Warmer temperatures and plastic waste lying about reminded an expedition to Svalbard that no part of Earth is untouched by the activities of its humans.
SVALBARD — The mere mention of our planet's polar regions brings to mind masses of frozen ice, hostile conditions and a general absence of all living things. This is unfortunate, because although the areas above the Arctic circle and below the Antarctic circle are indeed remote, they are teeming with all sorts of life, from microflora to megafauna.
I was a part of an 86-member team that journeyed to the Arctic region to study climate change in real-time, as part of the Climate Force Arctic 2019 expedition. This expedition, led by Robert Swan, the first man to walk to both of the Earth's poles, is conducted every year. Swan also launched the 2041 Foundation, whose mission is to develop leadership skills among individuals by helping them take responsibility and act sustainably toward a more resilient future.
The name of Swan's foundation revolves around the Antarctic Environment Protocol. Signed in Madrid in 1991, it bans all drilling and mining in Antarctica. It will reopen for negotiations in 2048, and Swan hopes to increase awareness and gather support by 2041 — the 50-year anniversary of the signing.
The temperature on some days was as high as 12 °C.
The Arctic is composed of all areas north of the 66°33'44" N latitude. After three days of briefing in Norway's capital, Oslo, we set off to Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Sea between Norway and the North Pole. At Svalbard, we boarded a ship, ready to sail around the islands for a full week.
Each day on the ship began with a series of talks where participants shared inspirational stories, before experts spoke about the Arctic landscape and how the climate crisis has been altering it. After that, we would go on hikes, photo walks and cruises, each of which brought us second-to-none insights into the Arctic realm. Every afternoon, there were discussions on the Paris Agreement, climate change mitigation and carbon trade, involving climate experts. The day would end with a recap of the day's events before undertaking free-ranging trips or speaking to other participants.
Climate change is not new to any of us. But the surface air in the Arctic is now warming twice as fast as in the rest of the world. Arctic ice (like all ice) strongly reflects solar radiation. And as it melts, it exposes the underlying tundra soil and ocean to heat, the latter absorbing the heat instead of reflecting it. The tundra soil is very rich in organic matter because decomposition is slow, meaning that as the soil warms, the permanently frozen subsoil melts and releases a large amount of methane into the atmosphere, which causes Earth's atmosphere and surface to warm further. As a greenhouse gas, methane is more potent than carbon dioxide.
Another conspicuous consequence of a warming Arctic is the loss of sea ice. Sea ice forms each winter when the ocean surface freezes. Some of this ice melts in the following summer and some doesn't, to weather another winter. But in a warmer world, more ice melts each summer, and ice forming in the winter does so later and breaks up earlier than it has before. Not to mention that the ice build-up isn't as thick.
Less sea ice means a smaller feeding habitat for polar bears. So the bears are forced to concentrate over ever-smaller patches of the surviving ice, leading to heavy predation pressure on the local seal population.
Our group was lucky to encounter a lot of wildlife on our expedition, some of which hadn't been spotted in the Arctic for over 30 years. These included the beluga, bowhead, humpback and fin whales, bearded seals, arctic walruses and polar bears. Each of these species is facing a loss of habitat, declining food sources and sea acidification due to global heating.
The surface air in the Arctic is warming twice as fast as in the rest of the world.
At the start of the trip, we were given a list of clothing items to bring on the trip but we didn't use many of them by the end. The temperature on some days was as high as 12 °C, and the average was around 1-3 °C. This is significantly high for this region, and a subtle, yet persistent reminder of how the world is changing.
There was one day, however, we were reminded of that in a much more sudden, and terrifying way: During a hike, many of us came across pieces of plastic strewn across the Arctic tundra. These items included discarded fishing equipment, cans and containers and plastic wrappers. We'd all read accounts by experts and journalists who had documented the menace of single-use plastic, but none of us had expected to find it in this part of the world. There is really no part of Earth that is left untouched by our activities.
This expedition was an eye-opener. We returned home inspired by the beauty and serenity of the Arctic landscape, and more motivated to protect it — together with the rest of our fellow humans. While the world debates the grainier terms of a global shift to an eco-friendly life, there are many small-scale solutions that we can put into practice every day to drive change from the bottom. They include giving up single-use plastics, shifting to buying and eating local, creating awareness among your friends and family, and voting for leaders that have a strong environmental mandate.
*Sukriti Kapur is a research scholar at the School of Environmental Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.