The high Arctic is—well, it’s cold. It’s the Arctic after all. And we are very far north. Far north of Iceland, way up at 78º N and way north of Norway, in the waters around an astonishing group of rock-and-ice islands known as Svalbard.
Greenpeace has invited me to join them for a while on their ship Arctic Sunrise as they document the intensifying fishing that is moving in as cod and other fishes shift north with a warming ocean. They’re working with major fishing companies and global fish buyers and retailers toward a plan to protect some of this sensitive seafloor from the damages that dragging nets has done to corals and seafloor communities elsewhere.
But it’s not all work-work-work. We do have some fun. After all, one of the things we on board all have in common is that we’re in love with the world. So occasionally we simply rejoice. But even celebration gets more complicated than it should be.
So today, rejoicing brings us into total spectacularity. We are visiting Smeerenbergbreen. That means Smeerenberg glacier. And—a bit of complication to my rejoicing in the beauty—Smeerenberg means basically “blubber-town.” And they reason is: on a nearby beach, walruses used to gather by the thousands. Then hunters killed them all, for oil, hide, and their ivory tusks. The killing stopped only when there were none left, in the 1950s. In the past 70 years, a few have turned up from islands far eastward. Earlier today we went to that beach and saw half a dozen or so of the huge bristle-faced mammals—a hopeful signal from a modest recovery now underway. So that’s what I mean by complicated. Destruction, renewal, change—it’s all on our minds as we enter the bay to visit the glacier.
And so several of us leave the ship in a small boat, and our boat streams ahead of the ship for several miles. As we get closer the air nearer the glacier is cooler. We plan to land on a large ice-rounded rock. Two reasons for this: one, to get the view; two, it’s safer in case a giant slice of ice maybe a hundred of feet high (tens of meters) cracks off the glacier face and sends a huge wave seaward.
And the view is utterly spectacular, stunning, awe-inspiring. We are so lucky to be alive and to be here.
Summer, of course, is when glaciers melt. Chunks falling from a glacial face in confrontation with the sea create icebergs in the process called “calving.”
Which brings us to another complication: there is more melting, for longer, than ever before in human history. Our world is warming and humans (that’s us, folks) are warming it.
The nearby ocean is called the Barents Sea. The amount of the Barents Sea that gets frozen in winter has shrunken by about half since the year 2000. And the part of the year when ice is melting in these waters is now 20 weeks longer than in 1980. That is not good news for polar bears, narwhals, arctic seals, certain fish, and other wild creatures who need to live on or around ice to survive.
Today though, we choose to dial down the inner sound of the facts and simply marvel. And as the vast silence opens to us, and I open to the sound of it, I hear: not silence. I hear the gulls called kittiwakes who’ve gathered by the hundreds to feed where falling ice has churned up the silt and mud. (And when I find them in my binoculars I realize for the first time the truly incredible height of the ice face.) I hear the great glacier constantly murmuring and groaning in its slow-crumbling glide to the coast; it is quite literally a series of frozen rapids constantly on the move. I hear the occasional boom of deep cracks and splitting fissures. And then the bang, roar, whoosh of a large chunk of ice freed by pressure and gravity for its first cold swim. And here comes that wave, safely below our rocky perch.
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Carl Safina’s recent bestselling book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel is newly out in paperback. See Carl’s TED talk here. He is Stony Brook University’s Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity, and founder of The Safina Center.