.

Research permission denied - Russekeila

Source: Svalbardposten (1012)

“Spitsbergen-Svalbard” guidebook: 3rd edition now available

The third edition of the guidebook “Spitsbergen-Svalbard” is now available. The book has been out of print for a while, and an updated version had to wait until other projects were finished.

The third edition follows the structure of the second one, but has been revised and improved through large parts of its contents (text, illustrations) – often concerning details, but this is what makes the difference, isn’t it?

Click here for further details: Spitsbergen-Svalbard (engl.).

The current edition is the 15th book made and published by Rolf Stange (including translations and new editions).

The third edition of “Spitsbergen-Svalbard”.

Spitsbergen-Svalbard guidebook - 3rd edition

Tourism and the arctic environment: a problem – really?

Norwegian politicians and often also the public seem to be convinced that tourists and the arctic environment are two things that don’t go together well. Almost as a knee-jerk, the arctic environment is described as “fragile”. Based on such assumptions that are lacking documentation, the administration is about to introduce drastic steps such as closing major areas. Such steps, that don’t even aim at an environmental benefit but are rather to establish large private playgrounds (“reference areas”) for the adminstration and science that the administration considers relevant, are largely based on the “føre var” prinsippet, the precautionary principle. Generally a good thing, but less so if strained beyond any limit to hide the lack of documented knowledge that should rather be the base for good administration.

Such an overstrain of the “precautionary principle” due to a lack of documented knowledge as a base for drastic administrative steps have in recent years led to ongoing controversal discussions and to a decreasing acceptance of the administration and thus to a problem of legitimacy.

The Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) has identified this as a problem and has now published a report based on data collected during 3 field seasons in Spitsbergen (2008-2010) on 30 locations. NINA has observed tourist groups, conducted interviews with tourists and guides and assessed the vulnerability of sites in terms of vegetation, animals, terrain and historical sites. According to the report, the guides have a key position to influence the behaviour of tourists and their moving patterns. The report does not provide a concluding answer to the question if tourism is harmful to the arctic environment, but makes clear that there is no simple yes or no to this question, and points out the lack of available knowledge upon which an assessment can be made, also as a base for administrative steps.

Tourists ashore on an island in Liefdefjord: how much damage do they actually do?

Tourism and the arctic environment - Liefdefjord

Source: NINA

Helicopter traffic in Spitsbergen

Helicopter landings outside the official airfields are principally not allowed and can only be carried out with special permission from the Sysselmannen. Now figures have been published to illustrate helicopter landings in the field in 2011: the total number was no less than 2403. Out of these, 1729 were connected to mining and mineral exploration, 335 were in the context of science. Administrative helicopter use, which can safely be assumed to be substantial, is not included.

Permissions for touristic helicopter use are principally not given.

Overview of landings in the field over the whole Spitsbergen archipelago in 2011. Traffic hot spots were, as could be expected, the potential gold field in St. Jonsfjord and the new coal mine at Lunckefjellet. But a large number of landings has also taken place anywhere, including the remotest, otherwise strictly protected areas. (Map © Sysselmannen på Svalbard)

Helicopter traffic in Spitsbergen - Helicopter landings in the field

Source: Sysselmannen

Polar bear attack in Tempelfjord

In August 2011, a 17 year old student was killed and 4 other ones injured when a very aggressive polar bear attacked their camp (see earlier articles on these pages). The Sysselmannen has now decided to close the case. According to Norwegian authorities, the cause for the tragic event was “a number of unfortunate circumstances that led to the tragic accident”, but not involving any criminal offence. The case will accordingly be closed.

The parents do not agree with the Sysselmannen’s decision to close the case and have filed a complaint to The public prosecutors’ office of Troms and Finnmark.

The polar bear that attacked the group in Tempelfjorden was at least has hungry as this very thin bear in Duvefjord (Nordaustland). Additionally it had strong pain from the bad condition of his teeth.

Polar bear attack in Tempelfjord - Polar bear, Duvefjord

Source: Sysselmannen

IMO: polar code not before 2015

The IMO (International Maritime Organization) is an agency of the UN to produce a legal framework that controls maritime activity globally. Work on a polar code has started years ago to ensure safety of shipping in polar waters. Aspects of the polar code touch various fields such as the construction of ships, safety equipment and qualifications of Captains and nautical officers, to mention a few. The environment is an important major focus.

The matter is complex and partly controversial. A decision will not be made in 2012 as originally scheduled, but is now expected for late 2014. The slow process is critizised by environmental organiszations. The pronounced increase of ship traffic especially of cargo ships and oil tankers in certain areas such as the northwest and northeast passage (Canada/Alaska, Russia) gives indeed reason for environmental concerns. On the other hand, national governments can already implement important legislation in many areas. The Norwegian has introduced an environmentally important ban on heavy oil in Spitsbergen in recent years. A similar ban is in force in Antarctica since August 2011.

Part of the discussion is a general ban on all ships that are older than a certain year such as 1996. If such a drastic step, which would have drastic consequences for many ships, would be equally beneficial for safety and environment, is in many cases controversial. In the past, smaller ice-going vessels were often built very strongly. It would mostly be difficult or impossible to replace such vessels adequately.

The complexity of the whole matter is increased by the fact that it concerns huge areas with a wide diversity of all kinds of conditions. The west coast of Spitsbergen, for example, is ice-free for most of the year and usually easily accessible for all kinds of ships. The use of icebreakers in this area, which is small but has a lot of local traffic, would be a great and environmentally contraproductive waste of fuel and resources. The near-by northeastern corner of Greenland is in contrast one of the areas with the most severe ice conditions on the planet even in summer and can only be reached with heavy icebreakers. Similar regional differences exist in Antarctica, as is made clear by the comparison between the ice-free northwestern area of the Antarctic Peninsula with the ice-covered central Weddell and Ross Seas.

The Swedish icebreaker Oden at the west coast of Spitsbergen (June 2008, with the 3 heirs to the Scandinavian thrones on board).

IMO polar code not before 2015 - data-lazy-src=

The small Swedish ship Stockholm, here at the north coast of Spitsbergen, was built in 1953 and is thus one of the oldest ships that is regularly sailing in these waters, but also one of the most robust ones.

MS Stockholm

Sources: IMO, taz


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