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Monthly Archives: June 2014 − News & Stories


Berlin Reykjavik Ísafjörður

Excitements are rising and rising. A mixture of being excited and looking forward to Jan Mayen, but I am also almost feeling a bit nervous about it, something I haven’t known before venturing on arctic trips for years. But this time, it’s different. It will be demanding, a tough trip, an expedition if you want. No easy walks, but long, tough hikes. No upper limit to the shit weather scale. And 2 days riding the waves before we even get there. But that’s all part of the fun. The fascination that is dragging us to Jan Mayen does not come for free.

I planned an intense trip to Jan Mayen already in 2012, but one of the two ships involved in the logistics then had problems some months before, and that killed the whole plan. Maybe the plan was just too complicated, involving two ships, getting there with one, leaving with the next one, rather than having one small sailing yacht that is really dedicated to our voyage during that time and nothing else. So it wasn’t to happen in 2012. But it is maybe just perfect as it is, because Jan Mayen was discovered exactly 400 years ago. Probably. Nobody knows exactly. But we know that the first documented visit was on 28th June 1614 by the English whaling Captain John Clarke. The 28th June 1614. To the day exactly 400 years before I packed my stuff to travel in Clarke’s wake! How amazing is that! Is that coincidence? I guess it was meant to happen like that. Sometimes things happen for reasons that we don’t quite understand. Let’s assume it is all a good sign!

Of course, the last days were hectic. How else could it have been. Spent too much time running around, spending money on things that I thought I would need or things I know I will need but can’t find or whatever.

While the weather on Jan Mayen is almost suspiciously well – 11 degrees, almost no wind, even largely sunny – it is all almost suspiciously easy here. Neither a traffic jam causing catastrophic delays, nor does the car break down. I am suspicious. And the cheap Icelandic airline does not even complain about my overweight. Talking about my luggage, of course! I have done my bit to make sure my own weight is in reasonably good shape, ready for Beerenberg, hopefully. Running, hiking with heavy rucksack, bicycling, some extra training. In the end, getting to the top of Beerenberg or not is not life important to me, it will be exciting wherever we get on Jan Mayen. But if we have a chance, if the weather Gods are friendly and everything works well, then it would be too annoying if my legs don’t want to carry me up.

And while I am hanging out another 2 hours at the domestic airport, I have the unexpected opportunity to watch football. Mexico against the Netherlands. I have already met Gudo, a fellow traveller from the Netherlands. Of course he is watching closely. And the Dutch team has just got the ball into the net … hope that isn’t going over his mood … but it isn’t. Nobody really keen on football would travel somewhere as remote as Jan Mayen these days anyway.

Click on thumbnail to open an enlarged version of the specific photo.

And, by the way: the fact that we return to Iceland one day before the final is coincidence. Really. I realized it just a few days ago.

Did anyone really read this far, or was it already too much? Apart from sitting in a plane for some hours, nothing has really happened so far. Time to finish for the moment. I’d better read a bit in the Jan Mayen book, polish my history knowledge a bit. Yes, I am starting to read my own books. Maybe weird, but … not bad … J and my last visit to Jan Mayen was already several years ago. Admittedly.

Infos for travel those interested: Some thoughts about the Jan Mayen tour that you should read if you consider to participate in the future.

Arctic blog: Jan Mayen, Spitsbergen

Join voyages to Jan Mayen and Spitsbergen from the sofa! Rolf Stange will publish impressions and adventures from his polar travels more or less regularly through the arctic summer. Little stories and experiences, first-hand from the far north. More here in the blog.

Approach to Isafjordur: Beginning of the Jan Mayen adventure.

Arktis Blog: Anflug Ísafjörður

MS Langøysund believed to pay illegally low wages

MS Langøysund is a day trip boat operating every summer from Longyearbyen in the Isfjord area. Every day from June to September, it is sailing to Barentsburg or Pyramiden, passing highlights of nature including glaciers and bird cliffs.

The ongoing season is, so far, not going too well for Langøysund and the owner company. A few weeks ago, the ship ran aground in Borebukta. The hull was damaged and the passengers had to continue their journey back to Longyearbyen on another ship. At least it did not take too long before Langøysund was repared and cleared for sailing again.

Now, the owner company, Henningsen Transport og Guiding (HTG) in Longyearbyen, is facing accusations of paying illegal low wages to the crew. Already in April, the responsible union (Norsk Sjømannsforbund) had to take action to make sure the crew, which is largely of Philippine nationality, is getting Norwegian contract, as required by Norwegian law for any ship sailing under Norwegian flag.

During a control in Longyearbyen it turned out that the crew has got Norwegian contracts, but is not getting the wages according to it. According to contract and Norwegian law, the minimum wage for crew on ships under Norwegian flag is 5,000 US-$ plus overtime pay, which can be expected to be significant. But according to Norsk Sjømannsforbund, the crew see hardly 1,500 US-$. Cooperation with the Philippines is difficult for the union, as they fear to be black-listed by their contracting agency even if their wages are, in theory, guaranteed by law.

According to the owner, HTG, the contract partner of the crew members is an agency in Manila, which is receiving payment from HTG to distribute it to the individual crew members. HTG states that contract and payment are correct and does not consider to provide documentation of payment to Norsk Sjømannsforbund as required. The union has set a deadline which ran out today (Thursday) at 9 a.m. As Norsk Sjømannsforbund has not received any payment documentation, they have now announced to arrest the ship.

HTG is facing similar accusations on MS Billefjord, another day trip boat, new in the business in Spitsbergen. In this case, HTG is not the owner, but largely responsible for the management.

MS Langøysund in Ymerbukta. Is the crew getting illegal low wages?

MS Langøysund, Ymerbukta

Source: Norsk Sjømannsforbund

Surge of ice cap Austfonna: time lapse video

Parts of Austfonna, the large ice cap on Nordaustland, have recently advanced rapidly or “surged”, as scientists call this behaviour, which is caused by glacier dynamics rather than climate change. See Austfonna: an ice cap on the move, Spitsbergen-Svalbard.com news earlier in June.

The Norwegian Polar Institute has published a time lapse video composed of about 1000 single satellite images that visualizes the surge of Austfonna impressively. Parts of the glacier front advanced more than 4 kilometres. The surge culminated in 2012.

More about surging glaciers in general and Austfonna in Rocks and Ice.

The surge of an ice cap of the size of Austfonna has consequences. It is currently by the largest contributor to global sea level rise in the whole Spitsbergen archipelago, with a contribution outweighing all other glaciers in Svalbard together. Locally, it may cause hazards to navigation: the density of icebergs is increased, and the pushing glacier front may have changed sea bottom topography.

Time-lapse video composed of about 1000 satellite images, showing the surge of Austfonna (© Norwegian Polar Institute, Screenshot). Click here to see the video on Youtube.

Surge Austfonna

Source: Norwegisches Polarinstitut

Fredheim: virtual tour through Spitsbergen’s most famous trapper hut

Fredheim, Spitsbergen’s most famous trapper hut, is now accessible online in shape of a virtual tour. The wooden hut, with a luxurious two floors, was built and used by the legendary Norwegian hunter Hilmar Nøis. It is beautifully situated in Tempelfjord, but difficult to reach outside the snow mobile season, and if you manage to get there, then you will face closed doors.

Now it is possible to visit every room in Villa Fredheim (including the two adjacent huts) any time from anywhere without any effort: In late March, I have had the opportunity to panorama-photograph Fredheim in detail, and I have put the results together to create a virtual tour, which is now online, making it possible to visit Fredheim inside, every room. The tour runs automatically like a film; alternatively, it is possible to select individual rooms (panoramas). Short explanatory texts give some background information and stories from the wild years of the trappers in Spitsbergen.

The local newspaper Svalbardposten has already turned their readers’ attention to this possibility to visit Fredheim online. More than 1000 virtual visitors have been there within a few days, more than visited Fredheim physically at the “open day” that is held there twice during the winter season: the only possibility for the public so far to get some inside impressions from Fredheim.

Enjoy – this is the way to Fredheim 🙂

Fredheim, Hilmar Nøis’ in Tempelfjord, is not easy to get to and locked. But it is now possible to visit the famous hut virtually.

Fredheim virtual tour

The Ocean Cleanup: solution for the global plastic pollution problem

Plastic pollution in the oceans is one of the truly threatening problems for the environment on a global scale, including the Arctic. You can see amazing amounts of plastics on many of Spitsbergen’s beaches, a lot from fisheries, but also everyday use plastic items including toothbrushes, lighters, bottles and so on and so forth. The list is endless. For an impression, have a look at the famous photos taken by photographer Chris Jordan on the remote Midway Islands in the Pacific: Albatross chicks who died with a stomach filled of plastic garbage, because it looked like food to their parents.

On almost every trip in Spitsbergen, we collect several cubic metres of plastic garbage from remote beaches, which has led to visible improvements in many places over the years (and by the way, nobody has the capacity to collect comparable amounts of plastics in such remote areas as tourist ships!). This is good, but obviously not the solution to a global problem.

Some impressions of plastic pollution on Spitsbergen’s beaches, from Bear Island in the south to Nordaustland in the far northeast, and of our efforts to clean some of these beaches.

Click on thumbnail to open an enlarged version of the specific photo.

Every day, plastic pollution is killing large numbers of fish, seabirds, mammals (from seals to dolphins and whales) and turtles in the world’s oceans. And probably even worse, once waves and UV radiation have grind the plastics down into microscopic particles, plankton is eating it, thus incorporating plastic in the food chain, where it is enriched on every trophic level upwards.

To really do something about plastic pollution, it would be necessary to:

  • use much less plastic items in our everyday life. This is for everybody. How often do you throw a plastic bag away after having used it only once?
  • replace plastics with bio-degredable materials. Next to consumers, industry, science and politics all need to do their homework to achieve this.
  • reduce the incredible amounts of plastics already present in the world’s oceans today. And this is where it is currently getting interesting: after several years of work, The Ocean Cleanup has published a feasibility report, introducing a realistic concept to remove plastic pollution from the ocean on a globally relevant scale. The main idea is to let the currents do the main work: install shallow barriers that catch plastics and concentrate them so they are relatively easy to remove from the water. The water and animals keep drifting under the barrier to reduce by-catch. Costs are estimated at 4.50 Euro per kg plastic or 33 times less than other methods available, according to The Ocean Cleanup. The project claims that it should be possible to reduce the amount of plastics floating in the infamous Pacific Garbage Patch by 50 % over 10 years at costs small compared to the damage done by the plastics both to marine ecosystems and economies.

The impression remains that The Ocean Project is likely able to make a significant contribution to the solution of an urgent global problem, at a price more than reasonable. To lift the project up to the next level, 2 million dollars are to be collected via crowdfunding. At the time of writing (18 June), more than half a million have already been donated. The present author and owner of this website has already made his contribution and asks the reader kindly to consider a donation. If you have seen the amounts of plastics on remote beaches in Spitsbergen or elsewhere or if you have seen Chris Jordan’s above-mentioned photos, they you are probably happy to support The Ocean Cleanup. Click here to get to The Ocean Cleanup crowdfunding website.

And remember a cotton bag for your next shopping trip … 🙂

Crew and passengers of SV Antigua collecting plastic garbage in Woodfjord, north Spitsbergen. This is done on almost every trip, also by other ships.

Collecting plastic garbage, Mushamna (Spitsbergen)

Source: The Ocean Cleanup

Communication breakdown in Spitsbergen

It was a drastic experience which made pretty clear how remote and potentially vulnerable the communities in Spitsbergen still are: on Monday, almost 2 weeks ago (02 June), the communication between Spitsbergen and the outside world broke completely down for a couple of hours.

Some years ago, fibre cables between Spitsbergen and Norway have replaced earlier communication systems. The need to transfer large data volumes that come from satellite antennas near Longyearbyen (SvalSat, the white balls on Platåberget above the airport) to customers including ESA and NASA has made the cables necessary.

The high technology superfast connection failed completely on said Monday: the whole traffic between Spitsbergen and the rest of the world went down for several hours because of a problem in a relay station in Andenes (Vesterålen, north Norway), where the fibre cable reaches the mainland. The whole technical infrastructure is double to compensate for technical problems with parts of the system, but this time, the whole thing was dead for a while.

This did not just cut Longyearbyens inhabitants off from telephone and internet, but it made it impossible to reach police, rescue services and other vital services and infrastructure and it largely shut down internal communication within these bodies. The hospital in Longyearbyen relies on communication with the university hospital in Tromsø and the constant availability of air transport of patients to mainland Norway in difficult cases. Satellite phones were quickly put into use, but they require a view to the sky without any obstructions, which does not exactly apply to a medical doctor’s work place. Plus, there are many of them in Longyearbyen, and also this line of communication turned out unable to serve the amount of traffic: it was at times simply impossible to get through. Even in normal times, satellite phones are not exactly reliable.

The problem was solved after a few hours, but it made the potential for disaster quite clear. Especially representatives of vital infrastructure and public services such as police, rescue service and hospital made it clear that the availability of communication is of high importance for public safety and health.

Telenor, the Norwegian provider of communication services and infrastructure, is now working with authorities to make sure this does not happen again. But there is now talking about leaving some of the good old landline phones in place. Longyearbyen, because of its size, technical infrastructure and political circumstances a very modern place, is intended to be one of the first places in Norway without a landline phone system, where all communication is based on a mobile grid. The recent incident will be part of this debate, that’s for sure.

Works always: fire- and explosion-proof phone in Barentsburg. The problem is, you won’t get far with it …

Telephone, Barentsburg

Source: Svalbardposten

Austfonna: an ice cap on the move

The ice cap Austfonna is covering large parts of Nordaustland, the second-largest island in the Spitsbergen archipelago. The total surface area of Austfonna, actually a composite of several smaller ice caps, is more than 8400 square kilometres.

For decades, Austfonna was considered to be relatively stable: it did not suffer massive loss of volume as many other glaciers in Spitsbergen and elsewhere in the Arctic. More recently, marginal parts were thinning while central parts were gaining thickness, a behaviour known to prepare a surge if it lasts for some time. A surge is a sudden advance where a glacier can move forward over many kilometres within a year or two, it is a result of glacier mechanics and not of climate variations (see Rocks and Ice for more about glaciers and surges). Also parts of Austfonna are known to have surged in the past, for example Bråsvellbreen, the southern part of the ice cap, in the 1930s.

Information from satellite images has now yielded evidence for increased velocity over large parts of Austfonna. The ice cap is pushing into the Barents Sea, producing vast amounts of icebergs and thus contributing significantly to global sea level rise, currently more than all other glaciers in Spitsbergen together. Nevertheless, scientists involved in observing Austfonna assume it will increase its volume in the years to come.

AECO, the arctic expedition cruise organization, has issued a warning to navigate carefully in these waters, as larger numbers of icebergs than usual and changes of the glaciated coastline have to be expected.

Such an event, where an ice cap of thousands of square kilometres starts to move more rapidly, is unique during the period of detailed scientific observation and regular touristic access. The recent observation is based on data from the European satellite Sentinel-1a. One reason these data have drawn more than just a little bit of attention is the fact that the satellite had, at the time in question, not even fully reached its orbit, but was nevertheless able to produce high quality data.

The ice cap Austfonna on Nordaustland has started to move more rapidly on large parts of its huge area.

Austfonna

Source: BBC News.

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