In the last week of Summer Recess, a cross-party group of parliamentarians from both houses left London for a mini-expedition to Ny-Ålesund, the northernmost permanent settlement in the world.
Ny-Ålesund lies next to the Kongsfjord at 78.55 degrees north, in the northwest corner of Spitsbergen/Svalbard.
The purpose of the visit was to provide an opportunity for British parliamentarians to see first-hand, the dramatic and profound changes that are underway in the Arctic, as temperatures in the region rise at more than double the global average. It was also a chance to meet British scientists working as part of an international scientific research community comprising ten nations to better understand both how the Arctic is changing, and what the consequences are likely to be both in the Arctic, and in the rest of the world.
Ahead of the trip, the group spent a day at the British Antarctic Survey and the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge to learn more about Britain’s long-standing role in Arctic science.
Spitsbergen (or ‘Svalbard’ to give it its contemporary Norwegian name) is an archipelago off the northern coast of Norway. For centuries after its discovery by Willem Barents in 1596, it was treated as a ‘no-man’s land’ where no nation was sovereign. In 1925, full and absolute sovereignty was granted to Norway under the terms of the ‘Svalbard Treaty’. However, under that treaty, all signatories, including the UK, retain equal rights to engage in commercial activities on the archipelago (that historically have related to whaling and coal mining).
Coal mining commenced in Ny-Ålesund in 1916 with the establishment of the Kings Bay Kull Compani AS, and lasted until 1929. Operations restarted after the Second World War, but a series of accidents in 1948, 1952, 1953, and 1962 led the Norwegian authorities to close all the mines there.
In 1964, Norway signed an agreement with the European Space Research Organisation
(ESRO) to establish a Norwegian satellite telemetry station in Ny-Ålesund. The station operated from 1967 to 1974. Meanwhile, Ny-Ålesund became an increasingly popular destination for scientific field research owing in part to its greater accessibility than other parts of the Arctic. After the Cold War, research activity there accelerated. Today, ten nations operate research stations in Ny-Ålesund, with logistical support provided by Kings Bay AS.
From 1948 to 1992, Walter Brian Harland of the University of Cambridge led several expeditions to Svalbard to study the geology of the archipelago, which was of growing interest to international oil and gas companies. In 1972, he established a summer field base in Ny-Ålesund that was maintained every year until 1992.
The British Government took little interest in Svalbard until the early 1980s, when the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) called for more support to be given to Arctic science, owing to the region’s growing economic, scientific, and strategic importance. NERC decided to establish a UK research station in Ny-Ålesund, a move that proved integral to firming up UK’s claim of to be a major player in the Arctic science community.
All members of the APPG for the Polar Regions were invited to apply to take part in the trip. Participants were selected on the basis of past participation in APPG for the Polar Regions events, and cross-party balance.
The following MPs and Peers participated in the trip:
The personal motivations of the group were varied. Collectively, the group shared a keen interest in learning more about why the UK is investing in Arctic science, 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 was supported during the visit by Dr Duncan Depledge (Director, APPG for the Polar Regions Secretariat), Amy Swash (Assistant to the APPG for the Polar Regions Secretariat), Henry Burgess (Head, NERC Arctic Office), Nick Cox (NERC Station Leader), Professor Dame Jane Francis (Director, British Antarctic Survey), Alison Robinson (Director of Corporate Affairs, NERC), Dr Kevin Newsham (British Antarctic Survey) and Dr Ed King (British Antarctic Survey).
The group is grateful to Per Erik Hanevold (Managing Director, Kings Bay AS), Professor Kim Holmén (International Director, Norwegian Polar Institute), Stig Pedersen (Station Leader, Geodetic Station), Moritz Sieber (Station Commander, Geodetic Station), and Professor Harald Ellingsen (Director, The University Centre in Svalbard) for hosting us during our visit.
The group acknowledges the generous support of the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and the Mamont Foundation, which made this trip possible.
The remainder of this note provides a summary of our visit to Svalbard.
Our party set sail from Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, for Ny-Ålesund shortly after lunchtime. It was a significant change of scenery for the group following a gruelling 11-hour delay to our arrival in Longyearbyen. Participants had travelled from London to Longyearbyen on a scheduled flight via Oslo. However, thick fog prevented us from landing at the scheduled time of 0030. After being diverted first to Tromso, and then all the way back to Oslo, it was 1100 before we finally set foot on Svalbard.
We made the approximately 200km trip to Ny-Ålesund aboard the ‘Spitsbergen Express’, a small, chartered boat. The journey out of the Isfjorden, up the Détroit de Forland, and finally into the Kongsfjord, lasted around five hours. Along the way we were treated to a monochrome vision of snow-topped mountains, glaciers, and swelling seas, but the highlight was a small diversion to visit a walrus colony.
Upon arriving, we were greeted by Nick Cox, the manager of the UK Arctic Research Station who has been in Ny-Ålesund every summer since 1978. We then had a tour of the UK station and its impressive facilities. In the evening, we learnt about the importance of international collaboration at Ny-Ålesund, symbolised by the fact that scientists and staff from all ten research stations eat together in the main mess hall.
The main theme that emerged over the course of the evening was that our hosts had seen a huge transformation of the UK’s attitude towards the Arctic in recent years, as demonstrated by NERC’s investment of more than £30 million in Arctic science over the past decade and the establishment of an Arctic Office to improve connections between science and policy.
In recent years, NERC has also run a two-week course in Ny-Ålesund for PhD students from across the UK to teach them field research techniques in one of the world’s most hostile environments. In the near future, NERC hopes to attract international participation in the course, possibly with the support of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
Our hosts hoped that the UK would remain keenly interested in Arctic science, despite not having any territory in the region.
The day started with a lecture by Professor Kim Holmén, International Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute. We were joined for the lecture by 13 early career staff from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose visit to Ny-Ålesund, coincided with our own. Their presence reminded us that Norway has sovereignty over Svalbard under the terms of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty. However, Norway, Russia, the UK, and others all dispute how the Treaty should be interpreted and so it is unsurprising that Norway places importance on ensuring its staff are familiar with the archipelago’s complex geopolitics.
Professor Holmén’s lecture was a tour-de-force of the global implications of climate change in the Arctic. He told us how the Arctic is warming twice as fast the global average, with average summer temperatures now +6°C warmer, and winter temperatures now +10°C warmer than just a few decades ago. That has had a dramatic impact on the local environment around Ny-Ålesund where glaciers are retreating, permafrost is melting, and sea-ice has virtually disappeared from the Kongsfjord. The local flora and fauna is changing as result. For instance, Beluga whales are struggling to cope with the loss of ice-cover while Orca
‘killer’ whales are benefiting. Atlantic Cod and Mackerel, species typically associated with warmer waters further south, are also being found around Svalbard.
The lecture left few in doubt that climate change was having significant impacts on the Arctic, and producing major changes elsewhere in the world as sea levels rise and oceans warm, new shipping routes open up, and the global environment as a whole becomes more unpredictable.
Professor Holmén also highlighted the significance of the international research community in Ny-Ålesund. Svalbard itself is of immense value to the scientific community for a range of different reasons. With the Gulf Stream flowing past the western shores of Svalbard, the local environment is far warmer than anywhere else so far north, making it easier and cheaper for scientists to be there (although polar bears pose an ever-present risk!) relative to other parts of the Arctic. It also sits on a major gateway to the Arctic for many oceanic and atmospheric pollutants arriving from industrial sites further south, particularly in Europe, allowing scientists to investigate not just the effects of changes in the Arctic, but also the causes.
Following the lecture, the party was taken on a short drive to see the new Geodetic Observatory at Brandalspynten where we were given a short tour of the new facility, which is not yet operational. It is sited only a few hundred feet or so away from the old Observatory that is still in use.
The new facility will replace the old Geodetic Observatory as part of a global network known as the ‘Global Geodetic Observing System’. These observatories are used to listen for radio waves emitted from quasars. Quasars are the most distant objects in the universe but by measuring minute changes in their signals as they are received in different parts of the world, it is possible to draw up a more accurate picture of what the Earth looks like in three dimensions, the speed and pattern of its rotation, and other factors such as continental drift. That data is critical for communicating with satellites, mapping on a global scale, and monitoring changes in climate, sea level, floods, landslides, earthquakes and melting ice around the world.
After lunch, the party kitted up in boat suits in preparation for a tour of the Kongsfjord in two Polarcirkel boats. The boats took us across the fjord to the island of Blomstrandhalvøya. The island is fascinating for two reasons, firstly because up until a few years ago the land here was known as the Blomstrand Peninsula. However, the retreat of the Blomstrandbreen glacier in recent years revealed it to be an island, something that highlights just how much the local area is changing as the ice retreats.
Secondly, Blomstrandhalvøya is home to Ny-London, a settlement established in 1911 by the British Northern Exploration Company Ltd. led by Ernest Mansfield. Mansfield had won financial backing to establish a marble mine there. However, the plan was abandoned in 1920 after the marble was found to be too fragile owing to the extreme environment. Today, the crumbling buildings that remain are a monument to Britain’s past commercial ventures in the Arctic.
After Blomstrandhalvøya, we travelled on to the Blomstrandbreen glacier to listen to the sounds of cracking ice. There we crossed 79 degrees north, marking the northernmost point of our trip.
The next stop on our tour of the fjord was Gåsebu beach. There, we disembarked and shed our boat suits. After a short briefing about what to do if a polar bear showed up (huddle in a group and let the person with the flare gun and rifle handle the rest) the party split into two groups. The first group was to walk for one and a half miles across rough terrain to visit the snout of the Midre Lovenbreen glacier, guided by Dr Edward King, a geophysicist from the British Antarctic Survey. The second group was to stay on the beach with Dr Kevin Newsham, a terrestrial ecologist, for a talk about changes in local vegetation.
The walk to the Midre Lovenbreen glacier was like taking a journey through time. When glaciers come to a temporary stop, rock and debris pile up in moraines. Each moraine marked a moment in time, the first being from 1909. Since then, the glacier has retreated by almost 1km, and in recent decades, at an accelerated pace of many metres per year.
Dr King had been studying the glacier with a new ground-penetrating radar he had developed. The radar allows for measurements to be taken of the structure of the glacier and the landscape beneath it, enabling a better understanding of how the ice slides across the bed, and the factors that determine the speed at which it flows.
Meanwhile, on the beach, Dr Newsham explained to the second group how warmer soil temperatures were facilitating the growth of fungi that over the long-term have the potential to unleash a ‘carbon bomb’ in the Arctic by unlocking carbon previously held fast by permafrost.
The two groups were reunited in Ny-Ålesund later that evening, but not before separately coming across the first clear that sign that at least one polar bear was in the vicinity.
After two incredible days in Ny-Ålesund, our group set sail aboard the ‘Spitsbergen Express’ on our return journey to Longyearbyen. Glorious weather gave us a completely different perspective on the local flora and fauna. We saw plenty of birdlife include Arctic Skua, Arctic Terns, Puffins, and Glacuous Gulls, as well as a reindeer and Arctic foxes roaming along the coastlines. And just when the group thought it had missed the opportunity to see a polar bear, we spotted the first of the four we would see during the last hour or so of the journey. The other three – a mother and two cubs – were relaxing on a beach just outside Longyearbyen having scared off some German tourists earlier that day.
We learned that the population of polar bears on Svalbard (c. 1,500) does not seem to be too much diminished by the changing climate but uncertainty remains as to why that is the case and whether the status quo will last.
On arriving back in Longyearbyen, our last stop was The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), the world’s northernmost higher education institution. UNIS was established in 1993 as a share-holding company owned by the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. It seeks to contribute to the development of Svalbard as an international research platform by providing free university level courses on Arctic biology, Arctic geology, Arctic geophysics, and Arctic technology.
Professor Harald Ellingsen, the UNIS Director, told us about the substantial British scientific presence in Longyearbyen. In 2015, 11% of UNIS’ international students were British (37 out of a total student body of 690). We 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).
There is still much work to be done to understand climate change in the Arctic, and its implications for those of us living in more temperate climes. 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.
There are of course debates to be had about climate change and the Arctic too. But at least there are eight more Parliamentarians who 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 in Britain and the rest of the world.
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, and those who took part will now be better able to act as ambassadors for the Arctic and Arctic science, both in Parliament and within their own constituencies.
“The APPG visit to Ny-Ålesund provided invaluable insight into the impact of climate change on local habitats, species and the international implications of these changes. The scientists at Ny-Ålesund are conducting vital research on changes that will have profound implications across the globe.”
Madeleine Moon MP
“The trip was enormously valuable in providing understanding of the wide and varied work of the British Antarctic survey in Svalbard and, as a result of their cutting edge research work, the contribution that British scientists are making to the science of climate change.”
Mark Menzies MP
“Our visit brought home vividly the extraordinary extent of warming in the Arctic Ocean that has already taken place; the major effects this is having on both land and sea which are already influencing weather patterns well beyond the Arctic. The important work being done by British scientists as part of an international scientific effort in the Arctic deserves wider recognition beyond the scientific community.”
“Our trip to Svalbard was an excellent opportunity to learn more about glaciers meeting in the High Arctic, the complex chemistry associated with the thawing of permafrost, and the effects of both on the marine environment.”