I have been working in Svalbard every summer since 2011 for the Norwegian Polar Institute, as a field ornithologist and team leader. The program, called SEAPOP (SEAbird POPulations), is a long term monitoring and mapping of Norwegian seabirds that was established in 2005. Its goal is to monitor over the long term the reproduction, body condition, diet and survival of 4 species (in Spitsbergen at least): Brünnich’s guillemot, black‐legged kittiwake, little auk and glaucous gull. The knowledge coming out of this ambitious project will help distinguish human influences from those caused by natural variation.
If you wonder where Svalbard is, here we go : halfway between the North Pole and Norway, inside the Polar Circle, right in the Arctic. If you are now wondering if it is the same as Spitsbergen, this should help : until 1920, Svalbard was commonly called Spitsbergen – the “pointed mountains” – , whereas what is now Spitsbergen was called West Spitsbergen. Well, Spitsbergen is an island and Svalbard is an archipelago.
Surprisingly, this remote group of hostile mountains sticking out of northern oceans (Svalbard literally means “cold shores”) has been a coveted territory for a long time in human history. Officially, Svalbard was discovered by the Dutch Willem Barrents in 1596. However, it may have been known to Russian Pomor hunters as early as the 14th or 15th century. Scandinavians may have even been the first to land on Svalbard in the 12th century. By the 17th century, the English, the French and the Danish had joined in and they all fought to own the place until World War I. Whales, walruses, polar bears and foxes were what they were after. Oil, meat, fur. By the end of the 19th century, mining became a promising business and the American jumped in. But interests in Svalbard has also been geopolitical. During World War II, all the settlements were evacuated and the Germans took the remaining outposts by force, Svalbard offering a strategic lookout between Europe and North America. During the Cold War, two thirds of the Svalbard population was Russian, one third was Norwegian, and the USA kept an intent look at what was considered as a threatening communist outpost to the Western hemisphere. Since the Svalbard treaty of 1920, the archipelago is Norwegian, about 3,000 polar bears and 2,500 people live there (most of the last in Longyearbyen) and military installations are prohibited. Coal mining, tourism and research are the three main industries. Svalbard included, Norwegian whalers are allowed to hunt a quota of a thousand whales a year.
History helps understand why Norway seems to put so much emphasis on protecting Svalbard’s environment nowadays. About 65% of the land and 86% of the territorial waters are covered with preserved natural areas including 7 national parks, 6 nature reserves and 15 bird sanctuaries. Svalbard is even on Norway’s tentative list for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage. But global warming is undoubtedly the biggest challenge Svalbard (and the Arctic as a whole) has ever faced, not only because of the consequences on ecosystems and wildlife, but also because the thawing of the sea ice opens new navigation routes to areas that had always been inaccessible, and creates tantalizing opportunities to oil and gaz companies.
For scientists, Svalbard is a fantastic open-air laboratory to study the fast-changing Arctic environment. Accessibility is relatively easy for a place that is inside a Polar Circle, and the management of the research stations makes working in Svalbard quite comfortable, as long as a budget is there to cover the outrageous expenses.