Notes on the Extinctions at the Top of the World

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Between bouts of ducking and covering under my second-grade desk in case the Russians dropped an atom bomb on our classroom, I spent a lot of time studying geography. Not because my teacher emphasized matters geographical, but because she had a thing about homework. And not in a good way.

On the first day of class she handed out the first assignment and I did the obvious thing. I forgot about it. She didn’t forget, though, and the next morning, while the other kids were enjoying recess, I got invited to sit at my desk and complete the work. I passed the time staring at islands on the big world map next to the blackboard. On the third day I owed two homeworks, both of which would have to be turned in before I could head out to recess. Come April, I owed a hundred-and-some homeworks and all possibility of recess had forever receded below the horizon. If my family hadn’t moved to another city, I’d still be in second grade, puzzling over the Rorschach shapes of faraway islands.

Svalbard has the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs.

There are a lot of islands in the world, and I came out of that experience with a geographical bucket list of almost bottomless capacity. It was, looking back, a list based on shape and remoteness instead of anything particular my seven-year-old self knew about any of the islands. Which is how my seven-year-old self wound up sending me to Svalbard more than half a century later, still thinking the place should be called Spitzbergen, the way it used to be.

The two things that I knew about Svalbard were that it is very far north, farther north, even, than Siberia, as far north as the northernmost reaches of Greenland; and that Svalbard had the most polar bears of anywhere in the world — more even than Churchill, Manitoba, where bears sashay down Main Street eating people’s dogs. Also, my seven-year-old self wanted to be there in the winter for the true Svalbard experience, and to see the Northern lights.

Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard, is the former silver medalist for the title of northernmost civilian place on the planet. In the ’90s it got defaulted up to northernmost when the model Soviet city 50 miles west and a dozen or so closer to the pole was disqualified on account of going out of business. My wife and I lodged in a room in Longyearbyen, in barracks that housed coal miners before the miners rioted over their poor living conditions. Longyearbyen seemed an apt enough name for somewhere to be stuck on a yearlong contract digging coal. No wonder the miners rioted. It took a while for me to find out that the town was named after John Munro Longyear, the Michigan timber baron who began the mining operations in 1906.

It looked like a rundown middle-school gym, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds.

People who didn’t riot were the inhabitants of the Soviet model city. According to the young Russian who showed us around, it had been a very desirable place to be, Soviet-Unionwise. It’s called Pyramiden and people waited years to be assigned there. Like Longyearbyen, Pyramiden was a coal-mining town. We boated over one day to check it out.

There was a big, brass, snow-blown bust of Lenin welcoming us to the Sports Palace. The Palace had a basketball court and a tawdry little music room and an even tawdrier niche fitted out with shelves that some wag had designated as a library. It looked like a rundown middle-school gym in a community that had experienced a property-tax revolt, if middle-school gyms came plastered with posters of heroic Red Army soldiers from the Great Patriotic War, tarted up with gold CCCP’s on red backgrounds. There was also a sinister sounding building called the Tulip Hotel, which, since we weren’t Soviet royalty off on a junket, we weren’t allowed inside of. “Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

Free included a bleak apartment in the men’s building, if you were a guy. In the ladies’, if you weren’t. There were rumors of a secret tunnel connecting the two which were hard to credit since both buildings were constructed several feet off the ground because of permafrost. Still, if you could manage to hook up with a coal miner of the opposite sex you hit the jackpot because married people got upgraded to a couple’s apartment. There must have been a limited number of those apartments, though, or people would have been allowed to meet out in the open rather than having to sneak around in tunnels.

Free also, of course, included all the labor those miners put in. And the food, the food was free, too. Evidence about what kind of food you can get for free lurks in the abandoned institutional kitchen. Mostly it seemed to have been canned peas stirred in huge electric-powered tubs that reminded me of the first-generation washing machines you see in photographs from the Depression. Free industrial peas at the end of working all day in the mines — no wonder the vodka was free, too. The vodka is still there. You can purchase a shot at the northernmost bar in the world. One taste, and you realize why it hasn’t migrated to a more competitive locale. And why it had to be free.

“Everything here was free,” beamed the Russian who showed us around. He was too young to know better.

High class people. Doctors. Lawyers. Folks with political pull pulled strings to get sent to a place farther north than Siberia so they could work in mines all day and eat cafeteria peas at night and hook up in tunnels like horny junior-high kids and shoot down vodka that would have etched the chrome off the fancy ZiL limousines the nomenklatura were chauffeured around in back home. A few miles away, Norwegian miners were rioting because they didn’t like the rooms they were given, but these poor schnooks thought they were living in paradise. There may have been Northern lights somewhere, but I wouldn’t know. It turns out the Northern lights are easier to see when it isn’t snowing all the time.

Also, I should have given a bit more thought to that business about seeing polar bears. Even my seven-year-old brain could have put it together. Bears. Winter. Hibernation. But I wasn’t any more analytical when I planned the trip than I’d been about not turning in my homework.

Or the bear thing may have had something to do with the fact that polar bears are dying out. All the right people say so. The pack ice is melting and bears all over the Arctic are falling into the water and starving to death, so if you live in Churchill, keep a close eye on your pets. There are a lot of hungry bears wading ashore. But people in Svalbard didn’t seem to be worried about polar bears dying out. They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Longyearbyen has a university, the Harvard of the Arctic, according to the Toronto Star, where you can study oceanography, but I wouldn’t. Studying oceanography involves SCUBA diving, and there are plenty of fine programs at places more equatorial than the Barents Sea. They have a nice museum at the university, though, a museum that focuses on geology and, this being Svalbard, the glaciers that sit on top of the geology. It was while I was reading about those glaciers that I came across this:

For the past four to five thousand years the Earth has been subject to a marked cooling, which gradually has created better conditions for the growth of glaciers and permafrost. Five thousand years ago the average temperature in Svalbard was around 4 degrees warmer than today. Then, one would probably have had to climb 200-400m up in the mountains in order to find permafrost, and many of today’s glaciers would not then have existed. The largest glaciers would have existed in a much reduced size. Many of Svalbard’s glaciers, therefore, are less than three to four thousand years old.

They were worried about being eaten by bears. On Svalbard, you’re required by law to carry a high-powered rifle when you step outside of town.

Svalbard has gotten a lot of attention over the past few months for being the ground zero of global warming. Maybe, even, a bit above zero, sometimes. Degrees on Svalbard have shot up quicker than degrees anywhere else on earth, which got me to wondering about those polar bears. Polar bears have been floating around in the Arctic for something like 200,000 years. Even if Svalbard is warming up today, what were they floating on 5,000 years ago? The sign didn’t say, so I had to look it up on my own. And discovered that there are two schools of thought on the bear situation.

The first is the one you’ve already heard. The other is that the bear population has exploded in recent years, mainly because of an international ban on polar bear hunting. When I tried to look up the exact numbers, I found some in the articles that thought there were more bears than ever. Twenty-five thousand, and climbing. Thirty-thousand, with populations of bears well established in dozens of locations throughout the polar region. The articles that thought the bears were dying out talked about pack ice. Less pack ice than ever. You can drive to the North Pole in your bass boat, if you want to.

Now I’m not a polar bear scientist and I’m not qualified to judge the quality of those articles, but it did seem to me that one side was willing to commit to real numbers and the other, well, the other weaseled out of addressing the question.




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