Sept. 17, 2012
French photographer Samuel Blanc has been leading tours to Svalbard, Norway's archipelago in the Arctic, since 2007. This year the reduced sea ice extent allowed his expedition aboard the 12-passenger Polaris to circumnavigate the northern islands in early July rather than mid-August. Climate change is having a direct impact on the unique ecosystem isolated on these islands more than 400 miles north of Europe. In the following photos, Blanc gives us a tour of life on the archipelago's largest island, Spitsbergen. You can see more of his work at www.sblanc.com.
In west Spitsbergen, Little Auks, such as those pictured here, and other birds aren't safe on the cliffs. Hungry polar bears have learned to climb the steep gradients in search of food.
Polar Bears and Bleeding Glaciers
The dissolved iron seen in this glacier may help fight climate change. As the iron washes into the northern seas, it can help fertilize phytoplankton blooms that draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
As global warming melts permafrost in the arctic, more carbon is released into the atmosphere. Meanwhile areas of tundra are also seeing a rise in fires.
The vast stretch of open water due to thinning of the Arctic sea ice is forcing walruses to often crowd together on beaches.
This bearded seal has found a safe spot away from polar bears and sharks. Many seals however also snooze in the water, where they are at risk of becoming of meal for the Greenland shark, the world's slowest shark.
Only three percent of the total population of arctic fox are called "Blue fox" and unlike the rest of the population, these blue critters don't turn white in the winter.
These foxes are showing their summer colors.
The Russian Navy has confirmed the presence of a new island in the Arctic, which would increase the number of islands in the Franz Josef Land archipelago to 192. The report was published in the Russian news service RIONOVOSTI.
The archipelago – named after an Austrian emperor — is among the last true frontiers. Even Google maps can’t zoom in close. The ice-covered islands resemble a white smattering of freckles near the Norwegian island of Svalbard below the North Pole. Fjords and sounds surround the islands, with water depths exceeding 250 meters. The waters are covered in sea ice for 9 months a year. More than 85 percent of the islands are made up of glaciers. A forbidding place, to be sure.
It is a remoteness that men (and a few women) attempted to conquer in the early days of Arctic exploration. Franz Josef Land was officially discovered in 1873, and became a base for a number of expeditions.
The British explorer Frederick George Jackson traveled to Franz Josef Land beginning in 1894 and arrived on the Northbrook Island, the southernmost of the archipelago. He settled at so-called Camp Flora, with the goal of exploring the archipelago and collecting rocks and fossils. His collections revealed to the British Geological Society that the islands were of volcanic origin (as opposed to continental).
In 1896, Jackson suddenly saw a man not of his party on the island: “a tall man, wearing a soft felt hat, loosely made, voluminous clothes and long shaggy hair and beard, all reeking with black grease.”
It was the famous Norwegian explorer Fridjof Nansen. Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen had embarked in 1893 on an attempt to reach the North Pole.
They had made it farther north than any explorer had in their day, before weather conditions forced a retreat. The men walked for months, fending off polar bears and walruses, and not knowing exactly where they were, before reaching Northbrook Island.
For his part, Nansen, not having heard a human voice for three years, felt his heart beat and blood rush to his brain, as he describes it in his book.
They soon recognized each other and Nansen and Johansen were able to secure passage home with Jackson.
So, Northbrook Island occupies an important place in annals of Arctic exploration.
In 2006, Arctic explorers suggested that Northbrook had split into two, after they found the isthmus connecting its eastern and western halves eroded into the sea.
The Russian Navy confirmed on Monday that indeed a narrow strait separates what is now two islands, and a new name for one of them will be given soon by a government commission, according to RIONOVOSTI.
Images: Satellite photo of Franz Josef Land taken in Aug. 2011. Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Fridjof Nansen. Credit: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)