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Monthly Archives: June 2020 − News & Stories

Coro­na: Arc­ti­ca II in August can­cel­led

It is not a good year for tou­rism and this will pro­ba­b­ly not real­ly chan­ge at any time soon, espe­ci­al­ly when it comes to the com­bi­na­ti­on of small ships and remo­te are­as. Even though ship-based tou­rism is now, in theo­ry, pos­si­ble again in Spits­ber­gen under strict con­di­ti­ons and Nor­way is about to open bor­ders again for Euro­pean tou­rists, the con­di­ti­ons are strict and make if very dif­fi­cult, or actual­ly pret­ty much impos­si­ble, to start sai­ling again espe­ci­al­ly with small ships.

Spitsbergen with SY Arctica II: cancelled because of Corona

With Arc­ti­ca II in drift ice near Spits­ber­gen: we would have loved to do that in August. But it won’t hap­pen becau­se of the Coro­na cri­sis.

So, long sto­ry, short mes­sa­ge: now we are sad­ly forced to can­cel also our trip with the sai­ling boat Arc­ti­ca II in August becau­se of Coro­na. All par­ti­ci­pan­ts will asap be cont­ac­ted by the Geo­gra­phi­sche Rei­se­ge­sell­schaft.

Nor­way opens for tou­rists from 15 July

Nor­way wants to open bor­ders for tou­rists from Euro­pe (Schen­gen area/European Eco­no­mic Area) out­side Scan­di­na­via from 15 July. In a press release, the Nor­we­gi­an govern­ment explains that the­re will still be rest­ric­tions: The Nor­we­gi­an Fol­ke­hels­e­insti­tutt (aut­ho­ri­tiy for public health) will moni­tor the Coro­na deve­lo­p­ment in rele­vant count­ries and regi­ons. Tou­rists from are­as with SARS-Coro­na­vi­rus-2 (“Coro­na”) infec­tions abo­ve a cer­tain thres­hold will have to stay in qua­ran­ti­ne for 10 days in Nor­way. Tou­rists who need to stay in qua­ran­ti­ne and who want to tra­vel to Spits­ber­gen have to to their qua­ran­ti­ne on the Nor­we­wi­an main­land and can only tra­vel fur­ther on to Spits­ber­gen when they have done their time.

Also tou­rists from count­ries who do not moni­tor the deve­lo­p­ment appro­pria­te­ly or who do not publish rele­vant data will have to expect such rest­ric­tions.

The Fol­ke­hels­e­insti­tutt publishes a map that shows count­ries in green or red. Tou­rists from count­ries shown in green will be able to enter Nor­way wit­hout qua­ran­ti­ne from 15 July (ear­lier for Scan­di­na­vi­an tou­rists). Curr­ent­ly, the map shows only Scan­di­na­via. An updated ver­si­on inclu­ding all Euro­pean count­ries that are part of the Schen­gen area or Euro­pean Eco­no­mic Area is expec­ted for 10 July. It will be updated at least every 14 days.

Corona-Karte Skandinavien

Map of the Fol­ke­hels­e­insti­tutt: tou­rists from green count­ries may enter Nor­way wit­hout qua­ran­ti­ne. Curr­ent­ly only Scan­di­na­via is shown, Euro­pe will fol­low on 10 July.

Curr­ent­ly, only peo­p­le with spe­cial reasons such as clo­se fami­ly rela­ti­onships, work or pro­per­ty may enter Nor­way under cer­tain regu­la­ti­ons (unless you are Scan­di­na­vi­an but not Swe­dish).

Lethal anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on of polar bear cri­ti­cis­ed by aut­ho­ri­ties

A polar bear was anaes­the­ti­sed and flown out from the Lon­gye­ar­by­en area by the Sys­sel­man­nen ear­lier this year, on 30 Janu­ar. The bear, a young fema­le of only 62 kg, died during the flight. Shock cau­sed by phy­si­cal stress in com­bi­na­ti­on with the anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on was later iden­ti­fied as the cau­se of death. The bear had been cha­sed away from Lon­gye­ar­by­en by heli­c­op­ter for more than two hours befo­re it was put into deep sleep.

Now the case was cri­ti­cis­ed by Mat­til­syn­et, the Nor­we­gi­an aut­ho­ri­ty for food safe­ty, which is also respon­si­ble for ani­mal wel­fa­re inclu­ding anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on (immo­bi­li­sa­ti­on by means of medi­ca­ti­on) of wild ani­mals, as Sval­bard­pos­ten descri­bes with a long artic­le. This is some­thing that hap­pens often in Spits­ber­gen, most­ly in con­nec­tion with rese­arch, some­ti­mes also when the poli­ce (Sys­sel­man­nen) hand­les polar bear near Lon­gye­ar­by­en. The Nor­we­gi­an ani­mal wel­fa­re law is also in force in Spits­ber­gen, but not so the ani­mal health per­so­nell law (Dyrehel­se­per­so­nell­oven). The appli­ca­ti­on of its main prin­ci­ples is, howe­ver, deman­ded by the ani­mal wel­fa­re law.

Mat­til­syn­et has found seve­ral points of cri­ti­cism, also men­tio­ning a lack of com­pe­tence. One point of gene­ral cri­ti­cism is the lack of know­ledge-based rou­ti­nes for cat­ching (anaes­the­ti­sing) polar bears; some­thing that repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te, which is mana­ging the anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on, do not agree with. Both the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te, repre­sen­ted by polar bear rese­ar­cher Jon Aars (who was not invol­ved in the ope­ra­ti­on on 30 Janu­ary) and the Sys­sel­man­nen, repre­sen­ted by envi­ron­men­tal offi­cer Mor­ten Wede­ge, have repli­ed to the cri­ti­cism in Sval­bard­pos­ten.

Ano­ther point of cri­ti­cism is the lack of con­side­ra­ti­on of the phy­si­cal para­me­ters of this par­ti­cu­lar bear befo­re the anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on. Is is in the natu­re of the pro­cess that a polar bear can not be weig­hed befo­re anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on. The one that died in the given case weig­hed only 62 kg and it appears likely that this may have con­tri­bu­ted to the lethal out­co­me. Addi­tio­nal­ly, the­re was no vete­ri­na­ry-medi­cal emer­gen­cy equip­ment available and no asso­cia­ted com­pe­tence to hand­le any emer­gen­cy that might occur under anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­on. Accor­ding to the rep­ly to the cri­ti­cism by the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te, this should, based on expe­ri­ence from thou­sands of anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­ons of polar bears, not have neces­sa­ry. But sci­en­ti­fic anaes­the­ti­sa­ti­ons under much more con­trol­led cir­cum­s­tances, in day­light, with smal­ler heli­c­op­ters and as a mat­ter of choice in each indi­vi­du­al case, so one may ask if this kind of expe­ri­ence is a good basis for decis­ion­ma­king in a case like the one given here.

But this is, as far as known, not fur­ther con­side­red by Mat­til­syn­et. Respon­si­ble regi­on lea­der in north Nor­way Hil­de Haug empha­si­zes that it is their main con­cern to make sure that such cases do not hap­pen again by impro­ving rele­vant rou­ti­nes. In case of future recur­rence, Haug does not want to exclude use of legal­ly bin­ding steps.

Young polar bear

Young polar bear tog­e­ther with its mother. The litt­le bear was about 20 months old at the time the pic­tu­re was taken and its weight was likely well abo­ve 60 kg.

In the Sval­bard­pos­ten artic­le, two vete­ri­na­ri­ans give some inte­res­t­ing insight. It is the­se two who come into ques­ti­on as vets who have pre­scri­bed the medi­ca­ti­on that was used to anaes­the­ti­se („immo­bi­li­ze“) the bear on 30 Janu­ary. But this did not hap­pen in con­nec­tion with the given case: becau­se of the regu­lar use of the drug, most­ly in con­nec­tion with rese­arch and occa­sio­nal­ly in the con­text of poli­ce ope­ra­ti­ons, the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te has a stock in Lon­gye­ar­by­en. In prin­ci­ple, the pre­scrib­ing vete­ri­na­ri­an remains respon­si­ble for the use of the drug in each case, but he/she is usual­ly in prac­ti­ce not invol­ved. Legal­ly, a vet can let a hel­per hand­le the actu­al use of the drug if respon­si­ble. But none of the two vets was cont­ac­ted in con­nec­tion with the ope­ra­ti­on on 30 Janu­ary, and one of them sta­tes that he would have denied use of a drug pre­scri­bed by him in this case.

It is, howe­ver, uncer­tain who of the two actual­ly pre­scri­bed the batch that was used then. Both assu­me that it was not from their respec­ti­ve pre­scrip­ti­on.

It should also be noti­ced that shoo­ting the bear direct­ly would have been a likely alter­na­ti­ve, from the per­spec­ti­ve of the Sys­sel­man­nen.

It is ano­ther aspect that the actu­al medi­ca­ti­on may have been out of date, but this is unli­kely, accor­ding to the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te, and unli­kely to have made a dif­fe­rence, had it inde­ed been the case.

In the press releases during and after the inci­dent, the Sys­sel­man­nen empha­si­zed repea­ted­ly the pre­sence and direct invol­vement of „polar-bear pro­fes­sio­nal spe­cia­list com­pe­tence“ pro­vi­ded by the Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te in the ope­ra­ti­on. No names or pro­fes­si­ons are given, but vete­ri­na­ri­ans are usual­ly not direct­ly invol­ved. Both vete­ri­na­ri­ans who pre­scri­bed the drug expres­sed that they would have app­re­cia­ted to be cont­ac­ted, but this did not hap­pen. Even if it may be impos­si­ble to fly a vet up to Lon­gye­ar­by­en from Trom­sø or else­whe­re in main­land Nor­way in time for such an ope­ra­ti­on, advi­se by tele­pho­ne could have made a dif­fe­rence.

Ever­y­bo­dy invol­ved knows the legal and prac­ti­cal com­ple­xi­ty of such a situa­ti­on and the dif­fi­cul­ty of making decis­i­ons under time pres­su­re and in a situa­ti­on of stress. But it appears fair to con­clude: anaes­the­ti­sing a lar­ge ani­mal such as a polar bear just after having expo­sed it to gre­at phy­si­cal stress over more than 2 hours, wit­hout kno­wing its weight and phy­si­cal con­di­ti­on and wit­hout having vete­ri­na­ry-medi­cal emer­gen­cy equip­ment and a vete­ri­na­ri­an available – that is not exact­ly what many will con­sider respon­si­ble hand­ling of a strict­ly pro­tec­ted ani­mal.

Govern­ment re-opens Spits­ber­gen for crui­se ships

Re-ope­ning Spits­ber­gen for land-based tou­rism is a pro­cess that has alre­a­dy begun. Sin­ce 01 June, visi­tors from main­land Nor­way can tra­vel to Spits­ber­gen again, other Scan­di­na­vi­an count­ries (except Swe­den) will fol­low soon, on 15 June.

At the same time it has, so far, been men­tio­ned that “coas­tal crui­ses” over seve­ral days would take some more time becau­se of their spe­ci­fic chal­lenges. First steps have now been taken to re-open for this kind of tra­vel­ling: accor­ding to a press release by the Nor­we­gi­an minis­try of jus­ti­ce, which is respon­si­ble for Spits­ber­gen, ships may start crui­sing Spits­ber­gen again now under seve­ral con­di­ti­ons. Only ships with a maxi­mum capa­ci­ty of 500 pas­sen­gers are per­mit­ted and they may only use 50 % of their capa­ci­ty. The theo­re­ti­cal maxi­mum num­ber of pas­sen­gers on board is thus limi­t­ed to 250. Only pas­sen­gers from count­ries who­se inha­bi­tants can tra­vel free­ly to Nor­way inclu­ding Spits­ber­gen are allo­wed: this is curr­ent­ly main­land Nor­way and soon also Den­mark, Fin­land and Ice­land.

Hurtigruten Svalbard

“Coas­tal crui­ses” in Spits­ber­gen: now pos­si­ble again – under cer­tain con­di­ti­ons.

As all tour ope­ra­tors who are run­ning land-based tou­rism, a hygie­ne and health safe­ty plan needs to be pre­pared and appro­ved by the aut­ho­ri­ties for every ship, based on gene­ral Coro­na safe­ty gui­de­lines which have been pre­pared by Sval­bard Rei­se­liv, a local tou­rism orga­ni­sa­ti­on, tog­e­ther with rele­vant aut­ho­ri­ties. It remains to be seen which ships will be able to meet the requi­re­ments in terms of mini­mum distances etc.

Ships have to be pre­pared to sail direct­ly to Trom­sø in case of a suspec­ted Covid-19 infec­tion on board, rather than to Lon­gye­ar­by­en.

Pas­sen­gers from count­ries other than the abo­ve-men­tio­ned Scan­di­na­vi­an ones will need some more pati­ence. The Nor­we­gi­an govern­ment has announ­ced to come with infor­ma­ti­on regar­ding a pos­si­ble re-ope­ning of Spits­ber­gen for citi­zens and resi­dents from “neigh­bou­ring” Euro­pean count­ries until 20 July.

Ship-owners and tour ope­ra­tors will have to see if they can actual­ly ope­ra­te with a maxi­mum capa­ci­ty of 50 %.

Polar bear shot on Phippsøya in 2018: no report yet

The case of the polar bear that was shot in late July 2018 on the island of Phippsøya by a crew mem­ber of the Ger­man crui­se­ship Bre­men attrac­ted media and public atten­ti­on around the world.

A team from the ship had gone ashore on Phip­pøya, which belongs to Sjuøya­ne in nor­t­hern­most Sval­bard, to check the site befo­re pas­sen­gers were sche­du­led to come ashore. The dra­ma­tic inci­dent ended with one per­son recei­ving minor head inju­ries and the bear being shot. Pas­sen­gers were not ashore during the inci­dent.

Polar bear shot on Phippsøya, Spitsbergen

Polar bear on Phippsøya, a com­mon landing site, in mid July 2018. It was very likely this bear that was shot in the same place in late July.

Almost two years have gone past now and one may won­der what came out of the who­le thing. The dis­ap­poin­ting inter­me­dia­te result is that the­re is no result yet, as Sval­bard­pos­ten was told on request by the Sys­sel­man­nen. The case was ori­gi­nal­ly hand­led by the Sys­sel­man­nen and then it went to rele­vant aut­ho­ri­ties in main­land Nor­way for fur­ther legal tre­at­ment and from the­re in late 2019 back to the Sys­sel­man­nen. And the­re it still is today. The lar­ge capa­ci­ties absor­bed by the Coro­na cri­sis are said to have play­ed a role in recent months.

So while we still have to wait for con­firm­ed infor­ma­ti­on, we can spe­cu­la­te a bit about some fac­tors that may have con­tri­bu­ted to the tra­gic out­co­me: It is cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble to not see a polar bear that is in the vici­ni­ty in the uneven ter­rain of that par­ti­cu­lar place on Phippsøya even if one is alert. The­re was a car­cass on the beach at that time, and the bear had been retur­ning to that car­cass repea­ted­ly over a lon­ger peri­od to feed on it. The car­cass was lying in the area whe­re landings are com­mon­ly made, but it was hard to see from the distance.

If one hap­pens to go ashore clo­se to the car­cass, then it is cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble that a bear that is in the area, res­t­ing and wai­ting for the appe­ti­te to return, shows a rapid and aggres­si­ve reac­tion.

Again: this is spe­cu­la­ti­on, based on local know­ledge and expe­ri­ence, inclu­ding a sight­ing of a polar bear in this given place in mid-July 2018, which was most likely that par­ti­cu­lar bear that was shot soon the­re­af­ter. Mean­while, we can curious­ly await the report from the Nor­we­gi­an aut­ho­ri­ties to learn more about what actual­ly hap­pen­ed during the inci­dent.

Ava­lan­che acci­dent on Fri­dt­jov­breen in Febru­ary: first report

A first report has been published that sheds some light on the tra­gic ava­lan­che acci­dent that hap­pen­ed on 20 Febru­ary on Fri­dt­jov­breen. The report is writ­ten by a group of peo­p­le from the Arc­tic Safe­ty Cent­re at UNIS, the ava­lan­che group of the local Red Cross and local ava­lan­che obser­vers of the Nor­we­gi­an ava­lan­che war­ning sys­tem, varsom.no; it was published on varsom.no. It is not a report by the Sys­sel­man­nen or other legal or govern­men­tal aut­ho­ri­ty and it does not include a legal assess­ment. The point of the report is to under­stand the acci­dent and to draw con­clu­si­ons to impro­ve safe­ty out in the field.

On 20 Febru­ary, a group of 7, inclu­ding two gui­des from the Rus­si­an Arc­tic Tra­vel Com­pa­ny Gru­mant, left Barents­burg, hea­ding for the gla­cier front of Fri­dt­jov­breen, south of Barents­burg in Van Mijenfjord. The group made a stop at the sou­the­as­tern slo­pe of Mar­cus­senf­jel­let on the hig­her part of Fri­d­tov­breen to visit a melt­wa­ter cave. The cave is very clo­se to the steep slo­pe of Mar­cus­senf­jel­let and a ter­rain depres­si­on bet­ween the cave and the moun­tain was used to park the snow mobi­les. The first three snow mobi­les had alre­a­dy stop­ped when the ava­lan­che went down. Two per­sons were com­ple­te­ly cover­ed by the snow mas­ses and two others part­ly. The three remai­ning per­sons were not caught by the ava­lan­che.

The volu­me of the ava­lan­che is esti­ma­ted to have been near 10,000 cubic met­res, the col­lap­sed snow area on the slo­pe was 13,000 squa­re met­res.

Avalanche accident at Fridtjovbreen, February 2020: map

The appro­xi­ma­te acci­dent site is mark­ed with the red dot.
Map base © Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tu­te.
Modi­fied by landkarten-erstellung.de and this aut­hor.

The two per­sons who were com­ple­te­ly under snow died. Accor­ding to an offi­ci­al press release (Sys­sel­man­nen), the two vic­tims were Sascha Brandt (39) and Mag­da­le­na Kata­ri­na Zakrzew­ski (40), both from Ger­ma­ny.

One of the two vic­tims was cover­ed by half a met­re of snow. This per­son was dug out after 20 minu­tes. The other one was under two met­res of snow. In this case, it took one hour. The gui­des and other group mem­bers used ava­lan­che pro­bes and snow sho­vels to reco­ver the vic­tims.

The group did not have any ava­lan­che transceivers/avalanche bea­cons.

Alar­ming the res­cue forces took time becau­se the satel­li­te pho­ne that the group was equip­ped with was on one of the snow mobi­les that were cover­ed with snow (the­re is no mobi­le pho­ne covera­ge in this area). Final­ly, the second gui­de could use an InReach to send a mes­sa­ge to Barents­burg, from whe­re the Sys­sel­man­nen in Lon­gye­ar­by­en was infor­med. The res­cue heli­c­op­ter could not land on loca­ti­on due to poor wea­ther. It took two hours from the emer­gen­cy call and until the res­cue forces arri­ved. The doc­tor who came as part of the res­cue team could only decla­re the two vic­tims dead.

Avalanche accident Fridtjovbreen, February 2020

Beau­tiful, but also dan­ge­rous: moun­tain slo­pe at Fri­dt­jov­breen

Snow­fall, wind and fluc­tua­ting tem­pe­ra­tures during the weeks befo­re the acci­dent had con­tri­bu­ted to the gene­ral ava­lan­che risk: seve­ral lay­ers of firn with poor bon­ding capa­bi­li­ties were under a lay­er of fresh, wind-blown snow. The Nor­we­gi­an ava­lan­che war­ning ser­vice (varsom.no, link abo­ve) had issued a level 2 war­ning (mode­ra­te risk; the hig­hest level is 4).

One of the con­clu­si­ons of the reports is that the pre­sence of the group, with the impact of the snow mobi­les on the snow, had trig­ge­red the ava­lan­che.

As gene­ral recom­men­da­ti­ons, the report points out that all mem­bers of a snow mobi­le group should have ava­lan­che equip­ment (spe­ci­fi­cal­ly ava­lan­che transceivers/beacons, snow sho­vel, ava­lan­che pro­be) and ever­y­bo­dy should be trai­ned in the use of the equip­ment. Ide­al­ly, this should also be the case for tours in easy, open ter­rain, whe­re ava­lan­che-pro­ne slo­pes can be kept at a safe distance, accor­ding to the report. But it is espe­ci­al­ly important for tours in com­plex ter­rain, clo­ser to ava­lan­che-pro­ne slo­pes. The ter­rain of the tour from Barents­burg to the front of Fri­dt­jov­breen is gene­ral­ly easy and in open ter­rain, but things are dif­fe­rent for the devia­ti­on from the com­mon rou­te to the ice cave clo­se to Mar­cus­senf­jel­let.

As men­tio­ned: the report in ques­ti­on is an eva­lua­ti­on of the inci­dent by ava­lan­che experts with local know­ledge and not a legal assess­ment. This will be made by Nor­we­gi­an aut­ho­ri­ties and it is curr­ent­ly still in pro­cess and not yet published.

Spits­ber­gen with Anti­gua in July can­cel­led

It is real­ly not a sur­pri­se, but now it is offi­ci­al: our Spits­ber­gen voya­ge with Anti­gua in July is can­cel­led for reasons that will hard­ly requi­re an expl­ana­ti­on. The par­ti­ci­pan­ts who are boo­ked on this voya­ge will be cont­ac­ted soo­nest by the Geo­gra­phi­schen Rei­se­ge­sell­schaft.

Corona-Virus, Spitsbergen

With Anti­gua in Spits­ber­gen: won’t hap­pen in July 2020.

I have to admit that this is a bit emo­tio­nal. The thought of all the arc­tic soul­food that is lost this year can bring more than just a bit of water to one’s eyes. Cer­tain­ly to mine, at least. This sum­mers’ first, ear­ly sea­son trip in Spits­ber­gen on Anti­gua would be hap­pe­ning right now. Still a lot of snow and ice up north. But in real life, Anti­gua is about as far away from Spits­ber­gen as most of you rea­ders will be. A few weeks ago, on the trip up from main­land Nor­way to Spits­ber­gen, we might have seen Bear Island as we haven’t seen it at all in recent years: with den­se ice packed all round the shores! We can only ima­gi­ne how good that might have been. Sad. I am sure that I can honest­ly think and wri­te that on behalf of all pas­sen­gers and crew.

Ice chart, Spitsbergen, early May

Ice chart of south Spits­ber­gen, ear­ly May: ice around the south cape, Bear Island and on the east coast, Bell­sund fro­zen solid. How good would that have been …
Ice chart © Nor­we­gi­an Meteo­ro­lo­gi­cal Insti­tu­te.

Bey­ond all the good expe­ri­ence that is now lost, you may ima­gi­ne that this is also a bit of a tough blow eco­no­mic­al­ly. In this con­text, I may men­ti­on that my Spits­ber­gen online shop has never been clo­sed and it will remain open and acces­si­ble at any time and you can find a lot of good stuff the­re to tra­vel the Arc­tic wit­hout lea­ving the sofa! Next to the famous Spits­ber­gen bible, the­re is the less famous, but may­be even more beau­tiful pho­to book with the aeri­al pho­tos or, with the drift­wood pic­tu­re frames and the kit­chen slats, a real pie­ce of Spits­ber­gen on the wall or the kit­chen table, respec­tively, to men­ti­on just a few.

Gene­ral­ly, tou­rism is start­ing up slow­ly again in Spits­ber­gen. Empha­si­ze “slow­ly”. But this, again, will hard­ly come as a sur­pri­se: so far, only tou­rists from main­land Nor­way can visit Spits­ber­gen. Danish tou­rists will be the next ones who will be allo­wed in from 15 June. The Nor­we­gi­an govern­ment has announ­ced to make a state­ment regar­ding visi­tors from “near-by Euro­pean count­ries” until 20 July. So, stay tun­ed.

Any­way, ship-based tra­vel­ling over seve­ral days is so far excluded and it is announ­ced that it will take “more time” (wit­hout fur­ther spe­ci­fi­ca­ti­on) until this kind of tra­vel­ling can take place again.


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