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Monthly Archives: October 2019 − News

Spits­ber­gen-rein­de­er: new and com­ple­te popu­la­ti­on count

The Spits­ber­gen-rein­de­er, also known as Sval­bard-rein­de­er, has seen a lot of ups and downs sin­ce it came to Spits­ber­gen from the Rus­si­an Arc­tic thousands of years ago. It beca­me a sub-spe­ci­es on its own which is not found any­whe­re out­side Sval­bard. Nevertheless, it was hun­ted almost to extinc­tion until it was final­ly pro­tec­ted by the Nor­we­gi­an government in 1925 – soon after the Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty had given Nor­way the power to do this. Esti­ma­tes of the rein­de­er popu­la­ti­on from the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry are a mere 1000 ani­mals – for the who­le Spits­ber­gen archi­pe­la­go!

Spitsbergen-reindeer: strong males, Straumsland

Spits­ber­gen-rein­de­er: two strong males. Straum­s­land, east Spits­ber­gen.

Spits­ber­gen rein­de­er can disper­se, and while doing so, they can cross gla­ciers, solid fjord ice and even drif­ting sea ice. Other­wi­se, they would obvious­ly never have made it to Spits­ber­gen in the first place. But as long as they are hap­py in a given area, they tend to stay whe­re they are, so it can take many deca­des until they re-popu­li­se remo­te are­as whe­re they beca­me extinct in the past.

The local popu­la­ti­ons are sub­ject to strong dyna­mics. Wea­ther extre­mes are an important fac­tor: in bad years, when strong rain­fall on snow-cove­r­ed ground in the win­ter with sub­se­quent free­zing covers the tun­dra with a lay­er of ice, many rein­de­er can star­ve to death later when the fat reser­ves are used up and the vege­ta­ti­on is still under ice. This is espe­cial­ly the case when the popu­la­ti­on is actual­ly alrea­dy too big for the area. In Advent­da­len near Lon­gye­ar­by­en, the popu­la­ti­on has dou­bled in the last 10 years.

Other rein­de­er may die during acci­dents in steep and slip­pe­ry ter­rain after win­ter rain­fall. In the win­ter of 2018-2019, several rein­de­er died in the vicini­ty of Lon­gye­ar­by­en, whe­re strong rain­fall occur­red in Decem­ber. Some had obvious­ly fal­len down steep slo­pes, while have pro­bab­ly star­ved to death later. In such cases, local popu­la­ti­ons may expe­ri­ence a signi­fi­cant decre­a­se. If such epi­so­des hap­pen several times over sub­se­quent years, it may even lead to local exc­tinc­tion. The event of the 2018-19 did, howe­ver, not have signi­fi­cant con­se­quen­ces for the local popu­la­ti­on.

dead Spitsbergen-rindeer

Dead Spits­ber­gen-rein­de­er at Ope­raf­jel­let, east of Lon­gye­ar­by­en:
the exact cau­se of death is unknown, but eit­her fal­ling down from a steep, icy slo­pe or star­va­ti­on are likely.

On the other hand, the popu­la­ti­on may incre­a­se again quick­ly in good years. In spring 2017, for examp­le, rein­de­er in Advent­da­len incre­a­sed quick­ly again in num­bers due to favoura­ble con­di­ti­ons.

Next to wea­ther fluc­tua­tions, cli­ma­te chan­ge is an important fac­tor on a lon­ger time sca­le, moving from mon­ths and sin­gle years (wea­ther) up to deca­des (cli­ma­te): an incre­a­sing fre­quen­cy of strong win­ter rain­fall may make life more dif­fi­cult for rein­de­er, while more luxu­rious growth of tun­dra vege­ta­ti­on can pro­vi­de more food, sup­por­ting a big­ger popu­la­ti­on. Cur­r­ent­ly it seems as if Spits­ber­gen rein­de­er bene­fit from incre­a­sed vege­ta­ti­on growth at least in some are­as. On top of that comes the popu­la­ti­on reco­very after the ban on hun­ting in 1925, a deve­lo­p­ment that is pro­bab­ly still going on as rein­de­er con­ti­nue to move back to are­as whe­re the­re were no rein­de­er in deca­des during the 20th cen­tu­ry.

It beco­mes evi­dent that rein­de­er popu­la­ti­on dyna­mics are a com­plex mat­ter which is influ­en­ced by a num­ber of fac­tors. Rea­son enough to have a good look at the cur­rent popu­la­ti­on. Ear­lier esti­ma­tes whe­re rather frag­men­tal in space and time. Now, a team of sci­en­tists made a pro­per cen­sus for the who­le Sval­bard archi­pe­la­go. Pro­per counts whe­re com­ple­ted with distance sam­pling of tran­sects whe­re necessa­ry to cover lar­ge and most­ly rather inac­ces­si­ble are­as. The group around bio­lo­gist Mat­hil­de Le Moul­lec has now publis­hed their results in The Jour­nal of Wild­life Manage­ment.

Spitsbergen-reindeer, Krossfjord

Unusual­ly lar­ge group of rein­de­er in Krossfjord, an area whe­re rein­de­er did not exist during deca­des or even cen­tu­ries.

The key mes­sa­ge: the total popu­la­ti­on of rein­de­er in Sval­bard is now esti­ma­ted at a good 22,000 ani­mals. The “exact” num­ber is 22,435, with a 95% con­fi­dence inter­val from 21,452 to 23,425. In 2009, the num­ber was still esti­ma­ted bet­ween 10,000 and 11,000. Today’s lar­ger num­ber may at least part­ly have to do with an actual­ly incre­a­sed popu­la­ti­on, inclu­ding an incre­a­se in popu­la­ti­on becau­se of reco­very from past exces­si­ve hun­ting, as a con­se­quence of pro­tec­tion in 1925, but the bet­ter qua­li­ty and the more com­ple­te spa­ti­al approach are cer­tain­ly also likely to be a signi­fi­cant fac­tor influ­en­cing the now updated num­bers.

Today, rein­de­er are even found again in remo­te are­as as Kong Karls Land, whe­re they did not occur over lon­ger peri­ods, alt­hough they exis­ted the­re befo­re Euro­peans star­ted to fre­quent Spits­ber­gen in 1596, when Wil­lem Bar­entsz dis­co­ve­r­ed the islands.

The popu­la­ti­on den­si­ty varies a lot bet­ween dif­fe­rent are­as. Vege­ta­ti­on is belie­ved to be a key fac­tor. In some are­as, they may be up to 10 rein­de­er per squa­re kilo­met­re – local­ly, even more – while one ani­mal will need the same area or more on its own to find enough food in spar­se­ly vege­ta­ted are­as such as the polar desert land­s­cape of Nord­aus­t­land.

The recent stu­dy was publis­hed on 04 Octo­ber: Mat­hil­de Le Moul­lec et al (2019), A Cen­tu­ry of Con­ser­va­ti­on: The Ongo­ing Reco­very of Sval­bard Rein­de­er. In: The Jour­nal of Wild­life Manage­ment, Vol. 83, 1676-1686.

Fine for dis­tur­ban­ce of polar bears in Tem­pel­fjord

A man from Lon­gye­ar­by­en got a fine of 15,000.00 kro­ner (ca. 1500 Euro) becau­se he dis­tur­bed polar bears during a pri­va­te snow mobi­le tour in Tem­pel­fjord in 10 March, 2018. He is said to have approa­ched the bear with the snow mobi­le to a distance of 70 metres so the bears were visi­b­ly dis­tur­bed and moved away.

The inci­dent was seen by wit­nes­ses who were out on tour on the neigh­bou­ring moun­tain Fjord­nib­ba. The man was soon stop­ped by field poli­ce. A second man who was also invol­ved could not be iden­ti­fied.

Becau­se of the incre­a­se of snow mobi­le traf­fic, the Sys­sel­man­nen has announ­ced to take strong action in such cases to make it clear bey­ond any doubt that the pro­tec­tion of the wild­life is of hig­hest prio­ri­ty. In the cur­rent case, the fine has been impo­sed by the sta­te advo­ca­te in north Nor­way, as reve­a­led by the Sys­sel­man­nen.

The case cau­sed some deba­te in social net­works in Lon­gye­ar­by­en. Only a few days later the fjord ice in Tem­pel­fjord, until then a popu­lar desti­na­ti­on both for locals and tou­rists, was clo­sed for most moto­ri­sed traf­fic.

Eisbären Tempelfjord

Polar bears in Tem­pel­fjord (or else­whe­re, for that mat­ter): any dis­tur­ban­ce is strict­ly for­bid­den.

Accord­ing to the Spits­ber­gen envi­ron­men­tal law (Sval­bard­mil­jøl­ov kapit­tel IV § 30) “it is for­bid­den to attract, to fol­low or seek out by any acti­ve act, polar bears so the­se could be dis­tur­bed or the­re may be dan­ger for humans or polar bears (ori­gi­nal text: Det er for­budt å lok­ke til seg, for­føl­ge eller ved annen aktiv hand­ling opp­sø­ke isbjørn slik at den blir forstyr­ret eller det kan opps­tå fare for men­nes­ker eller isbjørn.)

Nor­th­gui­der: sal­va­ging ope­ra­ti­on post­po­ned until 2020

The sal­va­ging ope­ra­ti­on of the shrimp traw­ler Nor­th­gui­der, that ran aground at Spar­ren­e­set in Hin­lo­penstre­tet in Sval­bard in the end of Decem­ber 2019, tur­ned out to be more dif­fi­cult than expec­ted, as repor­ted recent­ly. Now it has been deci­ded that fur­ther ope­ra­ti­ons are post­po­ned until 2020, accord­ing to a press release from Kyst­ver­ket, the Nor­we­gi­an coas­tal and mari­ti­me aut­ho­ri­ty.

Due to the new infor­ma­ti­on about the hull being more stron­gly dama­ged than thought befo­re, new plan­ning is nee­ded and pro­bab­ly new tech­no­lo­gy, while the polar night is about to start in the­se lati­tu­des.


Groun­ded shrimp traw­ler Nor­th­gui­der at Spar­ren­e­set in Hin­lo­penstre­tet, august 2019.

In other words: not­hing will hap­pen with the wreck of the Nor­th­gui­der, which is still sit­ting on rocks just off the shore of Nord­aus­t­land, befo­re the sum­mer of 2020 – or, rather, not­hing other than what the for­ces of natu­re, ice and wea­ther, will do with the wreck. If the­re is then anything left to be sal­va­ged in 2020 is some­thing that only time can tell.

Sal­va­ging Nor­th­gui­der pro­ves more dif­fi­cult

Sal­va­ging the shrimp traw­ler Nor­th­gui­der, which ran aground in Hin­lo­penstre­tet in Decem­ber last year, has tur­ned out to be more dif­fi­cult than thought befo­re, as the Nor­we­gi­an coas­tal admin­stra­ti­on aut­ho­ri­ty Kyst­ver­ket reports in a press release. The hull is more severely dama­ged than expec­ted which makes the ope­ra­ti­on accord­ing to the initi­al plan impos­si­ble.

Nor­th­gui­der ran aground in late Decem­ber 2018 at Spar­ren­e­set south of Murchi­son­fjord. The ship owner is requi­red to remo­ve the wreck wit­hin 2019, but this is now beco­m­ing doubt­ful: the polar night is soon to start, the sun will not rise abo­ve the hori­zon any­mo­re for 4 mon­ths from late Octo­ber. Ship­ping is not impos­si­ble during the dark sea­son, but if a com­pli­ca­ted sal­va­ging ope­ra­ti­on can be car­ri­ed out safe­ly and suc­cess­ful­ly without day­light is an ent­i­re­ly dif­fe­rent ques­ti­on.


Sal­va­ging ves­sels and the groun­ded traw­ler Nor­th­gui­der at Spar­ren­e­set in Hin­lo­penstre­tet, August 2019.

The sal­va­ging ves­sels arri­ved on loca­ti­on only rather late in the sum­mer, and then the ope­ra­ti­on was delay­ed repeated­ly by seve­re ice and wea­ther con­di­ti­ons. Only recent­ly the wreck could be tur­ned into an upright posi­ti­on and then it beca­me appearent that dama­ges on Northguider’s hull are far more exten­si­ve than expec­ted. An area of 12×5 metres is said to be impac­ted.

Now all the play­ers invol­ved, inclu­ding the coast guard, Kyst­ver­ket, the ship owner Opi­lio AS, the insuran­ce com­pa­ny and the sal­va­ging com­pa­ny SMIT Sal­va­ge have to come up with a new plan. It appears rather unli­kely that this will all hap­pen wit­hin 2019. Offi­cials have alrea­dy men­tio­ned post­po­ning the ope­ra­ti­on until 2020 as an opti­on. But if Nor­th­gui­der will still be the­re in the sum­mer of 2020, after mon­ths on end with ice and seve­re wea­ther, and in a con­di­ti­on that allows remo­ving the wreck, will remain an open ques­ti­on until then.

Local government elec­tions in Lon­gye­ar­by­en

A new local government (“Lokals­ty­re”) was elec­ted in Lon­gye­ar­by­en yes­ter­day (Mon­day, Octo­ber 07). The muni­ci­pal coun­cil has 15 mem­bers and elects the Lokals­ty­re­le­der (“mayor”) from the­se mem­bers. Lokals­ty­re admi­nis­tra­tes the area of the com­mu­ni­ty of Lon­gye­ar­by­en, but does not deci­de on the poli­tics in Sval­bard bey­ond Lon­gye­ar­by­en.

Most votes were coun­ted Mon­day evening. The result is not yet final, but major chan­ges are not expec­ted any­mo­re. Accord­ing to the preli­mi­na­ry result, Arbei­der­par­tiet (Ap, labour par­ty, social-demo­cra­tic) recei­ved most votes and will have 5 out of the 15 seats in the future com­mu­ni­ty coun­cil. Venst­re (V, a social-libe­ral par­ty) got a few votes less but will also have 5 “Lokals­ty­re­med­lem­mer” (com­mu­ni­ty coun­cil mem­bers). Høy­re (H, con­ser­va­ti­ve par­ty) and Frems­kritts­par­tiet (right-wing liber­ta­ri­an par­ty) will have 2 seats each. The local branch of Mil­jø­par­tiet De Grøn­ne (green par­ty) recei­ved a rather disap­poin­ting result and will only have 1 seat in the future com­mu­ni­ty coun­cil, some­thing that has cer­tain­ly also to do with their elec­tion cam­pain – not much was heard from Mil­jø­par­tiet De Grøn­ne in Lon­gye­ar­by­en during the mon­ths and weeks befo­re the elec­tions.

Arild Olsen (Ap) has been Lokals­ty­re­le­der (mayor) sin­ce 2015. Both Olsen and Ter­je Aune­vik (V) have chan­ces to take the mayor’s chair in the future com­mu­ni­ty coun­cil.

The voter par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on was 61.7 %. All inha­bi­tants are eli­gi­ble to vote after a cer­tain peri­od which depends on their natio­na­li­ty.

Lon­gye­ar­by­en Lokals­ty­re was estab­lis­hed in 2002, intro­du­cing local demo­cra­cy in Svalbard’s lar­gest sett­le­ment. Lokals­ty­re and the mayor are not to be con­fu­sed with the Sys­sel­man­nen (“gover­nor”), who is the hig­hest repre­sen­ta­ti­ve of the Nor­we­gi­an government. The Sys­sel­man­nen is not elec­ted but appoin­ted by the government in Oslo.

Lokalstyrewahl (elections) in Longyearbyen

Lokals­tyr­e­valg (com­mu­ni­ty coun­cil elec­tions) in Lon­gye­ar­by­en.
The coun­cil meets in “Nærings­by­gg­get” (left).


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