Diary of a scientist in the Arctic, by María A. Blasco: ‘Six August days with no nights, looking at the future of our planet’

The director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Center describes a natural world as wonderful as it is imperiled by the climate crisis. The rapid loss of biodiversity and ice has dire consequences for the entire world

The Norwegian Tunabreen glacier stream in Svalbard.A.SERRANO

The Arctic is one of the places on the planet where the effects of climate change are most evident, accelerated and dramatic. Beautiful, remote and imperiled, there is no region more suited to witnessing and understanding the need to protect Earth from the destruction that is already leaving its mark in the polar north, with the melting of glacial ice. This year, the Spanish National Cancer Research Center (CNIO) is exploring the intersections of science and art, with a project focused on the changing climate and its impact on biodiversity, with the Arctic as the setting. In the narrative that follows, María A. Blasco, the director of the CNIO and a leading researcher in the field of aging and its relationship to cancer and other diseases, documents, in the form of a written diary and photographs, her impressions during her week-long journey to the Arctic.

Scientist Maria A. Blasco (second from left) and artist Dora García, with members of the team that accompanied them to the Arctic as part of the ‘CNIO Arte’ initiative.
Scientist Maria A. Blasco (second from left) and artist Dora García, with members of the team that accompanied them to the Arctic as part of the ‘CNIO Arte’ initiative. A. SERRANO

Day 1: “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic”

Today we traveled from Madrid to the Svalbard archipelago. In Norwegian, the name means “cold ridge” or “cold edge.” The Dutch explorers who discovered and mapped the region called it terra nullius, no man’s land, because they found no humans living here when they arrived. Today, it is one of the northernmost inhabited places on Earth. The settlements are Russian and Norwegian — mostly the latter — but the 1920 Treaty of Svalbard recognizes the right of 40 signatory countries to exploit the territory’s natural resources.

In the Arctic, observing what happens every day is critical to predicting the future of the climate. Our team will be here for one week — six August days with no nights, looking at the future of our melting planet. A not very encouraging future... Because what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. But I’ll talk more about that later. Today, the temperature is 9 degrees Celsius (48 °F).

A ship sails along the Nordenskiöldbreen glacier.
A ship sails along the Nordenskiöldbreen glacier.A. SERRANO

Day 2: “A polar bear is swimming nearby. An adult bear can run 100 meters in six seconds, so you need to have a guide with a rifle”

Today, we started our exploration. We stopped at several points along the fjord, where the settlement of Longyearbyen is located, and at the EISCAT radar research station, where we were able to take in the views of the imposing U-shaped glacial valley.

When we woke up, we were visited by a flock of barnacle geese and their chicks — there are thousands of them in the fjord! They reminded me of the movie Spread Your Wings. In the settlement, we saw a reindeer crossing the road on our way to breakfast. A helicopter flying over the sea sent warning that a polar bear had been spotted swimming near Longyearbyen.

The bears roam near the settlement, and on occasion come close to town. One killed a Dutch tourist in 2019, attacking him as he slept in his tent in a designated camping area. They are heavily surveilled, but it’s impossible to control their movements. An adult polar bear can run 100 meters in six seconds, which is why you only go out in the company of a guide armed with a rifle. Today, we saw arctic tern nests in the fjord, with glaciers surrounding us on all sides. I’ve seen a crane, purple sandpipers that had no fear of humans, and a parasitic jaeger trying to hunt them. David Nogués-Bravo, an Arctic expert with the University of Copenhagen’s Globe Institute, told us that the rate of species extinction here is 1,000 times faster than before there were humans.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The Bering Sea is warming five times faster than other seas. What is happening now in the Arctic is a preview of what will happen to the rest of the world.

How do we raise awareness? The New York Times, in collaboration with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, proposes birdwatching as a way to appreciate biodiversity. If we observe nature and other living beings, we can appreciate their beauty and will fight for their conservation.

On the dark side of the fjord, there are dog farms with huskies chained to their tiny kennels. Tourists rent the dogs to pull sleds. It’s barbaric.

Entrance to the Global Seed Vault, Svalbard, Norway.
Entrance to the Global Seed Vault, Svalbard, Norway. M. BLASCO

Day 3: “It’s impossible not to think about the melting of the ice. We must protect the life and beauty of this place”

In the Arctic summer the sun never rises or sets. It lies low in the sky. We’ve had two days and two nights of bright sun and blue skies. It’s impossible not to think about the melting of the Arctic ice.

According to data from NASA based on satellite images, the size of the polar ice cap has decreased by 12% per decade since 1980. A new study by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), based on a climate models, indicates that between the years 2030 and 2050 the Arctic ice will be completely gone during the month of September. I think of the songs Cold Cold Ground, by Tom Waits, and 50 Words for Snow, by Kate Bush.

The melting of the Arctic is an issue of global geopolitical concern. Some 30% of the world’s oil and gas reserves are located here, and have the potential to generate conflicts between countries like Norway, Russia and China. Chinese ships could shorten their route to Europe by 4,500 km if they were to travel through the Arctic instead of the Suez Canal. All this portends an escalation in political tensions.

We end the day’s excursion at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Researcher David Nogués-Bravo tells us that 70% of crops depend on pollinators — work that creates billions in yearly savings for the agriculture industry. The estimated economic cost of biodiversity loss is $3 trillion.

A healthy planet saves money. The Dasgupta Review has calculated the economic impact of biodiversity loss. Nogués-Bravo says that degrowth is necessary. But in addition to degrowth, I think we must look to the Arctic landscape, and those who live in the Arctic — the animals, the birds and the plants — and work to protect them. To protect the life and beauty of this place.

I’m an amateur birder. So far in the Arctic I have seen arctic tern, snow bunting, glaucous gull, Arctic fulmar, barnacle goose, parasitic jaeger, purple sandpiper, and common eider.

View of the Nordenskiöldbreen glacier, in Svalbard, Norway.
View of the Nordenskiöldbreen glacier, in Svalbard, Norway.A. SERRANO

Day 4: “Today I had the feeling that I had left the world”

Two hours after leaving Longyearbyen, our rusty ship enters what to me seems like a paradise. The birds appear no longer to fly, but to just float placidly in a sea that is denser than usual due to the melting of the glacier we are now approaching. I watch with delight as hundreds of puffins bob in the waves. There are northern fulmars, black guillemots and common guillemots, glaucous gulls. Passing by the so-called “bird cliff,” we see razor-billed auk nests. We have spotted several whales so far.

Across the sea from the glacier is the abandoned settlement of Pyramiden, a Russian outpost closed in 1998 after the coal mine shut down. Pyramiden is history stopped in time — the history, perhaps, of the change in course of the former Soviet Union. But now, Pyramiden is coming back to life. The Soviet era buildings are now managed by a Russian tycoon and owner of Arktikugol Trust, a company that employs about 14 people to run the hotel, bar and souvenir store; or as guides; or as construction workers rebuilding the settlement.

As we dock in Pyramiden, a guide with a rifle waits to accompany us, and to protect us from the bears. We walk to the main square, which centers around a prominent sculpture of Lenin gazing out at the imposing glacier. We visit several buildings — relics of Soviet grandeur in the Arctic: a beautiful public dining room, an elegant Olympic swimming pool, the settlement’s cultural center, complete with music halls and a theater with a piano.

Today I had the feeling that I had left the world. Our foray into Pyramiden reminds me of the wonderful documentary Halout, filmed by a Russian couple living in a cabin in the Arctic, about the impact of ice loss on walruses.

Walruses need to rest after travelling, and they take their breaks on the ice. But there is less and less ice now, so thousands of walruses and their young are cramming together into smaller and smaller spaces, causing increased mortality from being crushed on the ice or exhaustion at sea. Something similar happens with polar bears. Bears hunt seals and walruses on the ice, but the scarcity of ice forces them to go further inland for their prey, to go into settlements and steal food, or to eat reindeer. In Pyramiden this year, a single bear killed 14 reindeer.

A parasitic jaeger perched on a rock.
A parasitic jaeger perched on a rock. M.BLASCO

Day 5: “We heard the ice sinking; it sounded like a bomb exploding”

Today we saw a pod of beluga whales and thousands of birds basking in the sea near the Tunabreem glacier. We heard the ice sinking; it sounded like a bomb exploding. I repeat: this place is a paradise, but a paradise in peril.

If some species suffer from the warming of the Arctic, others come back to life with the thawing of the permafrost. A week ago, the discovery of a new species of worms from more than 46,000 years ago was published in the journal PloS Genetics. These worms lived during the Pleistocene, the era of the woolly mammoths, and have remained frozen until today. Scientists have manage to keep the worms alive and to reproduce in a laboratory, and genome sequencing indicates that they are genetically distinct from the similar nematode, C. elegans.

Although C. elegans can also survive while frozen, no species has ever been documented to survive 46,000 years. Perhaps this discovery can offer some clue for how we might prepare for our future world — a kind of terrestrial or interstellar Noah’s Ark, preserving living things for thousands of years.

The existence of worms in the Arctic 46,000 years ago is consistent with recent studies indicating that the continent was ice-free at the time. Svalbard was once covered with forests and ferns — something that can help us understand the consequences of what is happening today.

Less ice formation in the Arctic can lead to a disruption of the Gulf Stream, among other things. This current causes Europe to enjoy a warmer climate than would otherwise corresponds to its latitude, and prevents us from suffering glaciation. The Earth is in a delicate climatic balance, and the acceleration of these processes due to human activity has devastating consequences.

There are many things we can do as individuals to slow the pace of climate change. The United Nations tells us how. One of these things is what we eat. Food production contributes to 30% of climate change. Meat consumption is one of the main factors, because land for pasture and grain is often created through deforestation, and because of the methane emitted by livestock and the agricultural runoff that pollutes soil and aquifers.

The arctic tundra.
The arctic tundra.A.SERRANO

Day 6: “We say goodbye to landscapes and animals that need our protection”

Yesterday we met the team from Artika, Longyearbyen’s art center. They offer residency programs to artists and scientists, and have collaborated with CNIO Arte to host a team led by the artist Dora Garcia. After six days in the Arctic, I leave with the feeling of having left a natural paradise. I leave behind glaciers, whales, beluga whales, polar bears, Arctic birds, walruses, seals, and reindeer. I leave behind grandiose landscapes. I leave behind a place that needs our protection.

This year has seen the warmest months and days since records have been kept, and even in the Arctic itself, coal mining, hunting and meat consumption continue. We are out of time.

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