South Coast Register
There are a number of ways you can die in the Arctic. Death by walrus is by far the most exotic and entails the two tusked one forming a perfect ‘O’ with his or her mouth and then proceeding to suck you through a makeshift tunnel whilst turning you inside out. If you are a clam, worm, or sea cucumber, it’s not a pleasant death.
However the two most probable and pedestrian ways for a human to farewell friends whilst sojourning in Svalbard, in the Norwegian Arctic, according to Aurora Expeditions’ resident naturalist, Erik Gronningsaeter, are either drowning or hypothermia.
Drowning may be imminent if you get too close to a calving glacier. The ensuing wave could easily plunge you into the depths of the icy waters, so do keep your distance.
“You’ve got about twenty minutes,” said the assistant expedition leader of Aurora Expeditions, Skye Marr-Whelan, as 12 foolhardy souls on the Polar Pioneer lined up for the famed ‘Polar Plunge’. They were all in and out the water in under two minutes to ensure they received their ‘I survived the Polar Plunge’ t-shirts.
Perhaps the second most unpleasant way to meet your maker is by being picked up and tossed around and then having your back slit open by a Polar bear, albeit a cute and furry creature, but not one to whom you would want to get too close. Unfortunately many seals suffer this death but as a human, you don’t want to become part of this food chain. Not impossible in these times where the bridal veil of ice and snow that has protected this area is being ripped apart far too prematurely.
Norway’s pack ice will be gone in less than ten years, according to Aurora Expeditions’ Norwegian Naturalist, Erik Gronningsaeter. He believes that there is not much hope for the polar bears of the Svalbard area. This is because the polar bears need the ice for food. These bears, which weigh between 300 – 800 kg, eat around 50 – 70 ringed or bearded seals per year. They are able to catch the seals when they surface in holes in the ice in order to breathe or when they lie on the ice to rest. Rarely do bears catch seals on land or open water. The bears, who miss the constantly moving pack ice and are stuck on land during winter, can die of starvation. Of the three bears I saw on my trip around Svalbard or Spitsbergen, one was dead.
Polar bears are intelligent animals and can learn behavior essential for survival. Although polar bears are a solitary animal, Aurora Expeditions naturalist, John Kirkwood, says that polar bears in the Russian arctic on Wrangle Island have been seen hunting in packs to kill walrus. Polar bears have never previously hunted in packs hence this, perhaps is the start of a new survival behavior.
Polar bears in Canada’s arctic, Churchill have shown they can adapt to the changing conditions with those being stuck on land making for the dump site, a sort of Polar Bears’ McDonalds. Although this closed in 2006, polar bears still forage around the area in search of food. There is plenty around thanks to the tourists.
Yet those recalcitrant bears who are caught in the control zone around Churchill, often regret it as they end up in the Canadian version of Long Bay Prison, the Polar Bear Holding Facility. Here problem bears are put into one of five air conditioned cells and held for the bear alert season apparently maintaining the welfare of bears at the same time as the humans.
The polar bears of Churchill may be out of the woods for the time being thanks to the abundance of tourists and garbage scraps, but it seems their Norwegian neighbours will not be so lucky.
As a human, we may well survive a trip to the Norwegian arctic, but the arctic is now in the shadows of death. Let’s take this as a warning whilst there is still time for the rest of the globe.