Did you know that on June 23 (just over a month ago), the town of Verkhoyansk in northeast Siberia in the Arctic Circle reached a staggering temperature of 100.4º F (38ºCelcius)? This is the highest temperature in the Arctic ever recorded. A few days later in the same location, the temperature was recorded at 95.3ºF (35.2ºC). The average temperature in Verkhoyansk at this time of year is 68ºF (20ºC). Verkhoyansk is located at 67.5 degrees north latitude whereas the Arctic Circle begins at 66.5º.
These above-extreme temperatures accelerate the melting of snow and ice which in addition contributes to permafrost melt. In Lonyearbyen, which is 79º latitude and is the largest settlement on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, the permafrost is melting. Permafrost is any ground that remains completely frozen solid – 32ºF or 0ºC or colder – for at least two years straight. Over a quarter of land in the northern hemisphere has permafrost underneath. Although the ground is frozen, permafrost regions are not always covered in snow.
The permafrost is melting beneath homes in Longyearbyen and when we were there last summer, there were homes and entire complexes that needed to be abandoned because the foundation was caving in from the melting permafrost. About 250 homes will have to be torn down. For a town of about 2,200 people, that is a lot! Longyearbyen is just over 800 miles (1300 kilometers) BEYOND the Arctic circle. The new buildings in Longyearbyen will now be built on steal pillars.
You may not know that there is an international seed vault located in the town of Longyearbyen which is buried in a mountain just outside of town. The Global Seed Vault was designed as an impregnable deep-freeze vault to protect the world’s most precious seeds from any global disaster and to ensure humanity’s food supply forever. This vault contains almost a million packets of seeds and each variety is for an important food crop. The deep permafrost through which the vault was sunk was expected to provide “failsafe” protection against any man-made or natural disaster.
The Svalbard “doomsday” seed vault was breached. Soaring temperatures led to melting and heavy rains when light snow should have been falling. A lot of water went into the entrance of the tunnel and then fortunately froze to ice as it became a glacier in front of the vault. The water never reached completely inside. The Norwegian government started monitoring the vault and the precious seeds are safe for now at the required storage temperature of 4ºF (-18ºC).
As I am sitting in my office here in Santa Fe, New Mexico (which for our non-US travelers is NOT in the country of Mexico, but is in the sweltering Southwest of the US) with temperatures hovering around 100ºF (38ºC), I cannot stop thinking about the north and my wild friends of the Arctic. If a lot of our newsletters focus on these guys, it’s entirely MY fault. I am obsessed with them. Who are THEY? They are POLAR BEARS and they are my favorite marine mammal. Actually, they are at the top of my favorite mammals’ list….period.
I have to add, that this climate change is affecting my polar friends – in fact, it is destroying their habitat and the entire Arctic (and Antarctic) eco-system. This is not a happy story at all and is only getting worse. I wish our trips to the Arctic with Wild Focus Expeditions could have a positive effect on the future and well-being of Ursus maritimus like they do with some other endangered species, but they don’t. There is really nothing that will protect polar bears from climate change – except for it to stop.
So, if you are like me, and appreciate the icy landscapes of the north that provide a gorgeous background for my polar bear friends, then think about coming with us to Svalbard. I can say with 100% confidence, it is a trip you will not only NOT regret, but remember for the rest of your life. It is one location where people return over and over again – it’s just that incredible.
Stay cool, stay safe and please wear a mask!!