Melting moments

DAVID MCGONIGAL
Last updated 05:00 09/10/2013
Arctic Landscape
David McGonigal

BRIGHT COLOURS: The Inuit village of Itleveq.

Arctic Std
David McGonigal
FREEZE FRAMES: Polar bears head the list of reasons to visit the Arctic.

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The year was 2006 and the operations manager on the other end of the phone asked if I would like to be part of an Australian Arctic expedition for Peregrine Adventures, travelling through Canada's Northwest Passage.

I had already been to the Arctic (European and Canadian) about a dozen times but I had strong reservations.

Australia's Arctic travels didn't get off to a good start.

In 1845, Sir John Franklin, the ex-governor of Tasmania, set off to sail through the Northwest Passage. It was the best-prepared British expedition ever, with 129 men on two strong ships.

They sailed from Greenland and none was ever seen again.

When the Canadian explorer John Rae returned with Inuit reports the crew had resorted to cannibalism, he was shunned.

As Franklin ate his own boots on a previous Arctic excursion, one could argue this expedition's nutrition had improved.

I wasn't so concerned about being eaten but in my earlier years in the Arctic, there had been a big plug of ice blocking the Northwest Passage so I doubted we would succeed but I was told the ice had unexpectedly melted and our way was clear.

So I went on the first successful Australian transit of the Northwest Passage. Ironically, the biggest problem we faced was trying to find any sea ice at all, because that's where you have the best chance of seeing polar bears.

The Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the global average and in 2012, the sea ice fell to a level not seen for 1500 years. The unusual conditions of 2006 are now the norm.

A study released this September showed the sea ice was at a new seasonal low this past northern winter.

However, while there's an overall trend towards less ice, in some years there is more ice than in others. Also, the Arctic is a huge area with regional variation. This year Svalbard was largely ice-free, while the Northwest Passage was blocked.

There are so many reasons to visit the Arctic. Polar bears head the list but walrus, puffins, Arctic foxes and beluga whales are on many wildlife wish lists.

Then there are the historical aspects, from the lonely graves of three Franklin expeditioners on Canada's Beechey Island, to the launch site of the ill-fated Andree in Svalbard.

The Inuit people of Canada, Greenland and Russia and their rich art lure many travellers.

Arctic flowers are tiny, bountiful and beautiful and don't obscure the dramatic landscape where seaside cliffs are tenements for seabirds. Finally, there's the ice, from the icebergs of Disko Bay to the serrated fringes of the polar pack.

Each is affected by warming and we allow for it as we plan our trips. While there are worrying signs, there are positives, too, for visitors to the new Arctic world.

REALM OF THE ICE BEAR

Polar bears are listed as marine mammals, like whales and seals. A swimming polar bear is in its natural environment, but they need sea ice to hunt the seals that lie on it. Watching a polar bear stalking a seal on ice reveals a superb predator.

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On two August days in the ice off Svalbard this year we found five bears, all curious about the strange breakfast smells emanating from the ship's galley.

Even polar bears are attracted by bacon, it seems.

The bears on ice were all heavy and healthy, in contrast with the nine we found on land.

The ice emptied out of Svalbard's bays and fiords early this year so those bears caught on land had to resort to scavenging whatever food they could find. Heading out to sea might expend too much energy to reach the ice and start hunting.

In Woodfiord, we found the body of an adult male bear that had been reduced to skin and bone and had apparently died of starvation.

Our bear specialist, Dr Ian Stirling, checked with the Norwegian Polar Institute and discovered that the bear, 16 years old and in its prime, had been seen in the south of Spitsbergen and in apparent good health only three months earlier. While it was easy to surmise he starved to death it's possible there was another, less alarming, cause of death.

That possibility, however, was lessened by the discovery of another thin dead bear by Polar Pioneer in Palanderbukta.

The institute reported it was a poor year for new cubs, too.

What does this mean for visitors?

Obviously, it may mean there will be fewer bears to see in the future but in the short term, if you are on a ship that can venture into the ice, the bears appear to be more concentrated.

While we think polar bears are adorably cute, they think of us as tastily edible. With food in short supply, their desperation rises, and they are very clever hunters.

So, unlike Antarctica, where the biggest threat is being pecked at by penguins, Arctic sites are cleared before each landing and the guides carry loaded guns.

Arctic passengers have always been briefed on polar-bear safety and it seems that even if there are fewer bears, they will be more dangerous.

Less ice means less surface for algae and phytoplankton to grow on and hence fewer fish and less food for seals, walrus and whales.

It also causes the land to warm more quickly, so there are more flowers in early summer.

More summer vegetation is good news for caribou and reindeer, but it may wipe out some marginal ecosystems. Warming is giving rise to more freezing rain, too, and Canadian Inuit say that is covering the vegetation that caribou depend on during winter.

At pest level, there are few summer bugs in Svalbard, but lots in Greenland. The insect problem will get worse, so take insect spray.

FARTHEST NORTH

There is great satisfaction in crossing the Arctic Circle (66°33.5' north) and you'll achieve that on any voyage through the Northwest Passage or Northeast Passage or on a visit to Svalbard.

One of the most expensive Arctic options is to sail on the Russian nuclear icebreaker 50 Years of Victory from Murmansk to the North Pole (90 degrees north) and back.

Peregrine Adventures has three departures in June and July 2014 and the 14-day trip costs from A$29,390 ($33314.3), including a night in Helsinki before and a night after the voyage.

There's a lot of sea ice to be crunched on the way to the North Pole, but the powerful icebreaker easily cuts through two to three metres of ice.

In 2000, when the ship arrived at the North Pole, it found open water there, something the captain had never seen on his 10 previous voyages. He found ice 10 kilometres away for the passengers' ice walk at the pole.

The principal destination for European Arctic cruises is Svalbard, an island group due north of the top of Greenland.

Typical ice conditions have changed there too. The southern edge of the polar ice in summer often extends down to the islands.

The common quest a decade ago was to reach Moffen, a low islet that lies just across 80 degrees north and within 10 degrees of the North Pole.

However, this year the ice edge was much further north - beyond 81 degrees north and, by the end of the season, well beyond 82 degrees north, so there was a lot of open water to cross.

The break-up of ice is making navigation less predictable.

"There is no question that in recent years, we've come to plan our itineraries with higher expectations of exploring farther," says the owner of Canada's One Ocean Expeditions, Andrew Prossin.

"With the reduced overall ice cover, our job can be more difficult, with a much more dynamic situation in localised areas.

"Less ice overall seems to mean more movement of ice in certain areas. This creates more unpredictability."

Ice blocks the Northwest Passage, while at the same time that a rusty, Chinese cargo ship, the Yong Sheng, has sailed through Russia's Northeast Passage, would seem to support that.

For travellers, there are increased exploring opportunities in the Arctic, but where you go may vary from season to season.

THE ICE MACHINE

While 90 per cent of the world's ice is in Antarctica, much of the remaining 10 per cent is in the Greenland ice cap and much of that flows to the sea through the Ilulissat Icefjord on Greenland's west coast.

The small town of Ilulissat, population 5000, is pretty enough, but the real action is at the edge of the fiord.

The glacier that feeds this mass of icebergs is one of the fastest moving (19 metres a day) and one of the most active glaciers in the world.

It was captured most dramatically in the 2012 movie Chasing Ice that filmed 7.4 cubic kilometres of ice crashing off the glacier. Since 2012, the face of the glacial tongue has moved inland about 12 kilometres.

While the icefiord is spectacular, the real highlight is a flight inland to see the new front of the glacier, with the dome of Greenland's ice cap looming behind.

NO LONGER FROZEN IN TIME

No matter where you go in the Arctic, you'll probably see at least one historic site. Despite the harsh environment, the remnants of exploration are too recent to have disappeared.

However this year, a circumpolar audit by the Arctic Council concluded: "By far the most serious threat to Arctic sites, both on the coast and interior, is the warming climate.

"Coastal sites are eroding because of sea-level rise, increased wave action and absence of buffering sea ice, and coastal and interior sites that have been frozen for thousands of years are thawing and losing their faunal remains and bone, wood, and ivory artefacts."

The rate at which this will happen has yet to be determined, but visitors today will see things that will be gone within decades.

The 17th-century ovens of Smeerenburg ("Blubber Town") in Svalbard, for example, are deteriorating rapidly.

At Canada's Herschel Island, named by Franklin, buildings from the 1890s and woolly mammoth fossils may be lost to increasing wave erosion.

As temperatures rise, soft-rot fungi more actively destroys the remains of Beechey Island's Northumberland House, built by the Belcher expedition while seeking Franklin in 1852.

PEOPLE OF THE NORTH

The name Inuit simply means "people" and most prefer it to "Eskimo". When I asked why Greenlanders paint their homes such contrasting bright colours, a local replied: "So we can find our house on Saturday night."

The traditional Inuit lifestyle of fishing, trapping and hunting is being undermined by environmental warning but it's unlikely visitors will see many signs of that, apart from fewer working huskies.

Polar travel is addictive and I've come to feel very possessive of this ethereal frozen world, but the Arctic has changed since it opened up not much more than a century ago. First, there were ships, then planes, roads and tourists.

Right now we're in a window of opportunity. The ice retreat enables us to travel around by ship but if it comes to a point where there's no ice and no bears, much of the appeal will be gone.

Meanwhile, dress warmly. In 1909, when explorer Robert Peary carelessly broke off six toes while removing his boots, he said: "A few toes aren't much to give to achieve the pole." Today's cossetted traveller has it much easier.

The Arctic in summer is a special destination of great tranquillity and perpetual daylight, of ice shimmering in the clean, crystal air and seas that are rarely disturbed by a ship's prow. Catch it while you can.

FIVE WAYS TO SEE THE ARCTIC

ISOLATED STOP Heritage Expeditions offers 15-day voyages in the Russian Far East through the Bering Strait to spend some days at little-visited Wrangel Island. From US$9800 ($11,813). See heritage-expeditions.com.

COOL CANADA One Ocean Expeditions is a Canadian polar operation with ships in the European and Canadian Arctic. The 13-day voyage goes from Cambridge Bay to Iqaluit. From US$7795 ($9396). See oneoceanexpeditions.com.

ISLAND VOYAGES Aurora Expedition's Polar Pioneer offers two 11-day voyages around Svalbard in 2014 plus a couple between Svalbard and Iceland via Greenland. From A$6080 ($6891). See auroraexpeditions.com.

LUXURY CLASS Luxury cruise line Silversea has recently added the Silver Discoverer to its adventure fleet. But in 2014 it will be the Silver Explorer voyaging to and around Svalbard. The 10-day voyage from Longyearbyen to Tromso, Norway spends most of the time exploring Svalbard and stops for a morning at remote Bear Island. From A$8550 ($9692). See silversea.com.

BREAK THE ICE Peregrine Adventures, through Quark Expeditions, conducts several Arctic voyages including one to the North Pole aboard a nuclear icebreaker. From A$29,390 ($33,315). See peregrineadventures.com.

Journalist David McGonigal has worked in the Arctic for Quark Expeditions and Peregrine Adventures and most recently visited the Arctic in August as expedition leader for One Ocean Expeditions.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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