The Arctic: Harsh, Beautiful, Unpredictable, and Fragile

Climate Generation Board Member Jennifer Birnbaum visited the Arctic this summer with her family to witness the impressive wildlife and changing landscape. The Arctic is the fastest changing region in the world due to climate change impacts. Our founder, Will Steger, has witnessed and recorded the effects on the region through his polar expeditions.

As my family prepared for our trip to the Arctic, I wondered what the experience would be like—would it look like the pictures?

Would we see polar bears? Would it really be as cold as everyone said it would be? Will we see indications of climate change?

What I found out is that being in the Arctic gives you a small window into what Mother Nature can truly be: harsh, beautiful, unpredictable, and fragile. Everything we saw brought home how precarious and interconnected the environment is—how the health of the lichens and plants directly impacts the health of the reindeer and the birds. How the cleanliness and temperature of the sea impacts the fish and clams, which impacts the seals, which then impacts the health of the polar bears. One falls and they all fall.

It was an amazing experience to be able to truly see that in action and not just read about it in the paper or hear it on the news. I hope that reading this blog gives you a small taste of the Arctic experience.

July 4, 2018

Landed in Longyearbyn on Svalbard. It is definitely a land of contrasts and quirks. When we pulled up outside of the RadissonBlu we saw an area right outside the front entrance that said “Dog Parking”. There was actually a dog parked there that was singing his loneliness to the world. The kids, on the other hand, were singing their cries of “Hallelujah” as they were able to get one more day in of WiFi before our Arctic adventure. Looking up the street, past the polar bear warning signs, I couldn’t wait for our adventure to really start.

July 5, 2018

Woke up today in the same eerie light as we went to bed. It is the land of the midnight sun after all. We took a boat trip up to Barrensberg, one of the Russian towns on Svalbard. The contrast between the ghost-town feel of the Russian town and the somewhat bustling town of Longyearbyn was stark. I couldn’t imagine living in Barrensburg in the summer, let alone the long cold nights of winter. I will never complain again about how dreary our Minnesota winters are. On the way to and from the town, we saw many species of birds, my favorite being the puffin. They call it the “clown of the Arctic” due to its colorful beak. They certainly were putting on an entertaining show as they wheeled and dived above the waves.

July 6, 2018

WALRUSES! I was so excited to see a small island dotted with their big brown bodies. Some were playing in the water. In fact there were two juvenile males tussling in the waves. It was ironic that those two walruses were fighting in the water as two of my teenage sons were arguing behind me on the deck. At least my kids teeth would cause less damage than the walrus tusks. Though they were certainly making more noise than the walruses.

Learn more about the landwellers of the Arctic, like walruses, in our wildlife blog series.

July 7, 2018

Our second full day at sea. The kids are starting to complain about the lack of WiFi. My oldest just gave a pitiful wail: “I watched my last downloaded episode of The Office – noooooo!”  I guess they will now have to start circling the upper decks, looking for whales and seals. Today we are entering Franz Josef Land and have to go through Russian immigration.

It is an odd thing to be sitting in a ship’s lounge and answering typical immigration questions from officials that were brought over by Zodiac (an inflatable boat). I am sure this is not the weirdest thing we will see. A large polar bear decided to swim out by us. He got very close, so they had to put the engine on to push the polar bear away. He definitely wanted to come to dinner.

Will Steger’s team had a run in with a polar bear on the 2008 Ellesmere Island Expedition – watch the video to hear more.

July 8, 2018

Our third day at sea. As immigration took a very long time, our ship got a little closed in by ice.   We therefore had to head south to then head up to Rudolph’s Island. We were able to walk on an island that was 82.52 degrees north from the equator. Once again, the smell of our lunch being prepared brought out a swimming polar bear. He got close to the boat but realized the hard iron shell was not something he could crack. We were able to take Zodiacs to the island, but once at the top, another polar bear came across the ice to check us out. Back in the boats we went, escaping from the encroaching bear. Headed now farther north to the edge of the ice fields.

July 9, 2018

We landed at Cape Norway on Jackson Island. A large glacier towered above us and the kids ran to the top to touch it. The island was also covered by various forms of lichen and moss.  Even in this bleak looking landscape, the lichens were in bloom.

Once we left the island we started out toward Ziegler Island and we ran into a field of “pancake” ice. It was very eerie gliding through a field of ice as the ship pushed it away. Everyone was calling it “ghost ice” as it was a grayish color and the quiet seemed to swallow the ship. In the evening we went looking for walruses in the Zodiacs. We saw a mother walrus and her calf. As soon as they saw us, they swam away into the nature reserve where we could not follow.

Will Steger and his team reported on Arctic wildlife during the 2007 Baffin Island Expedition. Listen to one of his dispatches.

July 10, 2018

The ice continued to plague us. We were headed to a landing on Ziegler Island when the fast ice started to move in. We were able to head up to the top of the rise and see the film set of a documentary-in-progress on the famous explorer Ziegler. Then we had to rush down to another landing sight as the ice had shut in our original landing site.

On the way we walked through a small snow field where the kids took a few minutes to make snow angels and have a small snowball fight. I bet this is one of the only times a snowball fight involved glacial snow. In addition, right before the new landing site, we saw a purple sandpiper that tried to lure us away from his nest. In the afternoon we saw something quite small, but quite fantastic: a Ctenophora.  It looked like a small, red-striped jellyfish that when touched turned purple. Hard to believe something that delicate looking could survive in this climate.

July 11, 2018

Walrus, polar bear, and seals, oh my! Our first excursion took us on Zodiacs to a sheet of sea ice off Geographer’s Point. There we encountered two juvenile walruses that did not want us to be there. In fact, they chased a boat that my kids were on back out into the bay. Then, when we thought it could not get any more exciting, a female polar bear walked out all the way onto the edge of the ice and stared at us in curiosity. She turned around and headed for a seal hole where a ringed seal had popped its head out just minutes earlier. She laid down for the long wait.

For the afternoon excursion we thought nothing else could be better; we were wrong. We anchored off of Dead Seal Island and set off in the Zodiacs. A mother polar bear and her cub came over the crest of the hill and onto the sea ice. The cub then got separated from his mother on an ice flow and she had to swim out and fetch him.

This resulted in some swimming for the cub. He did not like the water sensation as noted by the fact he did a two minute ice wiggle dance, rolling around in the snow. In fact, he looked a little like my dog does after he swims in Lake Minnetonka, rolling around on his back until he is dry. As we were watching that display, a pod of about 30 walruses decided to cruise by. It was definitely an afternoon to remember.

Discover how polar bears and other Arctic animals live, and how climate change affects them, through our Ellesmere Island Expedition blogs.

July 12, 2018

We anchored off of Bell Island due to strong swell near Point Flora. We were able to go ashore to see the winter quarters of a polar expedition that were never used. They are now only used by polar bears as an “Arctic Hilton”. Then the fog rolled in and we made our way to Point Flora.  There we did a Zodiac cruise to what we all called a Walrus Convention.

There must have been close to 100 walruses spread out over a series of small icebergs. When they jumped in the water, it looked like the water was bubbling like a cauldron with walrus heads popping out. Instead of a pod of walruses, we called it a scrum. Then the fog that was plaguing us at Bell Island followed us to Point Flora. We had to make a dash for the boat through the ever-thickening fog. It looked like the start of some horror movie, an isolated ship where you could barely see down the decking.

July 13, 2018

The fog once again foiled our opportunity to do a hike on Point Flora and Bell Island. We kept going back and forth between them in the hopes of doing some type of landing. We didn’t get to do that, but we did see a pod of beluga whales with younglings and a lone polar bear that came to the edge of the ice. In the afternoon, we were offered the chance to do a true “Polar Plunge”. My husband and I and our three kids all did it. I have never felt anything that cold in my entire life. The cold actually stole my breath away to the point I felt like I was gasping for air. Our son John won the record for shortest time in the water. He practically levitated out of the water once he went in. We all recovered in the hot tub and called it an early night.

July 14, 2018

Once again foiled by the fog. We were hoping to go out for one last Zodiac ride before we entered the Russian-controlled bay, but that was not meant to be. We were now at Alexander Land waiting to emigrate out of Franz Joseph Land. The passport control leaving the area was far easier then when we entered. It was still odd to go through emigration in a ship’s lounge.  While we were waiting for everyone to pass through, yet another polar bear made an appearance. That brings our total polar bear sightings to 16 bears. Very impressive.

July 15, 2018

It was a day at sea as we made our way back to Svalbard. On the way we cruised by the third largest glacier in the world. The fog actually let go briefly so we could take pictures of this amazing site. After the glacier, we approached some of the largest bird cliffs we have seen to date. Thousands and thousands of murre were nesting on the cliffs. Many more were in the air and floating in the sea.

For a minute there, as flocks of murre circled the boat, it felt a little like an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Then we caught site of an Arctic fox dragging his kill of a murre up to a small cave on the cliff face. Talk about living close to your favorite dining options. We hope to see many more Arctic foxes in the next day or so. Fingers crossed that we will leave the fog behind.

Watch Will Steger speak to the melting glaciers in the Arctic from our 2007 Baffin Island Expedition.

July 16, 2018

Today was amazing! We made such great time to Longyearbyn that we were able to collect up the required guns and make a landing across the fjord at Ahlhornet. There we climbed up a small hill and in front of us stretched a green moss-covered bog. Nibbling the way across the bog was a small herd of reindeer. The reindeer ranged in age from small calf to large male with quite an impressive rack of antlers.

We then made our way across the bog to a large pile of rocks where a family of Arctic fox were making their home. The whole group spent about an hour watching two fox kits tussle with each other and race around the den. I even saw the mother fox drag a dead goose and a goose egg to the den for the kits to eat. My kids climbed up on top of a nearby rock face to watch the kits play. While they were up there, the mother fox came up behind them for a closer look. Both the kids and the mother fox were fascinated by the encounter. As we raced back to the ship for a late dinner, a harbor seal popped its head up to wish us farewell.

Learn about Arctic wildlife in this video from our 2008 Ellesmere Island Expedition.

July 17, 2018

Today was our last full day on the ship. We spent the morning on a trip to Pyrimydan, a Russian town with ten inhabitants. There we took a step back in time to see what conditions were like at a mining town during the Cold War. It was eerie to see all these empty buildings. One building was taken over by a whole flock of kittiwakes. It really reminded me of a horror movie to see hundreds of birds nesting on the window ledges of this abandoned building.

In the afternoon we did a fantastic shore landing. Right at the shore were four baby Arctic foxes. We then climbed a huge hill to see a beautiful waterfall. Of course the kids had to immediately climb down and go behind the waterfall. Ugh, teenage boys. As we headed back to the ship, I could only think what a perfect final day on the ship.

July 18, 2018

We spent our last day in Svalbard visiting the Northernmost Brewery (Svalbard Beer) and taking a birding tour. We saw incredible amounts of Eider ducks, loons, and Murre. It was truly an amazing (and eclectic) way to spend the last day of our trip. I am so glad we went on this adventure. It went beyond everything I imagined and exceeded all my expectations. Back to Minnesota and real life. Oh well, at least it is still summer in Minnesota, no snow yet.

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