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Home → January, 2020

Monthly Archives: January 2020 − News & Stories


Polar bear again seen in Bolterdalen

Outdoor folks who want to get out near Longyearbyen can not yet return back to normal (whatever that means in Spitsbergen anyway). The polar bear that gave a group of tourists and guides with dog sledges a good adrenalin rush on Wednesday was seen again yesterday (Thursday) afternoon.

On Wednesday, the bear was pushed up Bolterdalen and into Tverrdalen by the Sysselmannen’s helicopter. The hope was that it would, after a rest, continue southwards. But the bear obviously had different ideas and returned to Bolterdalen, where it was met Thursday afternoon on Scott Turnerbreen (-glacier) by Tommy Jordbrudal and his colleague. Tommy has been running a small company offering dog sledge trips in that area for many years and was out to check the conditions on the glacier, which is a popular destination for dog sledge excursions. Scott Turnerbreen has an accessible ice cave and the area is largely snow-mobile free: only locals are allowed to drive there with snow mobiles and even for them Bolterdalen and a wide area around it are off limits for motorised traffic from 01 March every year, meaning that locals and tourists can enjoy a silent area for silent excursions by ski or dog sledge.

But polar bears are not banned from the area, so Tommy and his colleage suddenly had a polar bear just a few metres away from them, investigating their snow mobile. Even a warning shot with a revolver did not make much of an impression on the bear.

Bolterdalen

Bolterdalen (seen from Soleietoppen): currently not a polar-bear-free area.
Scott Turnerbreen on the left hand side.

Tommy has been running trips in Bolterdalen for 12 years now, so during the season he and his guides are there on a very regularly basis and he says that he has never seen a polar bear track or even a bear there before. Now the Sysselmannen went out again by helicopter, trying to sort the situation out.

This author hopes that he does not have to write again about incidents where life, human or animal, came to any harm.

Norwegian government wants to discuss certification requirements for guides

The discussion about formal requirements for guides is not new, but it has now got a significant boost as the Norwegian government has declared a need for this discussion.

“Guide” is, so far, not a formally qualified profession. There are efforts, private and industry-based, to introduce certification for guides, but until now, basically everybody can come, claim to be a guide and try to find work. This has actually worked well over many years as a limited number of tourists was met by an also limited but sufficiently large number of guides who were enthusiasts of the outdoors and had, as such, built up sufficient knowledge, skills and experience to lead tourists in arctic nature, summer or winter, by ski, dog sledge, snow mobile, boat, ship, hiking, whatever.

But times have changed. Recent years have seen a number of new companies who want their share of the tourism market in the Arctic, often in the attractive day trip market in Longyearbyen’s surroundings. A “market”: that’s what it is now, a market with a huge turnover where a lot of money is made by some. Not a niche anymore where a limited number of enthusiasts find their way of life with a lot of personal idealism and effort. Of course they still exist, but the total picture is by now far more complex.

The grown and still growing market implies an increased need for guides, and it is not just a few observers who are not always satisfied with the level of knowledge, experience and skill that they see.

Tourists with guides: snow mobile group, Colesdalen

Tourist group with guide in Colesdalen: guide is, so far, an open profession.

This is not just annoying, but may also be dangerous. In Spitsbergen, guides handle weapons, boats, snow mobiles and dog sledges on a regular basis, they deal with arctic weather, have to expect meeting a polar bear at any time in the field and take responsibility for the safety of people in these conditions. Additionally, guides are a key factor when it comes to environmental issues. It is fully possible to visit cultural heritage sites, observe wildlife and walk in the nature without destroying or disturbing anything, but the opposite may also happen and competent leadership out in the field is key in this context.

Seen in this light, one may wonder why certification requirements for guides have not already been introduced a long time ago, also as an alternative to closing sites and even large areas, as was discussed no less than a good 10 years ago. Even the local industry sector organisation Visit Svalbard has now expressed themselves positively towards this issue – of course expecting to be part of such a process. Everybody in the business knows that for example a serious accidents would do harm not only to those directly involved but to the whole industry if it turns out that lack of qualification on behalf of the guides was a factor.

Safety and environmental matters are issues that local guides have also been aware of for quite a while, according to the Svalbard Guide Association. And of course “old” guides with years of solid experience are not always happy when young colleages without relevant experience and skills come and take their jobs, an issue that is relevant not only for environmental and safety concerns but also when it comes to working conditions in the industry.

Spitsbergen’s glacier will, however, probably still lose a good bit of ice until requirements for guide certification has been formalised on a legal level: The Norwegian government’s recent press release just indicated a need to discuss the issue. There are still a lot of practical questions to be answered regarding the qualification and certifaction process.

Close encounter with polar bear in Bolterdalen

Yet again, a polar bear has been in the area near Longyearbyen. This time, it was not just tracks in the snow, but a very close encounter of a group of 4 dog sledges with guides and tourists in Bolterdalen. The group was returning from Scott Turnerbreen, a glacier that is a popular destination for (half) day trips by dog sledge, to the dogyard of Green Dog in Bolterdalen close to Adventdalen. Suddenly the bear was standing on a terrace next to the route, much to everybodies surprise, probably including the bear. The bear came and sniffed on the dogs of the first sledge, while the tourists on the sledge – a woman and her 11 year old daughter – were watching. The guide, Marcel Starinsky from Slovakia, realised that he did not even have time to get is rifle ready. Instead, he grabbed a piece of rope and gave the bear a slab on the nose. Then, the bear went a bit away, passed the other sledges and disappeared in the darkness. The whole event took probably less than a minute, as the guides told Svalbardposten later.

The group then returned to the dogyard and guides and tourists took their time together to digest this very unusual experience. As far as known, everybody had his or her nerves under control during the event and according to Marcel Starinsky and his colleague, Daniel Stilling Germer from Denmark, the bear did not show any signs of aggression. It would be interesting to hear the story from the woman and her daugher on the first sledge. They have certainly got a story to tell now.

Polar night

Out on tour in darkness and snow.
It can be virtually impossible to see what is going on nearby.

Later, the polar bear was again seen near the dogyard, but was then driven away by the Sysselmannen’s helicopter through Bolterdalen and towards Reindalen.

It is hard to say if this bear had anything to do with the tracks that were recently seen on Longyearbreen. These tracks were followed by the Sysselmannen the west, up to Kapp Laila in Colesbukta, whereas the bear in the event narrated here is assumed to have come from Adventdalen, from the east. This at least suggests that it is not one and the same animal.

Polar bear track near Longyearbyen

A polar bear track has been found on Longyearbreen (-glacier) close to Longyearbyen, according to the local newspaper Svalbardposten. It is very unlikely that the track is from the bear that has kept people in Longyearbyen excited in late December and was then shot on 01 January: meanwhile, there have been windy weather and snowfall, so the recently discovered tracks are very likely younger. This means that there was again a polar bear close to Longyearbyen and it might still be around.

Common sense and the Sysselmannen tell everybody in and near Longyearbyen to be alert and take care.

Polar bear tracks

Polar bear tracks (archive image; it is dark now in Spitsbergen 🙂 ).

As expected, the discussion around the bear that was shot in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day in Hanaskogdalen, about 10 kilometres away from Longyearbyen, is highly controversial. Norwegian officials confirm that they had to shoot the bear in order to guarantee the safety of the people in Longyearbyen especially during the dark season as this animal was not shy anymore and did not hesitate to go near and even enter the settlement. Others, such as the Russian polar bear scientist Nikita Ovsyanikov who has gathered a lot of experience with polar bears in the Russian Arctic, even speak of “murder” and accuse the Syssselmannen of not having used all options to scare the bear away permanently. Here, Ovsyanikov mentions pepper spray which is not a common polar bear deterrent in Norwegian territories, it is actually not even legal accessible for mere mortals under Norwegian legislation. An interesting discussion and it would certainly be interesting to investigate further non-lethal techniques to scare polar bears away from settlements, a field where a lot might be learnt from people like Ovsyanikov. Pepper spray might certainly expand the range of options of Norwegian police when it comes to non-lethal polar bear deterrents and there are those who say that it might also have a place in a wide context. Private persons might use it, for example, from the relative safety of a hut or even a tent, something that would, however, require knowledge and nerves that not everybody has.

To make it clear again: pepper spray is currently not legal in Norway including Spitsbergen and this is unlikely to change at any time soon.

100 years ago: Spitsbergen’s largest mining accident

Spitsbergen’s largest mining disaster ever took place exactly 100 years ago, 03 January 1920, in mine 1 in Longyear City. The mine is today mostly known as the “American mine” and Longyear City is called Longyearbyen since 1926. Mine 1 was in operation from 1906, when Longyear City was founded by the American Arctic Coal Company, founded and owned by John Munro Longyear. In 1916, Longyear sold his property to the Norwegian company Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani, known as Store Norske, short SNSK. Store Norske continued to produce coal in mine 1 (later called mine 1a, as there was a mine 1b in operation from 1939 above Sverdrupbyen, the southernmost part of Longyearbyen).

Mine 1 (American mine), Longyearbyen

Mine 1, known as “American mine”, above the church in Longyearbyen.
26 miners died here during a coal dust explosion in 1920.

Mine 1 exploded in the early morning hours of 03 January 1920. It was a coal dust explosion that killed 26 miners. There were only eight survivors, two of them injured. Blasting is supposed to have ignited the coal dust. The explosion was so strong that a pit pony is said to have been blown out of the mine and across the valley!

This accident was a catastrophe for the small mining settlement Longyear City/Longyearbyen, which was back then completely isolated during the polar night. Darkness and bad weather made rescue operations difficult. Mine 1 was closed after the accident.

With 26 victims, this accident remains the largest catastrophe related to mining ever in Spitsbergen (the explosion in the Esther mine in Ny-Ålesund on 05 November 1962 killed 21 miners).

Miners' memorial, Longyearbyen

Memorial for those miners who died during their work for Store Norske from 1916.
Mine 1 is visible in the upper right corner.

A memorial was erected in 2016 near the road below mine 1. It is dedicated to those miners who died during their work for Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani since the company bought Longyear City in 1916. Today, 100 years after the accident of 03 January 1916, a ceremony will be held here to commemorate those who died in Spitsbergen’s largest mining accident.

Shot polar bear was already flown out in 2016

The polar bear that was shot on New Year’s Day at 4 a.m. turned out to be an old acquaintance. It was a seven year old male.

Dead polar bear, New Year's Day 2020

The polar bear that was shot on New Year’s Day 2020. Photo © Sysselmannen på Svalbard.

As it turned out, it was the same bear that was around Longyearbyen for several days in April 2016. Personally, I had a little meeting with this very bear in mid April back then as I stepped out of a hut in Sassenfjord and noticed this bear not far away at all. It had also noticed me and was already on the run. Most likely, it was the same bear that was shot yesterday. Back then, it was seen several times near various huts.

Polar bear, Diabasodden

Better days: the bear is running away after a brief, harmless encounter in Sassenfjord.
It was very likely the animal that was shot on New Year’s Day 2020.

A few days later, mid-day on 22 April 2016, this bear was suddenly seen near the shore in Adventdalen, an area that is frequented by large numbers of snow-mobile tourists, skiers and dog sledges. Back then, the bear was aanaesthetised and flown out to Kinnvika on Nordaustland, a good 200 km away from Longyearbyen.

Polar bear, Adventdalen

The polar bear on 22 April 2016, sleeping peacefully in Adventdalen near Longyearbyen.
It is the same bear that was shot on New Year’s Day 2020.

So this bear showed up again just after Christmas 2019, after three and a half years, near and even within Longyearbyen. Several attempts to scare it away with helicopters and other means failed in the end, and the Sysselmannen decided to kill this bear. This happened in Hanaskogdalen, about seven kilometers north of Longyearbyen.

Aggressive behaviour of this bear towards humans is, as of now, not publically known.

Polar bear, Adventdalen

In April 2016, the bear was anaesthetised and flown out.

Also this time it was considered to anaesthetise the bear and fly it out then. According to official statements, the lack of experts in Longyearbyen due to the Christmas holidays was the main reason why this did not happen.

It is not surprising that the killing of the bear is now met with a lot of criticism and a controversial, partly heated, debate in social media.

Polar bear shot near Longyearbyen

The new year starts with sad news: the polar bear that had been seen several times close to and within Longyearbyen was shot on New Year’s Day at 04 a.m. by police forces (Sysselmannen).

Just after midnight, the bear had been seen in Adventdalen close to the settlement after it had disappeared in Bjørndalen in bad weather on Saturday. It seems as if the Sysselmannen initially managed to scare it away from Longyearbyen last night.

Polar bear, central Longyearbyen

Polar bear in central Longyearbyen (Thursday morning).
Photo © Sysselmannen på Svalbard.

The bear was shot in Hanaskogdalen, on the north side of Adventdalen, at 04 a.m. According to a press release by the Sysselmannen, the bear was not shot in a acute situation. The behaviour of the bear, which had been seen four times close to or even within the settlement area, had been considered and the official conclusion was that authorities were not able to guarantee public safety with the available forces anymore.

The option to tranquilize the bear and to aenesthetise the bear to fly it out to somewhere more remote had also been considered, but discarded due to the lack of absense of specialists who were not in Longyearbyen at that time due to the Christmas holidays.

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