2003 Expedition Blog
Sunday, 1 June 2003, 17:20
Glaciation in Svalbard (or walking in Britain 10,000 years ago)
Our arrival in Svalbard was at dawn on Friday 31st and we sailed into the southern most fiord of Hornsund, dodging the ice floes and small icebergs that had calved from the glaciers surrounding the fiord.
In terms of scale Hornsund is a deep fiord approximately 25km from west to east and over halfway across Sorkapp the southern part of Svalbard. All around this deep fiord there are glaciers slowly grinding their way down to the sea. Our vessel has been here before and the captain took us to the end of the fjord to Brepollen Bay to see the changes that he had seen and recorded. Each year that he has visited this bay he marked the position of the snouts of the glaciers onto his chart.
Originally these glaciers joined to form a piedmont glacier which as it moved westward towards the open sea calved a deep fiord over 120 metres deep. All along the fiord other glaciers joined as tributaries producing a deeper and wider inlet. We went into Burgerbukta bay to look at the Wibebreen, (breen means glacier in Norwegian) a small glacier that descended quite steeply from Urnetoppen (813 metres) into the bay.
We walked across the sea ice which was over a metre thick to get to the land, and realised just how mobile and dynamic a landscape this is. At the edge of the flow the floe was heaving up and down with the movement of the water below the ice. It makes a growling noise rather like we suspected polar bears might. At the snout of the glacier we could see small leads of water which would make walking their unsafe.
Our advance to look at the glacier was up the lateral moraine which was an enormous pile of frost-shattered rock over 50 metres wide at the base and rising steadily to a crest of 40 metres above the edge of the ice. The glacier was deeply fissured at the snout, but on its surface the crevasses were indistinguishable as the snow cover was complete.
Looking at the maps of the area it is clear that the ice has retreated by at least 3kms in the last 40 years. The Wibebreen had icefalls at the snout and the fresh snow was corniced over the top of the snout making it dangerous to walk upon.
The lateral moraine was already being colonised by new plants, saxifrage was about to start flowering, small mosses were dotted here and there, but perhaps the most beautiful flowers were created by the weathering of the red sandstone rocks. These frost shattered rocks opened like a flower from a central bud with the petals falling outwards in small shards as part of a detailed jigsaw puzzle.
The weathering process is very differentiated, with all the rocks reacting differently to the intense cold and their water content. Igneous and metamorphic rocks seemed to be less susceptible to this type of weathering. Beyond the Wibebreen was a second glacier, the Kvalfangarbreen, and we were able to see a small medial moraine that had developed between the two of them.
In this area the accumulation snow zone for glaciers is at a height of 350 metres and above, below that is the ablation zone. The Polish Polar research station located in the next bay keep a close watch on the Hansbreen and have monitored the changes on that glacier for the last 25 years. They have noted an ice retreat of 2.5km.
All around us the mountain tops were frost-shattered and their sides deeply gullied by streams that operate in the summer months from the melting snow and rainfall. On the glaciers themselves there are streams that flow over the surface and then sink to flow along beneath the ice.
Just outside the Hornsund a glacier that no longer reaches the sea has created a jumble of medial and terminal moraines mixed with the outwash sands and unconsolidated till. This area is now being colonised by plants and the scientists in the Polish station are studying them. They could well show us the future for the whole of this region.
Sunday, 1 June 2003, 18:55
Before we came I was hoping we might be lucky enough to see a polar bear, but I was not counting on it. Well, reality has been better than any expectations.
Our first bear swam out to investigate the ship at Bear Island. One o'clock in the morning, with midnight sun hidden behind cloud, and everyone still trying to recover after the crossing from Norway. Suddenly - a bear. Far away at first, but moving towards us fast. At the ice edge he stopped, raised his head and moved it back and forth, trying to sort out our smell; then jumped in and swam towards us. He looked young, but it is hard to tell. (Gary's photos show what he looked like).
Being stranded on an island as the ice breaks up for the summer, is no joke for a polar bear. Bears need the ice; they cannot swim well enough to catch seals in the water. Their main prey is harp seals. The bears catch them by waiting at the edge of a breathing hole in the ice until the seal returns. The unwary seal is caught on the long, sharp claws of the bear and hauled out of the water.
In summer, when there is no sea ice, the bears will eat anything they can find. If they find a dead whale, they'll eat it - around a large carcase you can find 10-20 bears. They eat berries on the tundra, food left behind by people, the eggs of geese nesting on the shore - anything edible. But a bear is big; an adult male can weigh 600kg, the females about two thirds of that. So they need a lot of food. A bear stranded on a small island may go hungry for much of the summer.
The water is amazingly clear, and our plankton trawl did not bring in as much life as the day before. We still have not been able to use the microscopes, we need calmer water to be able to see anything. Hopefully tomorrow?
Hopefully Bear island is big enough to provide food for our first polar bear.
Our second bear was walking along an ice shelf in Hornsund - the southernmost fjord on the western coast of Spitsbergen. And the third - again in Hornsund, when we visited the Polish research station. Three bears in three days - not bad! The Poles told us they had 50-60 visits from polar bears to their camp in the last year. They come right up to the windows.
Whenever we go ashore see bear tracks. The bear population has recovered well after they were protected in the 1970s and is still growing. Bears are totally protected in Svalbard; you are not allowed to hunt them at any time. But because they can be dangerous when they are hungry, people go everywhere in the company of someone with a gun. Today, for instance, Maaike was our guide and guard, when we visited the old whaling station (see photo). If a polar bear attacks, you have to shoot to kill. Whenever that happens - luckily not very often, there is always a big enquiry afterwards, to make sure it was really self-defence.
The polar bears we have seen have all been solitary. This is the end of the mating season (May) - the only time when adult bears can be seen together. The female secretes a smell which is picked up by the males along way away. They stay together for a few weeks mating, then separate.
At first nothing happens to the fertilized egg, it is autumn before the fertilised egg is implanted in the uterus, and then only if the female is healthy and well fed after the summer. A female in poor condition will not become pregnant. Instead she will continue to hunt all winter, without looking for a den.
As winter approaches, pregnant females will look for a place where they can be covered by snow. They often dig themselves down in the lee of rocks, where the snow forms deep drifts. The den is quite warm - around 0 degrees, even when blizzards howl outside.
After four and a half months the female will give birth to two young - usually brother and sister. They are naked and blind, and weigh no more than 0.5 kg. They lie on their mother's body, the snow is too cold. After another two months they are about 3kg about the size of a domestic cat.
In all this time (5 months from October to March) the mother has not eaten anything, but given birth to and suckled 2 young for 2 months. By now she has lost half her body weight. In late march, when she leaves the den with her young, she is one lean and very hungry bear!
All winter the only tracks have been the tracks of large, usually male bears. When the small tracks appear it is a sign of spring.
Females with young are very wary, not at all curious. The only thing they care about is food - ringed seals, which winter under the ice. When the mother waits for a seal, the young must be very quiet. If they move the seal will hear, and not surface.
The young stay with the mother for over a year. After a year, the cubs stop suckling but stay with the mother. At first she catches seals for the cubs and herself. Later she teaches them to hunt. In the 3rd year she leaves the young, and they have to fend for themselves. That is a very hard time for the young bear.
The young are usually brother and sister. After leaving the mother they usually stay together for some months. If one is lucky and gets a seal, they will share.
Every two or three years a polar bear will have young - a female who lives to her full edge may have at the very most 30 young, but it is more likely to be 20 or less.
Polar bears are wanderers, but stay in the region where they are born, Spitsbergen, Greenland, Arctic Canada ... Young males may wander further than other bears.
Bears have been hunted for many centuries for their fur, but the population was not really threatened until the 19th century. Then the polar bear hunt became mechanised with set guns, triggered automatically by the bear, when it approached the bait. Trophy hunting also began at that time. You could hire a sealer, and travel to Spitsbergen or Greenland to hunt bears. The hunters used very efficient rifles, and in Canada they also used snow-scooters.
In 1950s it became clear that the bears were threatened. Polar bear protection became an issue. Studies revealed that there were only 10 000 bears left in the whole Arctic. In the 1970s new laws were brought in to regulate the polar bear hunt. Since then population has risen to 30 000. It is still growing. In another 30 years we may have 100 000 bears in the Arctic - about what the area can take.