Published: April 2009
Ice Paradise
The rich life of Svalbard, Norway’s Arctic archipelago, faces a creeping thaw.
By Bruce Barcott

Five minutes past midnight in Svalbard: The wild world is awake and clattering. At the edge of a sheltered estuary in the Adventdalen, a valley on a cluster of islands halfway between Norway and the North Pole, a flock of arctic terns soar and wheel in the perpetual daylight. They're agitated. A pair of glaucous gulls—chick snatchers, egg stealers, the Arctic's formidable winged predators—are approaching from the east. The terns put up a fierce defense. They flash their red beaks at the gulls and turn themselves into a cloud of sharpness.

The gambit works. The gulls bypass the terns and circle inland, passing over a pair of ground-nesting eiders, a kennel of sled dogs, and a solitary reindeer feeding on the tundra.

It's a typical summer night in Svalbard, an entirely atypical refuge in the high Arctic that abounds with an extraordinary array of wildlife. Few places in the circumpolar region can match its biodensity. Polar bears thrive here. Roughly half the estimated 3,000 bears in the Barents Sea population raise their young on the archipelago's isolated islands, and humans are warned not to venture beyond town without a rifle as protection against Ursus maritimus. Seabirds migrate to Svalbard in the millions. Five species of seals and 12 kinds of whales feed in the waters off its coast. Atlantic walruses prosper on the rich clam beds along the shallow shelf of the Barents Sea. On the open tundra of Svalbard's plateaus and valleys, reindeer forage and arctic fox hunt free from predators.

To the human eye, the terrain is stark, austere, unforgiving. More than half the landmass is encased in glacial ice. Less than 10 percent offers enough light and soil to support vegetation. On a summer climb up the rocky slopes of Nordenskiöldfjellet (Mount Nordenskiöld), I counted only seven different plant species in five hours—and those clung to a tenuous existence, hunkering between sheltering plates of broken rock like hermits in a desert.

Years ago when Norwegian archaeologist Povl Simonsen considered the limits of human survival in the far north, he spoke of the "edge of the possible." For most of its history, Svalbard has existed beyond that edge. Ancient civilization never got a toehold here. The Vikings didn't colonize it. The Inuit stayed away. Even today, as tourists enjoy daily air service from Oslo, just 2,500 people live here year-round, many working in Svalbard's coal mines. Winter brings perpetual darkness.

But for a select number of species, Svalbard acts as an extraordinary cradle of life. And the secret to the place isn't bound up in the land. Svalbard is ruled by water, light, and temperature.

Up here the biotic machine is fueled by the Gulf Stream, which sweeps up the East Coast of the United States. If you rode the Gulf Stream's main branch, the North Atlantic Current, all the way north, you'd end up in the West Spitsbergen Current off the coast of Svalbard. There the warm, salty current (though at 42°F, "warm" is a relative term) keeps the water mostly ice free and nurtures massive plankton blooms every spring. The plankton lure whales and great schools of capelin and polar cod, which provide food for seabirds and seals. The abundance of seals, in turn, keeps Svalbard's polar bears fed. Adult bears consume a huge amount of seal blubber, primarily from ringed seals and bearded seals. That food produces the energy necessary to keep the bears' massive bodies (males commonly weigh up to 1,300 pounds, females about half that) moving over a home range that can vary from 60 square miles up to 144,000.

The energy-rich waters off the coast also draw an annual infusion of seabirds. Every May and June, when the ice retreats and the tundra clears of snow, upwards of three million birds flock to Svalbard. They're vast in number but not variety. Only about 28 species are considered common or abundant, and only one—the Svalbard rock ptarmigan—has what it takes to survive on land year-round. The birds migrate up here for the safe breeding and the nonstop feasting. A quirk of geology makes the whole thing work. In places, Svalbard's coastline rises from the sea in near-vertical cliffs. They're not sheer walls like Yosemite's El Capitan, though. The cliffs contain millions of rock outcroppings wide enough to support a nest but often too precarious for predators like the arctic fox.

It's a perfect breeding setup. Pairs of fulmars, Brünnich's guillemots, and black-legged kittiwakes, sometimes intermingled on the same cliff, will claim a ledge for the season and raise their chicks on seafood caught just off the balcony, available 24 hours a day in the nightless summer. When the birds take over a cliff, the transformation can be profound. Once, while riding a former fishing trawler around an inner Spitsbergen fjord, I looked up to see a light dusting of snow on a tombstone-gray sea cliff. Glassing the scene with my binoculars, I realized I wasn't seeing snow at all. It was the blending of tens of thousands of kittiwakes nesting on cliff ledges, their white heads creating a pointillist effect from miles away.

As impressive as Svalbard's summer birds are, they're sort of nature's carpetbaggers: here for the good times, gone for the bad. Come September, most will be winging south. It's hard not to reserve your highest respect for Svalbard's year-round residents, each of which seems to employ one of two common strategies to survive the brutal Arctic winter: Keep hunting or cache extra energy.

The master practitioner of the first tactic is the polar bear, of course, which spends much of the winter hanging out around seal breathing holes, waiting for dinner to surface. The arctic fox employs a hybrid strategy. It keeps hunting in white fur camouflage but when times get tough, digs into caches of food lardered months earlier. In more temperate regions the fox's reputation for surplus killing—going postal in the chicken coop, killing far more birds than it can eat—has earned it the enmity of farmers, but up here storing those surplus kills often means the difference between life and death.

For both reindeer and rock ptarmigan, caching extra energy means one thing: fattening up. To watch a reindeer feed at midnight in Svalbard is to witness an extraordinary event. The reindeer here, like the ptarmigan, let go of the nocturnal rhythms that govern the lives of most animals. They eat and eat and eat, then rest a little, then eat some more, regardless of the time of day. The reindeer build up a layer of blubberish fat as thick as four inches. When food grows scarce in winter, the fat acts as the reindeer's energy reserve.

Svalbard's wild survivors have figured out how to adapt to the high Arctic's darkness, its bitter cold, and its meager vegetation. But there's one force that has come at them too fast for evolutionary change: humans.

From the 17th to 19th centuries, whalers sailed to Svalbard to hunt the region's mighty cetaceans, whose thick blubber could be turned into whale oil and, ultimately, handsome profits. On a voyage to Svalbard in 1612, the captain of a Dutch ship reported that the Barents Sea was so full of whales that the ship's prow parted the beasts as though it were cutting through pack ice. By the end of the 18th century, the world's insatiable appetite for whale oil had almost wiped them out. Some 50,000 bowhead whales, the longest lived mammal on the planet, were taken by Dutch vessels alone. The commercial carnage drove the species to near extinction. (Today more than 10,000 bowheads survive, mostly in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas.) After mowing through the whales, the hunters turned their attention to the walrus—for its ivory—and nearly snuffed out that species too.

At the end of World War I the Svalbard Treaty gave Norway sovereignty over the archipelago, whose resources Sweden and Russia also eyed. The treaty proved to be a turning point. Over the course of the 20th century Norwegian officials put a halt to the free-for-all and turned one of the world's greatest wildlife killing grounds into one of its most protected sanctuaries. Today 65 percent of Svalbard's islands and 75 percent of its marine areas lie within national parks or nature reserves. A remarkable thing happens when you give animals habitat and peace. They thrive. Svalbard's walrus population, winnowed to a few hundred animals by the 1950s, rebounded to more than 2,600 in 2006. Only a thousand reindeer grazed in the valleys in the 1920s. Today some experts believe there may be as many as 10,000.

The days of outright slaughter are gone, but humans continue to pressure wildlife here in indirect ways. Toxins like PCBs and perfluorinated compounds swirl up to Svalbard on air and ocean currents and become trapped in the fatty tissue of glaucous gulls, great skuas, arctic foxes, and ringed seals, compromising their immune systems. Polar bears carry much higher levels of the pollutants than their Alaskan and Canadian counterparts. Climate change, meanwhile, forces a retreat of the summer ice pack, imperiling the region's polar bears. The wildlife that thrives up here has adapted to one of the toughest habitats on Earth. As temperatures rise, those birds, fish, and mammals will be forced to adapt even further.

Perhaps there is cause for hope in the curious ways Svalbard's wildlife has already adjusted to humans, the predator turned protector. In the coal-mining outpost of Ba­rentsburg, dozens of black-legged kittiwakes have turned abandoned buildings into makeshift bird cliffs, nesting on the window ledges. At midnight or noon—it makes no difference to the birds—the parents leap off the ledges to dive after fish schooling in the harbor below. In their own small way the kittiwakes are expanding the edge of the possible, windowsill by windowsill. It's ingenious but, for Svalbard, not atypical. Up here opportunity and abundance often appear in unlikely places.