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Monthly Archives: November 2012 − News & Stories


Low flight over Polar bear

Sysselmannen and Norwegian coastguard are currently criticized for a low flight over a group of walrusses on Nordaustland, in the strictly protected nature reserve Nordaust Svalbard. A similar event involving a Polar bear has now been reported. On July 11, a group of tourists of MS Quest had boarded 5 Zodiacs to cruise along drift ice southeast of Sjuøyane (north of Nordaustland). When a swimming Polar bear was seen from the ship, the Swedish expedition called the boats together to avoid disturbance: following swimming Polar bears with any motorized vehicles is strictly forbidden (and would without any doubt be ruthless).

A nearby small aircraft operated by the coastguard caught the VHF conversation between the guides and the ship. The crew of the aircraft decided to check what was going on, resulting in low flights over the Zodiacs and the Polar bear.

The expedition leader believed this to be a unique incident, until news of the low flight over walrusses surfaced recently, and then decided to write a report. In a first reaction, the Sysselmannen announced that the Zodiac operation of the tourists might have to be checked for potential disturbance of the bear. The factual disturbance of the protected animal by the coastguard aircraft does not seem to be a matter of great interest for the Sysselmannen, who is the highest representative of the Norwegian government in Spitsbergen.

The coastguard considers themselves a general police authority for the waters around Spitsbergen, which are under Norwegian legislation. According to other views, the duty of the coastguard is, in Spitsbergen waters, exclusively to control fishing vessels. Other control may be carried out in individual cases, where the need may arise, but generally, it is the Sysselmannen who controls tourism in Spitsbergen. Now it seems as if it is the duty of tourism – the closest thing to the “public” in the relevant areas – to control the authorities in the field …

Low flight over Polar bears: An incident in Holmiabukta, photographed by the author on July 31, 2010, when the presence of several bears in Holmiabukta was generally known. The helicopter is marked with a red circle, a Polar bear with a yellow circle*. Click here for a larger version of this image.

Low flight over Polar bear: Holmiabukta, July 31, 2010.

Amendment (December 04, 2012): Regarding the photo above, the Sysselmannen stated that there was no helicopter flight on behalf of the Sysselmannen in the area in question on July 31, 2010. According to the Sysselmannen, the helicopter in the photo was possibly chartered by a private party.

Source: Svalbardposten (47/2012)

Flying low over walrusses: judicial aftermath

The low flight of an official airplane over a group of walrusses, which was both very inconsiderate and against valid rules, has been reported before on these pages (see October news). The incidence now seems to have a judicial aftermath. The affair has been reported to the Norwegian office for police matters. The point of the report is, however, not the actual flight, but the handling of further internal communication. Following regulations and common routine, relevant emails should have been published, but were not. This gives rise to the suspicion that it was tried to keep the incident away from public attention. According to the official explanation, this was not the case, an explanation that will hardly surprise.

The flight was observed by a group of tourists who finally reported about the incident to media.

Peaceful observation of a group of walrusses. Use of aircraft close to such a herd is neither allowed nor animal friendly.

Flying low over walrusses - Walrusses, Spitsbergen.

Source: Sysselmannen.

Northern Sea Route: more traffic

Ship traffic through the Northern Sea Route, also known as Northeast Passage, has increased tenfold since 2010. Two years ago, the passage was used by only 4 vessels, compared to 46 in 2012. This season’s last 2 ships, both Finnish icebreakers, are still on their way.

Most vessels that used the Northern Sea Route in 2012 were cargo ships transporting oil, gas and fuels, followed by ore and coal. The route was used for the first time to transport LNG (liquified gas) in 2012, when a Norwegian vessel sailed from Hammerfest to Japan.

The Northeast Passage was completed for the first time in 1878/79 by the Swedish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskjöld. It is about 20 days shorter than the common route through the Suez Canal.

The Swedish icebreaker Oden near Spitsbergen.

Northern Sea Route: icebreaker Oden.

Source: Barentsobserver

White Humpback whale

The sighting of a rare white Humpback whale in Hinlopen Strait in August is getting big on various media around the world. The lucky photos that Dan Fisher, mate and engineer on board SV Antigua, managed to get, have by now been sold through agencies, appeared on several websites and made it onto north American television.

Apart from the white Humpback whale seen this summer in Spitsbergen, only two more animals of this rare kind are known so far, an adult and a calf, both seen off Queensland, Australia.

Click here for a larger version of the photo below.

The now famous white Humpback whale, photographed on 11 August 2012 by Dan Fisher.

White Humpback whale

Mercury in Polar bear liver

Polar bears can have high concentrations of heavy metals and other long-lived environmental toxins in their tissue. These toxins come from industry and agriculture in lower latitudes, are transported by air and sea currents even to the remotest parts of the Arctic where they are taken up in the food chain, finally contaminating those who are at its top: Polar bears and birds including Glaucous gulls. Consequences include negative impacts on reproductive and immune system and general health decline.

A new study has shown different levels of mercury concentration in Polar bear liver in different parts of the Arctic, from Alaska through Canada to Greenland. The reason for the regional differences is believed to be different species in the lower part of the food chain: plancton species that are responsible for the incorporation of mercury into the food chain.

There are no data from Spitsbergen, where Polar bears are protected and Polar bear liver is accordingly not available for sampling.

Mercury sources include coal power plants with bad filter systems.

Polar bears: as if their life was not already difficult enough without mercury.

Mercury in Polar bear liver - Polar bear, Edgeøya

Source: Norwegian Polar Institute

East Greenland: flights to Scoresbysund

Scheduled flights to Constable Point, the little airfield near the settlement Ittoqqortoormiit (Scoresbysund) in northern East Greenland, will be more complicated and expensive in the future. The Greenlandic government has decided to terminate the contract for the triangle flight between Reykjavik (Iceland), Kulusuk (near Ammassalik, southern East Greenland) and Constable Point. Instead, there will be a flight connection between Constable Point and the west coast of Greenland. Locals expect problems for the local community: more or less easy and affordable transport from Scoresbysund to Europe has been an important lifeline during recent decades. Amongst others, a significant drop of numbers in tourism is expected. The number of tourists visiting Ittoqqortoormiit is still not large, but economically important for the community.

This will also implicate changes to our trips to Scoresbysund in 2013.

The little airfield of Constable Point, near Ittoqqortoormiit (Scoresbysund).

East Greenland: flights to Scoresbysund, Constable Point

Snow cover in the arctic on the decrease

The snow cover in the Arctic is shrinking more quickly than predicted. In 1979, the beginning of the records, about 9 million square kilometres of arctic land were snow covered during the spring. Until now, the figure has shrunk to a mere 3 million square kilometres, a loss rate of 21.5 % per decade. This is more than scientists had expected.

The larger share of snow-free ground absorbs sun radiation, turning it into warmth, rather than reflecting it back into space, as snow would do. The result is a positive feedback: a warmer atmosphere leads to less snow, which again results in a further warming of the atmosphere. In areas with high accumulation of biomass, such as Siberia and parts of Canada and Alaska, higher soil temperatures will additionally lead to increased methane emissions from the ground. Methane is a very aggressive greenhouse gas.

Snow-rich tundra in Woodfjord, mid June 2010.

Snow cover in the arctic on the decrease - Mushamna

Source: Geophysical Research Letters, Avisa Nordland

Fishery zone around Spitsbergen

In September, a Norwegian coastguard ship brought a German trawler up near Hopen. The fishing ship had too much haddock in its cargo. The fishing company got a fine of 55000 NOK (ca. 7500 Euro), but did not accept the fine.

The point is not the economically irrelevant fine, but the principal question of the fishery zone around Spitsbergen: is the Spitsbergen Treaty valid in the 200 mile zone, which otherwise gives exclusive economical rights to the sovereign state? The Norwegian answer is a clear no: according to Norwegian authorities, the Treaty, which gives all signatory countries and their citizens equal rights of access and economic use of natural resources, is valid only within the 12 mile zone. According to this viewpoint, Norway has exclusive rights within the 200 mile zone, outside the 12 mile zone. Most countries do, however, agree, that the Spitsbergen Treaty, which is still valid, does not give Norway exclusive rights to any maritime area. The clear purpose of the Treaty, signed in 1920, was to give all signatories equal access under Norwegian administration. The German ship owner, “Deutsche Fischereiunion”, is now prepared to take this question of principal importance to Norwegian courts.

Russian trawler off Hornsund. Its presence is based on the Spitsbergen Treaty.

Fishery zone around Spitsbergen - Russian Trawler

Source: Svalbardposten (4412)

Norwegian foreign minister about arctic oil and gas

The Norwegian foreign minister Espen Barth Eide has recently said clearly what he thinks about the future of arctic oil and gas exploitation. According to him, the question of environmental protection is restricted to a solely technical issue, but without further political relevance. The idea of leaving arctic oil and gas in the ground is not a relevant question.

The following quotations (translated from German) are sufficient to get an understanding of the message of the Norwegian minister:

  • “The exploitation of arctic resources will take place.”
  • “If you drill responsibly, then there should not be any problems.”
  • “Some people have the wrong perception, that the Arctic is a global heritage as the Antarctic.”
  • “We do not need specific regulations as in Antarctica. The region is not unique, compared to other open sea areas.”

Oil riggs in the North Sea.

Norwegian foreign minister about arctic oil and gas - Oil riggs

The complete interview can be read in German on Spiegel Online..

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