The Arctic calls for a redefinition. It no longer resembles what it used to be a century ago. Apart from its geographical location and geopolitical situation, it is practically a whole new entity. The question arises, therefore, whether we should give it a new name or revise what the original one stands for.
About 60% of Svalbard, the archipelago with Spitsbergen as its largest island, is covered by glaciers. These glaciers can handle yearly temperature fluctuations as long as they are covered by a layer of porous snow, also called firn, which buffers much of the meltwater. Using a high-resolution climate model, researchers have now shown that Svalbard’s firn line has retreated to a critical altitude in the mid-1980s.
Polar regions hold many mysteries, including some of the last places on Earth yet to be reached by man. Hidden deep under the ice and cut off from the outside world for thousands (or even millions) of years, Antarctic lakes are likely to be inhabited by bacteria, which may fundamentally change our understanding of the origins of life on the planet and, for all we know, its existence elsewhere in space. Scientists do their best to see the invisible, without being led astray by appearances, which tend to be particularly deceptive in ice-covered lands. Extraordinary polar conditions favour illusion, which tricked the Vikings and even today – initially at least – might make us think of aliens. As usual, however, bewildering though they are, the phenomena can all be explained by science.
The archipelago was probably known of already by the Vikings. Brief mentions of “cold shores” in the area, which is now instantly associated with Svalbard, appeared for the first time in 12th-century Nordic sagas.
Spitsbergen is not only glaciers and ominous mountain peaks, but also lush, low-growing tundra, which looks much like verdant green carpets covering the coast. In some areas, during the polar day, the green is striking enough to be visible from a considerable distance, leaving spectators gaping in disbelief at the dazzling green glow of the Arctic. If you’re lucky enough to visit Spitsbergen in July or August, you’re bound to notice large swathes of vegetation at the foot of mountain slopes. Get a bit closer and you’ll soon realize that something crazy is going on all around you. Suddenly, the faint buzz of the Arctic becomes a cacophony of bird calls and the sky gets crowded with thousands of birds flying back and forth between the colony and the sea, on which they rely for food. Every lover of the Far North – and especially of Spitsbergen – should know what links these birds with the sea and the lush Arctic vegetation, and why the connection is so important.
One of the greatest scientific challenges in Svalbard is reaching liquid water found in the region’s subglacial lakes – an issue which we’re discussing with prof. Piotr Głowacki, a glaciologist who spent many years as the manager of the Polish Polar Station in Spitsbergen.