Seals, Glaciers and Polar Bears

My first impression of the Arctic, as I looked out of the airplane window was, "where the heck are we going to land?"

There was nothing but white as far as the eye could see — no trees, no houses, no roads, just snow and ice and mountains.

Over the course of a week, I discovered that there is more beauty and life in the Arctic than I could ever have imagined. The seemingly endless snow and mountains came alive to me as I learned about glaciers and sea ice and observed birds, polar bears, seals and reindeer.

Our journey began in the lovely town of Longyearbyern, in the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago. From there, we flew 20 minutes to the northernmost continuously inhabited place in the world, Ny-Ålesund.

This cozy village used to be home to a coal mine and is now a scientific research outpost. No visitors are permitted to stay there, with the exception of friends and family of the people who live there. We were fortunate enough to be the guests of Kim Holmén, Director of Research at the Norwegian Polar Institute.

I must confess that before my trip to the Arctic I was hardly an expert on climate change. Much of the more complex science eludes, me and the vocabulary is unfamiliar.

But, through my time in Ny-Ålesund, I was able to see some of the changes going on in the Arctic environment, and it does not take a Ph.D. in bio-physics to recognize that they are a matter of acute concern.

Holmén explained, "we see accelerated melting of glaciers, we see accelerated melting of the sea ice and we see changes in the spring on how early the snow disappears."

Scientists have known about climate change for decades and have been studying it as long, but Holmén warned that "the melting of the sea ice is faster than what our climate models have been predicting."

One small example that we saw: Ny-Ålesund is located on a fjord, or bay, which used to be completely frozen over during the winter months.

But for the last three years there has been virtually no ice at all. And this has a ripple effect. Seals need the ice to have their cubs on. Polar bears need the seals for food.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the landscape in Ny-Ålesund is its purity. The snow is pristine (or so it seems at first glance, although it is getting increasingly polluted by soot travelling upwards). The glaciers are like dazzling turquoise jewels.

Over the course of a week in this magical place, I saw and felt what it is that inspires people to devote their lives to science, and more specifically, to the study of the Arctic environment and climate change.

A closing thought: there are only 25,000 to 27,000 thousand polar bears in the world, and the vast majority of people will never see one in their lives. But these incredible creatures are both beautiful and unique, and as Holmén so eloquently put it, "Without them, the world would be a poorer place."

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