Magazine article International Wildlife

Savoring Summer in the Svalbards: A Naturalist Revels in the Annual Explosion of Life in Norway's Northernmost Lands

Magazine article International Wildlife

Savoring Summer in the Svalbards: A Naturalist Revels in the Annual Explosion of Life in Norway's Northernmost Lands

Article excerpt

The sun is warm on my face as I rest on a cushion of tundra on a July day, contemplating my surroundings in this High Arctic oasis of life. Not a breath of wind stirs the air, and the only noises are the hushed "munch-munch" and hoof-clicks of two dwarf reindeer grazing nearby, oblivious to my presence. Magnificent bulls in gleaming summer coats, they eat as though their lives depend upon it. And indeed it does, for such days will soon be gone in the Svalbard Islands, nearly halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

At the edge of the perpetual polar ice, these large islands belong to Norway but share their natural resources with Russia--as well as serving as one of the Far North's richest wildlife sanctuaries. About 3,000 residents make their livings from coal mining, research and tourism. I feel fortunate to work here as a naturalist for a season of summer's endless light.

This region receives so little rain and snowfall that it is considered a polar desert, yet around me on Spitzbergen, the largest of the islands, diminutive tundra plants put on a display of color that would do any garden proud. Deep purple saxifrage, lavender moss campion, creamy mountain avens, yellow snow buttercup and starry Arctic mouse-eared chickweed all vie for space. Towering ankle-high above the rest, impossibly fragile Svalbard poppies raise their pale heads on wiry stalks.

A unique combination of two factors makes such life possible here, a mere 1,000 kilometers (620 mi.) from the top of the world. First, the waters that bathe the Svalbards' western shores originate in the Caribbean Sea. As the Gulf Stream flows north across the Atlantic, it brings mild climates to northernmost Europe. A small branch of this mighty flow, the West Svalbard Current, laps these remote shores with vestiges of tropical warmth. Second, for more than four months, the sun never sets, delivering an intense boost of solar energy after the long winter night.

All around me is the contradiction of hardy survival and astonishing fragility. The region's plants may grow sporadically for several years before their brief but glorious display. Reindeer, unable to migrate from their island home, must fatten up quickly for the cold months ahead. On the tundra flats, Arctic skuas and eider ducks incubate eggs. Tending nests in ponds and bogs are oldsquaws, red phalaropes and many other species of waterfowl and shorebirds. …

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