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A Sense of Time and Change from an Arctic Perspective

Today was a humbling day. The landscape of Svalbard belittles you, and makes you feel like a child discovering the world. It’s like seeing the engine that drives the planet naked, stripped down to its bear parts (pun intended). Our UNEP instructors and the boat’s guides are our instruction manual, enabling us to read this landscape and relate it to the world’s climate and politics as well as our personal narratives.

My background lies in geology and environmental sciences. When I see this landscape I see my textbooks brought to life. My mind strains hard, running down the dusty library that is my memory, reaching for every scrap of knowledge I can find which will help me read the landscape I see. The earth sciences are all about looking at time from a deep perspective, 1 million years is nothing. The last 10,000 years of the Holocene period, the stable period of earth’s climate during which human civilisation evolved and developed is less that nothing, it is the last second of the last hour of the day which represents the 3.5B years of earth history.

Standing on the sand and gravel shore of the Fjortende Julibukta (Fjord of the 14th of July), I look southwards and on the other side, perhaps 2km away I can see the end of the lateral glacial moraine (the gravel and boulders pushed to the side by a glacier flowing towards the ocean).

The peninsular like tip of the moraine marks the entrance to the Fjord, named the 14th of July Fjord after a tragic story of early 20th century German explores who lost 10 out to 12 men when their boat was trapped by the sea ice. Today, from the terminus of the glacier to the end of the moraine some 3-5km of milky turquoise blue water in fills the Fjord meeting the intense sapphire blues of the calving ice at the glaciers foot to the east. A glance at the map shows that the glacier in 1966 once reached to where I now stand some 1.5 km away. A once much mightier period in the glacier’s recent history has left steep walls carved out of the mudstone on either side which plunge steeply towards the sea. A participant described it today as if the Alps have been decapitated and then dumped into the Arctic Ocean.

What is amazing to me is that you can clearly see how natural forces have shaped every aspect of this landscape. The valley sides, exposed by the receding ice at the end of the last ice age are steeper than is stable and so are in a continual state of erosion. Pebbles and sand on the shoreline morph into a thin strip of tundra running parallel to the coast, this strip merges sharply into a 45 degree scree slope that rises some 200m before meeting a thick 100m band of vertical rock which was its parent. The dull rock where exposed is peppered with fiery red lichen giving its natural brown colour and orange twinge in the sunlight.

In places, the rock face is clad with swirling, squawking colonies of kitty waits, looking like a bee swarm on slow-mo, and sounding like the cacophony of a stock trading flaw – buy – sell – buy – sell – kitty – wait – kitty – wait. The birds are actually named after this sound.

Above the rock face, and framing the image, the vision is capped by an icing like band of snow. For me, you can see how the landscape has changed gradual physically, and the enormity of the vision suggests timescales of thousands of years, millions of years even. Even the young geological processes that have formed this valley’s recent features span the whole of human civilisation. Processes alien to our daily lives but innate to the earth/climate system that ultimately governs our planet.

At the same time, some things here in the Arctic change rapidly. The weather can change in an hour from clear blue skies and sheet like oceans to wind, rain and an ocean speckled with white caps. The seasons here are also dramatic, the seasonal accretion or thoring of pack ice, and the annual influx and exit of migratory species being the most immediate examples. As I write the time is one in the morning and brilliant sunshine is streaming through the window, at this time of year above 66 degrees north the sun never sets. From a human perspective, time and days become blurred, which only adds to the impact of the visible, tangible timescales I can see in the landscape around.

Our second landing today was to visit an old mining outpost established in 1906 by a man of the name Mansfield. Mansfield had convinced stock traders in London that Svalbard was in fact a mystical island of pink marble located in the far north and he did indeed mine the marble.

However, neglecting to consider frost shattering caused by the cold, his shipments of perfect marble quickly turned to rubble before arriving in Europe. Nevertheless he persevered for some years but had to abandon the camp to the elements shortly thereafter.

Standing at the camp today is surreal. A law here on Svalbard prohibits the removal of nature or human items left here pre 1946. Consequently the elements have been allowed to slowly, and seasonally ravage the remains of the camp.

Located next to a small bay, the remains of a wooden crane stand derelict but remarkably intact, perched on a low limestone slab overhanging the bay. In contrast, all that remains of one of the main huts is a solid cast iron arguer complete with a kettle and various implements. Scattered around it lies the remains of the hut, wood silvered and shrivelled with exposure to the sun and constant freeze thawing; metal piping, wire, old equipment. Further up the hill can be found the old mining equipment and carts, on the side in big bold letter can be seen “Made In Leicestershire”. For me what this scene illustrates is just how temporary and ephemeral humans are and how much slower, more powerful and relentless natural forces are.

The contrast in timescales that these two pictures represent really has a lesson in it that is relevant to climate change and how we view it.
What is meaningful to our lives occurs over periods of at most 100’s of years. Human endeavours come and go much like Camp Mansfield. Humans will come and go. These powerful natural forces which shape our planet however are here to stay, they don’t care what we do, they don’t care who we are, and they don’t care what they do to us. They do however react to what we do. They respond to the way in which we force our climate and once they respond such forces are like a loaded train with bad brakes, our muscles are too weak to break hard enough in the face of the weight and momentum. Before a tipping point comes, we can imagine the train travelling along a flat surface and eventually a small breaking force could stop the train. If the train is on a hill (over the tipping point), well then our breaking is in vain until we find ourselves at the bottom of the hill (a new climate state) hopefully still on the tracks.

On current trajectories we could well see an ice free arctic in the summer within a generation. Such a process may well be irreversible on human timescales. I – we here on this trip may literally be one of the last generations to do this and see this unique habitat, this unique place at the top of our word. We are talking about a permanent voyage into the unknown, into a world alien to that which we have grown up in:a world less diverse in its cultures, less diverse in its environment.

We cannot make up for it later, with apologies, remorse or token efforts at recompense. But the fact remains that we still have a choice, we are not asleep at the wheel, just drunk driving. It’s time to sober up and realise that we have to take control of our future. We have to take responsibility, and we have to pay more attention to things that operate beyond the timescales that our daily lives suck us into. This we can learn from the arctic.