June 7, 2018

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Rachel Krasna


Imagine journeying all the way to the Arctic only to find nothing, just sheer barren cold desert leading into the open blue. That scenario is not so far fetched lately, as scientists start to struggle with the reality of the melting Arctic landscape. With increasingly warmer waters and temperature rising, the Arctic could face ice-free periods each summer by 2050. This poses grave concern for countless species and biota that call this ecosystem home, particularly in one of the Mission Blue Hope Spots- Spitsbergen Island. Why should we care? Arctic sea ice is critical for wildlife, and also helps regulate the planet’s temperature. Recent studies also say that Arctic sea ice — and the lack of it — can impact natural weather patterns in distant areas like the United States (USA Today, 4/3/18).

A mother polar bear and her cub on melting sea ice off the coast of Svalbard, Norway. Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

Today, on World Oceans Day, Mission Blue is announcing our first venture into the Arctic to Spitsbergen Island, the northernmost inhabited region of the planet, which will take place from June 19th to 29th. The purpose of the expedition is to explore this remote ecosystem in order to study and document key habitat under threat by climate change. Joined by our partners at Polar Bears International, we will meet with local experts, field researchers, influencers and government officials to gain a better understanding of the science and policy context affecting this region. Our team will observe and collect media content of polar bears, walruses, reindeers, seabirds and other iconic species.

A walrus on a beach in Svalbard, Norway. Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

We are especially grateful to our sponsor, Biotherm, for their unwavering support of Hope Spots and for making this Arctic Hope Spot expedition a reality. We also want to give warm thanks to Scubapro, which has generously donated expedition-grade cold water diving gear to the Mission Blue team. Finally, we want to recognize the support of Gates Underwater Housing, which is providing the waterproof housing that will allow us to film 5K slow-motion under the arctic waves. Thank you to all of our sponsors and supporters!

A humpback whale surfaces in front of the Austfonna Ice Cap in Svalbard, Norway. Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

Alexandra Jahn’s study, published April 2 2018, suggests that by the end of the century, the ice-free summer could jump to five months a year. Shrinking sea ice stems from rising global temperatures caused by fossil fuel burning and consumption, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Sea ice floats on the ocean’s surface and has an annual cycle of freezing and then melting based on the seasons.

A mother polar bear and cub walk across sea ice in front of a glacier in Svalbard, Norway. Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

Polar Bears International will work with Mission Blue to conduct three live broadcasts from the Longyearbyen area in Spitsbergen and possibly directly from the S/V Linden, our expedition vessel! Live streams will be sent to Polar Bears International’s partner Explore.org, a website that brings a large audience though their network of live cams around the world. We’ll alert our community as to the exact timing of these live transmissions as the broadcast date nears.

An arctic tern feeding its chick near the town of Ny Aslund, Svalbard. Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

A key focus of this expedition will be to document climate-driven impacts to the Arctic and raise awareness about how climate change is altering this vibrant ecosystem. The expedition poses an opportunity to work closely with our premier strategic scientific partners at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to study the Arctic ecosystem of this iconic location with a small team of scientists. Igniting awareness and support for this spectacular Hope Spot would lead to stakeholder action and policies. Using science and media from the trip, Mission Blue hopes to further encourage personal action on a global scale that can mitigate climate change.

Walrus swimming off the coast of Svalbard, Norway. Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

Located in the chilly waters between mainland Norway and the North Pole, this Arctic Hope Spot supports a high diversity of marine species and contains many unique habitats found nowhere else in the world, including dramatic glaciers and mountain fjords. Spitsbergen (formerly known as West Spitsbergen or Vestspitsbergen in Norwegian) is the largest and only permanently populated island of Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago. Constituting the westernmost bulk of the archipelago, the island borders the Arctic Ocean, Norwegian Sea, and Greenland Sea. Spitsbergen covers an area of 39,044 km2 (15,075 sq mi), making it the largest island in Norway and the 36th-largest in the world. The island was first used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, after which it was abandoned. Coal mining started at the end of the 19th century, establishing several permanent communities. The island has an Arctic climate, although with significantly higher temperatures than other places at the same latitude. Adorned with glaciers, mountains and fjords, Svalbard is a breeding ground for many seabirds and supports polar bears (the iconic symbol of Spitsbergen).

A mother polar bear and her cub on the sea ice off the coast of Svalbard, Norway. Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

Polar bears are facing tremendous threats from disappearing sea ice. These powerful creatures are affected by climate change because they need ice to hunt, travel, and breed. There are many ongoing studies on polar bear populations, including the population around Spitsbergen. Walruses are affected in the same way polar bears are affected. Ice is vital for their reproduction and foraging. Many experts believe that walrus populations will decline due to lack of food and breeding habitat. Reindeer populations are shrinking because less snowfall means more rain and more ice sheets. This makes it harder for reindeer to reach food during the winter. Arctic temperatures are rising faster than the world average. The glaciers, which grow through the late autumn and winter are still retreating and the rain breaks the ice apart. Warm water seeps into the land, exacerbating melting in the soil. Arctic bird species are plummeting as they are outmatched by bird species that come up from the south and stay longer.

Waterfalls cascading off the Austfonna Ice Cap in Svalbard, Norway. Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

Want to learn more about Spitsbergen and the ever-changing Arctic? Join the conversation and follow us online and social media. Feel free to share your ideas for future Hope Spots, we would love to hear from everyone. Stay tune for more expedition details!

Melting sea ice north of Svalbard, Norway. Kt Miller/Polar Bears International

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Resources:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180418092049.htm

https://phys.org/news/2018-03-reveals-startling-evidence-effects-climate.html

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/04/02/could-arctic-have-ice-free-summers-our-lifetime/479324002/

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0127-8

https://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2018/03/26/arctic-sea-ice-nears-all-time-record-wintertime-low/458945002/

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