SOS from Svalbard

Christmas around the world: Svalbard

At this time of year, the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is dark 24 hours a day. You'd think it would be pitch black but it isn't - the land is covered in snow and there's a full moon. The winter nights are crystal clear and the bright starlight, moonlight and aurora borealis create a magical blue light.

This is a mountainous place. Its English name, Spit Bergen, means sharp mountain, and the coast is sliced by deep fjords that end in rolling glaciers entering the sea. The few settlements are built where glaciers have retreated or where flood planes and rivers have carved out plateaus. In winter, the only way to get around the islands until the snowmobile season starts in February is by helicopter. In the summer it's light 24 hours a day; the sun moves in small circles above your head. There is an incredible burst of life as the snow melts: flowers, grasses and shrubs cover the ground and millions of seabirds migrate to breed along the cliffs; the reindeer build up their fat reserves, and the surface of the land melts, creating large wetlands.

Svalbard is a platform for international scientific research. We are not out tagging polar bears right now, but the geophysicists and meteorologists work in monitoring stations throughout the year. The new year, 2007, is International Polar Year, so a lot of research will be taking place in the year ahead. The focus, of course, is climate change - the Arctic is currently warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world.

Lately, there have been major changes on Svalbard. The glaciers are thinning and retreating: many of the glaciers that once sank into the ocean have receded on to land and the sea ice is melting earlier and forming later. Last year there was no ice around much of Svalbard, which is directly linked to climate change.This has helped the tourist industry by making it easier for ships to reach the islands but the polar bears are losing their habitat; they live and hunt on the sea ice and now they are having trouble finding food and their numbers are declining. The bears have been approaching human settlements more frequently and there has been an increase in human-bear conflicts, with polar bears breaking into cabins, stealing food and hovering around town. They have to be scared away from people's camps and, on rare occasions, shot in self- defence. WWF is highly concerned.

My fishing friends tell me there were salmon this year. They are common on the mainland but we're 900 miles above the northern tip of Norway. It highlights the issue of invasive species, another consequence of climate change. We are expecting to see more new species arriving, with potentially disastrous consequences for the ecosystem.

Sadly, I think the prospects for maintaining Svalbard as we know it, and have known it for centuries, are bleak. Svalbard is going to be something very different within the lifetime of our children. The Arctic is remote to most people - but it is an extremely special place; it's where you can really touch the heart and soul of Mother Earth.

Stefan Norris is head of conservation for the WWF International Arctic Programme. He was speaking to Sam Alexandroni

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