The view from Svalbard of PM's climate neglect



If only Prime Minister Scott Morrison had journeyed to the Arctic instead of the tropics ahead of the 2019 federal election. If only he'd ditched Christmas Island in favour of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, he might have been moved to instil in the electorate a genuine fear of climate change instead of a concocted dread of refugees.

Lone polar bear on bleak Svalbard landscape. Photo by Catherine MarshallIn Svalbard, Morrison would have encountered a threat that puts Australia's so-called refugee 'crisis' firmly in context: evidence of a hastily warming and irreversibly polluted planet; confirmation of a looming catastrophe that will unleash species extinction and a flood of refugees so numerous they will swiftly surpass Australia's current, begrudging intake.

Lying midway between the North Pole and continental Norway, Svalbard is a mountainous, glacier-swept collection of islands inhabited by endemic species like polar bears, walruses, reindeer, Arctic foxes and vast colonies of seabirds. Human settlements are small; fittingly, coal mining, once the archipelago's key industry, has been gradually phased out (although signatory states to the Svalbard Treaty of 1920 have the right to exploit local natural resources). Tourism is filling the void, but administrators are grappling with the task of balancing a growing industry against the threat it poses to this fragile environment.

High above the island of Spitsbergen, summer's never-setting sun is blazing down from a blue sky, bathing the frigid realm in warm light. Occasional lumps of ice float past our vessel, the National Geographic Explorer, cracking and sizzling as they thaw, melting into wispy smudges on the indigo sea. This might be the Mediterranean were it not for the snow-lacquered mountains abutting the fjord we're sailing through. But no, it's the Arctic in summer — or, more precisely, the Arctic in the summer of 2019, when the climate emergency is at its zenith and the region is expected to record the lowest sea ice on record.

There's still some ice around Svalbard and Franz Joseph Land — young, thin sheets, probably driven here by winds blowing in from the icier north, says Lindblad Expeditions' naturalist Bud Lehnhausen. But last summer the ice here melted fast, allowing the ship to reach 82.5 degrees north in early May — exceptional access for that time of year at a latitude which should still have been ice-packed.

Our journey takes us 79 degrees north, just under 1000km from the North Pole. Icebergs and sea ice are scant; glaciers are retreating. Remote shorelines are speckled with plastic detritus swept in on the Gulf Stream. On trips ashore we wade through boggy tundra, our boots sucked into the meltwater. Air bubbles pebble the beds of small pools: oxygen escaping the permafrost.

While we're traipsing across the spongy morass, the Guardian coincidentally reports that permafrost in certain parts of the Canadian Arctic is thawing 70 years earlier than predicted — a 'sign that the global climate crisis is accelerating even faster than scientists had feared'.


"Pathos engulfs us when we consider the grim future awaiting the impish cub. Even as he is jumping joyfully in and out of icy pools and lagging behind his impatient mother, Australia is approving a new coal mine."


The landscape studied by the team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks was 'unrecognisable from the pristine Arctic terrain they had encountered during initial visits a decade or so earlier'. Moreover, writes the newspaper, the destabilisation of subterranean ice frozen solid for millennia is 'an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5000 or more years' according to geophysics professor Vladimir Romanovsky.

This rapid warming of the climate is borne out in the comparative paucity of polar bear sightings. With the retreat of sea ice — platforms from which they hunt — these endangered marine mammals have been forced onto the tundra where they must cover vast distances in search of suitable prey. Most recently they've invaded human settlements and garbage dumps on the prowl for food. (A study published in the Journal of Science last year reported that none of the polar bears in the sample fitted with high-tech tracking collars had been able to find enough prey to meet their energy needs.)

But I'm inordinately lucky, for several days ago our ship spotted two well-camouflaged polar bears, a mother and cub skulking on an ice-sheet close to shore. Yesterday we located a male marching along a narrow strip of ice fixed to the mainland; and today we spend a blissful hour watching a second mother and her boisterous cub navigating a ribbon of ice in search of seals.

But pathos engulfs us later when we consider the grim future awaiting the impish cub. Our futures are inextricably linked: for even as he is jumping joyfully in and out of icy pools and lagging behind his impatient mother, Australia is approving a new coal mine. And climate deniers are burying their heads in the scorching sand, ignoring the World Economic Forum's prediction that in 30 years up to 200 million people — mostly from developing countries — will risk being displaced by rising sea levels and desertification.

Christmas Island won't be large enough to accommodate all those who seek refuge from Australia when these consequences of human greed, ignorance and inaction come to pass. And the Arctic won't be cold enough to accommodate all those polar bears struggling to survive in an ever-warming environment. Theirs' will be the graver sentence, scientists predict, for man's folly will ultimately drive them to extinction.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. She visited Svalbard as a guest of Lindblad Expeditions.

Main image: Lone polar bear crosses a Svalbard landscape. Photo by Catherine Marshall

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, climate change, Scott Morrison



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Existing comments

Catherine, A sobering observation. Scott Morrison and his government's inability to recognise the signs of a warming climate is a major concern to those of us who observe the weather on a daily basis and enter the numbers into our computers. Statistics and physics don't lie. You are seeing what we don't see and your observations should be a wake up call to all of us . We were in Israel recently where temperatures reached over 40 degrees C - it was in April not September! Western Europe is preparing for an unprecedented heat wave as I write. Here at our weather station we have recorded record daily maximum temperatures for the 24th,25th and 26th days of June with maximums between 16 and 17 degrees each day. Our records for this site go back to 1991. The average maximum for June (1991-2018) is 12.3 degrees. The winter half of the year is normally our wet period, yet, like most of Southeast Australia we are in drought. Barometer readings have been as high as 1038 Millibars most of the past fortnight due to the unusual strength of the subtropical High pressure belt. The signs of change are there but who is taking notice?

Gavin O'Brien | 28 June 2019  

Another thing about Svalbard. It's the location of a seed bank that holds copies of all the seeds held by seed banks around the world. The idea is to preserve these seeds against loss of biodiversity caused by major events and cataclysms. There's something sadly ironic about its location in a place which, however suitable for preservation of essential seeds, is now showing the earliest signs of destructive climate change. Don't panic - but, people, our life is in danger...

Joan Seymour | 28 June 2019  

I ask readers to write to their local City/Shire Councillors asking them to declare a Climate Emergency for their City or Shire. An incident, to be an emergency, conforms to one or more of the following: if it: • Poses an immediate threat to life, health, property, or environment • Has already caused loss of life, health detriments, property damage, or environmental damage • has a high probability of escalating to cause immediate danger to life, health, property, or environment So we are facing a Climate Emergency! 710 jurisdictions in 16 countries have already declared a climate emergency. In Australia, where the climate emergency declaration mobilisation and petition was launched in May 2016, 25 jurisdictions representing roughly 2.6 million people and ten per cent of the population have already declared a climate emergency. Please read the following linked article: As many/most of our Federal and State politicians are more interested in accepting donations from the fossil fuel industry than in serious climate action, our local government politicians may be our best chance for serious climate action. And we need to act individually too, for the sake of our planet and all who who now depend, or will depend, on having a healthy planet.

Grant Allen | 01 July 2019  

Catherine well said, though linking climate change to Christmas Island hardly seems relevant. Perhaps Scomo subscribes to the Bush theory: "President Bush has a plan [to fight global warming]. He says that if we need to, we can lower the temperature dramatically just by switching from Fahrenheit to Celsius."— Jimmy Kimmel We cant sell our gas, coal, ports, dairy farms, mines, airports, energy companies and water to the highest bidder and then expect our politicians to be honest with the proceeds. While the whole refugee crisis: Manus, Nauru, Christmas Island is a political stunt so the LNP can blow their own whistles, their commitment to the environment is pure window dressing. Whilst the former minister was described as MIA, the new minister Sussan Ley is going through the motions in an unpopular portfolio. Scomo could take lessons from across the ditch where they are planting 1 billion trees. They could build the channel from the Burdekin to the Darling to capture the annual surplus floodwater. Coal fire could switch to the Direct Fuel cell. Households with solar could be subsidized to incorporate the new carbon cell batteries. And we could eject the Chinese military from building bases in the Antarctic.

Francis Armstrong | 01 July 2019  

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