Dave Walsh, Greenpeace comms officer and blogger, writes from our ship in the far North.
It’s a long, long way from Germany to Svalbard, but the Esperanza has arrived at Ny Ålesund, just 1,231km from the North Pole, for the start of the Arctic Under Pressure expedition. Around 2,500 people and about 3,500 polar bears live in Svalbard, an archipelago set of islands 60% covered by glaciers (that’s about 36,500 sq km of ice!). We’re very, very far north in a wild, wild place.
We came alongside here in Ny Ålesund on Tuesday, having sailed through the midnight sun from Longyearbyen into Kongsfjord (“Kings’s Bay”), surrounded by brooding snow-covered mountain peaks and massive glaciers. Before that, the Esperanza had sailed from Kiel in Germany with a cargo of nine giant marine monitoring systems called “mesocosms” on the helideck.
Accompanying the nine mesocosms are three scientists from the German marine research institute IFM-GEOMAR; Sebastian, Matthias and Jan; who are being joined in Ny Ålesund by many more colleagues. While here, they will be carrying out a massive study of the biggest threats to our oceans; acidification of the marine ecosystems.
Greenpeace are supporting IFM-Geomar’s work, not only by transporting about 30 tonnes of equipment to Nye Ålesund, and helping the scientists deploy the mesocosms, in the cold waters of Kongsfjord, but also to get the story of ocean acidification out to the world. Each of the nine mesocosms will create a 17m high, 50 cubic metre isolated column of sea water, into which will be added different levels of CO2, in order to model the effects of acidification from now into the next century.
We will be helping Sebastian and his team to place the mesocosms in King’s Bay, where, for about five weeks, they will be used to model what the future of our oceans will be, if we humans insist on continuing to emit CO2 in such vast amounts.
The confusing thing about ocean acidification is that while it’s caused by carbon dioxide (CO2), it is not a form of climate change, nor is it caused by climate change. Instead, ocean acidification is simply caused by the ocean’s absorption of CO2. It’s a measureable form of global pollution, created by humans, and the only way we it can be addressed is by cutting our addiction to fossil fuels and the CO2 emissions they cause.
Since our addiction to the burning of fossil fuels began, during the industrial revolution, the alkaline waters in our oceans have been sliding towards acidity. This is causing problems for shell-building marine organisms, such as corals, shellfish and plankton that are finding it harder to form skeletons and shells, a phenomenon that has massive “knock-on” potential for corals, plankton and other lifeforms that make up the food web of every ocean.
We’ll be posting in more depth about acidification in the coming days, as well as the massive effort it will take to get the experiment up – the largest of its kind – up and running. We’ll also be showing you the mesocosms in action, so you can see for yourself these “giant test tubes” in action.
Why Ny Ålesund? This little international town, which used to be a coalmine, is farther north than other settlements in these islands, and arguably the most northern in the world. Although the Canadian military base at Alert, in Canada’s Ellesmere Island, and the meteorological Station Nord in Greenland are farther north, Ny Ålesund, at 1,231km from the North Pole, actually has civilians living and working here, joined during the summer by teams of scientists from around the world. Several countries maintain permanent scientific bases here, including Norway, Germany, China, South Korea, UK, France, Italy, Netherlands, Japan and India. For the team from IFM-Geomar, it’s the best possible location for carrying out their experiments in Arctic waters.
>>Check out the expedition Google map
Our visit to Ny Ålesund is just the beginning of a long Arctic Under Pressure expedition that will continue for several months. We’ll be looking at the effects of industry, including fishing, have on the Arctic ecosystem, and return the Arctic sea ice to monitor the effect of climate change. We will doubtless witness some wonderful and troubling things that we’ll be sharing with you from here on the Esperanza.
Already, on the trip from the coast of Norway to Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main town, the crew witnesses fleeting glimpses of some pretty amazing ocean wildlife – Dinko, the 1st mate, spotted an Orca just off the port side. We also saw a couple of sperm whales, and two pods of white-beaked dolphins.
Here in Svalbard, our wildlife experiences have been so far a little more modest. A nonchalant, stumpy-legged reindeer wanders amongst the houses of Ny Ålesund, while Janet, from the Greenpeace science unit, Alejandro, and Martin, campaigners from Mexico and Germany, encountered an Arctic fox still in winter coat, probably from the family of foxes live underneath the Dutch scientists’ quarters. Wandering anywhere away from the houses is neither allowed nor recommended - it’s polar bear territory.
Meanwhile, the Esperanza, anchored offshore from the village, is being kept company by quirky black guillemots and the reassuring, yet plaintive oooh-oooohm call of the common eider duck.
Earlier, as the Esperanza entered Kongsjord, we launched one of our large inflatables. It was the boat’s maiden operational voyage – before now it had only been tested in the waters around the Netherlands. Many of our boats have been given, or have evolved names – the Mermaid, the African Queen, the Grey Whale, the Billie G, the Suzie Q. Erik, our 2nd engineer and boat driver has already dubbed it “The Pigeon”, and everyone else seems to referring to is as such over the radio.
>> Follow the Arctic Under Pressure expedition on Twitter
Top image: © Greenpeace/ Jiri Rezac
All other images: © Greenpeace/ Nick Cobbing