A wilderness where ice determines what lives

by Sarah Yates

October 3, 2012

Stuart Yates

Have you ever seen a polarbear up close? Photographer and intrepid Quakeractivist, Stuart Yates has. Inremembering his trip to Svalbard, heshares a glimpse of what makes the Arctic such a valuable place, worthy ofprotection.

Svalbard: a wilderness where ice, especially sea ice, determines what lives. Half of Svalbard is still glaciated and the glacier termini are awesome:

Sea ice surrounds the islands:

On my trip there in high summer in 2007, I was privileged to see some of the wildlife, much of which is under threat.

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The exquisite ivory gull, confined to the High Arctic, is so rare it is difficult to estimate numbers, but it is believed that populations have plummeted by 80% over the last 20 years. The whalebone is clearly old but the gull proceeded to some of its blubber, preserved over the years due to the cold:

The whalebone reminds us of previous human predation, whale hunting, as evidenced by this old whaling boat:

Modern shipping, including oil rigs, will not subside into the landscape so easily.

Some animals on Svalbard have little fear of humans. This magnificent reindeer bull approached over the hill:

and proceeded to graze on the sparse vegetation, unconcerned.

One animal does have good reason to fear humans: the Atlantic walrus, another creature dependent upon ice:

Hunted almost to extinction, its numbers have increased but it is still Near Threatened status. Reduction of sea ice will endanger it significantly. They can still however look you in the eye:

Svalbard hosts millions of birds. The black-legged kittiwakes nest in their thousands on cliffs but they are declining. Will we wait as usual until they are threatened before acting?

The little auk, no bigger than a starling, is also plentiful, but lives and breeds in the Arctic, rarely venturing South, so would be very vulnerable to, for example, oil spills:

What of the polar bear, which outnumbers people on Svalbard? Well, they are not frightened by us. A mother and her twin, almost fully grown cubs, watched us approach:

Then the cubs lounged in the morning sun, a sight beyond price:

Another mother had six month old twins and was unconcerned at our presence:

Later they posed peacefully for the camera:

Appearances are however deceptive. Later that day we came across the first family, swimming across the water seeking the next ice floe. As more ice melts each Summer, bears drown between floes.

Svalbard is a unique place where humans do not dominate the rest of nature. I do not want to be one of the last generations to share this wilderness with such magnificent wildlife. A few more years of oil is not worth it.

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