Wildlife

Our Changing World

The Svalbard Connection: The remoteness of Svalbard makes it the ideal place for wildlife to adapt to challenging climatic changes – plus a building that could hold the key to the future.

WORDS TIM McGLONE

Wildlife

Our Changing World

The Svalbard Connection: The remoteness of Svalbard makes it the ideal place for wildlife to adapt to challenging climatic changes – plus a building that could hold the key to the future.

WORDS TIM McGLONE

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A group of islands situated near the very top of the world, the Svalbard archipelago is located around 900 km further north than the tip of mainland Norway. It’s separated from Greenland by the Greenland Sea in the west, and from Russia by the Barents Sea in the east. In other words, it’s all on its own. And it’s this extreme isolation that gives its wildlife an advantage.

At sea, there are blue, killer, humpback, fin and beluga whales to spot, as well as various types of seal – and a plethora of unusual and interesting birds including kittiwakes and barnacle geese.

On land, there is of course the polar bear – King of the Arctic – of which about 3,000 roam commandingly around the archipelago, mostly on the largest island of Spitsbergen. Here, you might see an Arctic fox skip smartly across the snow in its sleek white winter coat, which changes to brown during summer when there is no snow.

The average male walrus is around 3.5 metres long and weighs about 1,500 kilograms.

There are around 3,000 polar bears in Svalbard - more than the human population.

The arctic fox's fur changes to a darker shade in the warmer months.

Svalbard reindeer can often be seen strolling around town in summer, discernible from other breeds by their short legs and lightly coloured fur. Endemic to the archipelago, this kind of reindeer has bounced back from the brink of extinction in the 1920s due to overhunting. But new challenges have emerged, with warmer temperatures reducing the amount of grazing food available. This is a serious problem, causing numbers to fall for a population that’s almost 10 per cent skinnier than a decade ago. In fact, almost every animal in the area is facing a test. A reduction in sea ice is more than a nuisance to walruses, given that they usually rest there between dives to find food. Polar bears themselves are seen as a good indicator species for the health of the Arctic, and they are currently listed as endangered.

Svalbard reindeer can often be seen strolling around town in summer ...
Svalbard reindeer can often be seen strolling around town in summer ...

Svalbard reindeer are, as their name would suggest, endemic to the area.

However, one expert believes there is room for optimism thanks to the islands’ remoteness and the ability of the wildlife to adapt. “The wildlife and marine life in Svalbard is unique, and unlike anywhere else in the world due to the large degree of isolation from the mainland and the Arctic climate,” says Dr Jon Aars, Senior Scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI).

In winter, polar bears can be found throughout the entire archipelago, while in summer they generally follow the sea ice and migrate north-eastwards.

Walruses are social animals, and gather in pods regularly.

An arctic fox.

The NPI is a government-backed institution that focuses on work in polar areas like the Norwegian Arctic, and Antarctic areas with Norwegian interests. Polar bears and other Svalbard wildlife are an important focus of Dr Aars’ work. “The quick change in conditions we have experienced in the later decades have led to large changes in the ecosystem,” he says. “The quick loss of sea ice habitat due to climate warming affects the species that depend on this ecosystem.

The archipelago is a landscape photographer's dream.

“In particular, animals using sea ice, for example seals, will either have to migrate north with the ice, or use open water more during the warmer period of the year – or be more on land, like polar bears. “People think of the Arctic as being extremely harsh, but this is the sort of environment they're used to,” Dr Aars told Hurtigruten Magazine. “They (the Svalbard wildlife) are extremely adaptive to the area.” Of all the extraordinary aspects of Svalbard’s wildlife, perhaps it is its adaptability that will serve it best – offering hope for the future.

Sea ice is critical for much of Svalbard's wildlife.

A Svalbard reindeer.

The glowing vault at the top of the world

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