SEES 2022: An expedition to Edgeøya

It is 8:30h in the morning and we have a meeting in the bar. A good start of the day. Our expedition leader Jan Belgers has to bring us less good news though: It is foggy, thus we cannot continue the planned landing at the big bird cliff at Steiningfjellet. Some scientists wanted to collect bird poop there, but unfortunately that is cancelled for now. We need to pursue our plan B, which means sailing towards Edgeøya and trying to land at Kapp Lee. Jan passes the microphone on to Maarten Loonen, who will give us an update about what this will mean for the science to be done. Kapp Lee and its adjacent valley “Rosenbergdalen” is one of the scientific hotspots of this expedition. Back in the 60s, a group of four young Dutch men overwintered on this place. Their main goal was to study and monitor the bear population around that region. On other places on Svalbard and in the Arctic, researchers from other countries would do the same. After the overwintering, Dutch researchers kept on coming back to Edgeøya and performed more science, including the mapping of vegetation and fungi. Having this data set that is dating back to the 60s is very valuable and creates a point of reference for today’s data. Kapp Lee is the scientific Valhalla of this expedition for most of the scientists on board. However the science performed on this expedition went way beyond the plants and mushrooms. The permafrost, glaciers, mercury, the people on board, bird droppings, plankton, geese, seaweed, microevolution of language, methane, old reindeer antlers, tourism, lake sediments, plastic, Pomor hunting sites, alien species in the water, aerosols: all those topics were under the subject of research. And not only scientists, but also highly interested tourists were on board, both for helping the scientists and enjoying the Arctic nature, as well as for being a research object themselves.

It is 2 o’clock in the afternoon, we just had a lunch on board and it is time again for another meeting in the bar. Sadly, plan B (landing on Kapp Lee) also did not work out. It is still foggy and there have been many bears spotted on Edgeoya in the weeks before, so obviously this is not a good combination. Also, the waves make it hard to go on the Zodiacs. We are heading on to Plan C, which is sailing to Barentsøya, just north of Edgeøya. The waves are expected to be lower there and maybe landing would be easier. We set off north again and it looks good. No fog, managable waves for the Zodiacs.

16:30h, another meeting in the bar. Some have a bad gut feeling and ordered a glass of whiskey already. The conditions looked good on Barentsøya. The guides went on the Zodiacs for a pre-ride, for scouting the coast to see if there are bears and to see if the seemingly good conditions were actually still good when being on the Zodiacs. It all looked promising until a bear with a cub was spotted. Pfff. Time for Plan D. Our expedition organizers had an alphabet full of back-up plans. Chapeau for the flexible work and the patience.

It is the Arctic anno 2022. Instead of facing problems due to sea-ice, we face problems due to bears and fog. After this year’s winter, Svalbard suddenly faced a very warm period in mid-March 2022. In Ny-Ålesund, a temperature record was broken with measured temperatures of +5.5°C. This sudden warmth was catastrophal for the sea-ice all around Svalbard and in a few days the ice weakened strongly. Such warm air outbreaks are becoming more frequent in the fast warming Arctic. Around Edgeøya, the ice melted rapidly too. In winter and spring, Edgeøya is a hotspot for bears and when they notice that the sea-ice starts to melt, they usually migrate northwards along with it. However this year the ice disappeared so rapidly and unexpectedly, that most bears did not have a chance to escape the island. Additionally, June has been the warmest June on Svalbard since the beginning of the measurements. Whereas on the SEES expedition of 2015 there was still some sea-ice to navigate in, the ocean was now completely sea-ice free. Instead, the foggy conditions we faced are getting the new normal: with a warming Arctic, the cloudiness of the Arctic increases too. And voila, here we are. Stuck on a ship next to Edgeøya, with bears in the fog. Humankind created this situation and is now disappointed it cannot land where it wants to land and that it cannot go where it wants to go.

Despite some troubles, most of the science could take place. It was a succesfull expedition. We did get to see beautiful places and interesting science and got to know a whole bunch of nice people. In the end, we managed to land at Kapp Lee, went to Russebukta (the other scientific hotspot of the expedition), bird scientists got their poop samples at other cliffs in Hornsund and Bellsund and we had a few pretty Zodiac trips. And in my opinion, the troubles we faced were part of the success. It shows that we are really just visitors and that we are not that welcome. It shows that not everything we want is in our power. It shows that the Arctic is changing and warming rapidly. It shows that we need a big change.

Kapp Lee
The Ortelius, our home during the expedition
Hornsund, with the bird cliff “Gnålodden” facing us
One of the bears that made landing difficult
Scientists at Russebukta

Many arcticles and videos have been posted already about the expedition. I would like to highlight the video that came out today. In Dutch.

And also I would like to highlight the article I wrote about a year ago, when the first IPCC report of 2021 came out:


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