Polar Notes

Aug 2017

APPG Polar Regions visits Svalbard

In the final week of summer recess, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Polar Regions visited Svalbard. The eight members who travelled were a diverse group comprising MPs and Peers from the four largest parties in Parliament (Conservatives, Labour, the Scottish National Party, and the Liberal Democrats). The group as a whole shared a keen interest in learning more about why Britain is investing in Arctic research (more than £30 million over the past decade), what climatic changes are being observed in the Arctic, the potential economic implications, and, for the MPs in particular, how the lives of their constituents might be impacted by those changes.  

The group flew first to Longyearbyen before travelling for five hours by boat up the west coast of Svalbard to Ny-Ålesund, the most northerly permanent settlement in the world. Ny-Ålesund is home to an international scientific community, with stations operated by ten different nations. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has operated the UK research station there since 1992, although the station leader, Nick Cox has helped small groups of British scientists work in this otherwise remote and inhospitable spot every summer for the past forty years.  

In Ny-Ålesund, the group learned how the nearby Kongsfjord used to be covered year-round with sea-ice, but today it is virtually ice-free. Temperatures in Ny-Ålesund are much warmer (+6°C warmer in the summer and +10°C warmer in the winter). During a tour of the fjord the group saw glaciers in sheer remission. British Antarctic Survey (BAS) scientists, who were guiding the group, explained how the local flora and fauna was changing, with the surrounding landscape becoming greener, and fish species more commonly associated with warmer waters, such as Atlantic Cod and mackerel, being seen in ever-increasing numbers.

The group also visited the Geodetic Observatory at Brandalspynten, just outside the main Ny Ålesund settlement, where leading-edge technology is being used to precisely map changes in the motion of the Earth. It forms part of a global network of support for crucial satellite-based infrastructure that is used for accurately monitoring the impacts of climate change.  

The group’s last stop was The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) in Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost higher education institution. There, the group heard about the substantial British scientific presence in Longyearbyen where 11% of UNIS’ international students were British (37 out of a total student body of 690). The group then heard from several staff and students, who were either British or had strong links to British universities, about their various projects which ranged from the study of space and upper atmospheric physics, to Arctic marine ecotoxicology, permafrost, and geology (to support safer oil and gas drilling).

This was, without a doubt, a valuable trip. The APPG for the Polar Regions exists to promote awareness and understanding in Parliament of polar issues. In Ny-Ålesund and Longyearbyen the group was able to see for themselves how British scientists, with support from NERC and the British Antarctic Survey, are making vital contributions to that effort across several scientific disciplines. Eight more Parliamentarians now have first-hand experience to prove beyond any doubt that dramatic and profound changes are underway in the Arctic, and that the potential consequences are alarming, not just for the future of life in the Arctic, but also for Britain.

The APPG for the Polar Regions gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and the Mamont Foundation for making this trip possible.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions outside the NERC UK Arctic Research Station in Ny-Ålesund

Top row: Dr Kevin Newsham, Professor Dame Jane Francis. Second Row: Dr Duncan Depledge, Amy Swash, Alison Robinson. Third row: Baroness Neville-Jones, Madeleine Moon MP, Nick Cox. Bottom row: Dr Ed King, James Gray MP, Mark Menzies MP, Baroness Smith of Newnham, Lord Haworth, John Mann MP, Brendan O’Hara MP.