Expedition Spitsbergen ready: ‘Parts of the area have changed significantly’

Helen Ekker / NOS

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  • Helen Ecker

    editor Climate and Energy

  • Helen Ecker

    editor Climate and Energy

The rapid melting of the sea ice in the Arctic this summer has greatly affected the expedition in Spitsbergen organized by the Netherlands. Today, scientists have returned to civilization. Some of them are happy with the results in their field of research, but others have made little progress. Polar bears, fog or high waves regularly got in the way of the researchers.

The researchers were able to determine that the landscape on the island of Edgeøya, the destination of the voyage, is changing rapidly. It is the fastest warming area on Earth. Glaciers are retreating and the ground is showing deep cracks due to thawing permafrost, the once permanently frozen soil that is now slowly thawing. On the other hand, the vegetation shows few changes.

Conversations on board the expedition ship ranged from gloom about the major changes to satisfaction with the investigation. For example, one said: “Parts of the ecosystem in some lakes are collapsing”. While another noted, “I was able to get some nice soil samples.”

  • Helen Ekker / NOS

    View from the expedition ship
  • Helen Ekker / NOS

    Researchers on the island of Edgeøya
  • Helen Ekker / NOS

    Scientists can measure vegetation with this device
  • Helen Ekker / NOS

    Cracks in the landscape due to thawing permafrost
  • Helen Ekker / NOS

    Researcher Arne van Eerden in the laboratory on board

“We found a methane bomb, a huge amount of the gas methane in a certain place. It’s not good for the world, but it’s good for our research,” says Annelies Veraart from Radboud University. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, ten times stronger than CO2, and is stored in the permafrost. Veraar emphasizes that further research must show whether the results are really that special.

Initially, there was good news, she says: the measurements showed that less methane than expected was released over the many lakes on Edgeøya, while in other polar regions with lakes it comes to the fore. But she found a lot of methane emissions in meltwater pools, even up to a hundred times more than over the lakes. It is the so-called methane bomb.

Spitsbergen is a laboratory for glaciers in the rest of the world.

Glaciologist Bas Altena

The rapid warming on Spitsbergen also means bad news for the few thousand glaciers. Glaciologists Bas Altena and Brice Noël from Utrecht University usually study these with satellites and climate models. Now they sailed right past it, and saw that the glaciers no longer have a brake, now that the sea ice is gone. Due to the various setbacks, their research on a glacier was canceled during this expedition.

Nevertheless, Altena believes that Spitsbergen is an excellent place for glacier research. “Because it warms quickly here, and glaciers are low on land, they melt faster. The dynamic processes involved are important to study. In fact, this area is a laboratory for glaciers in the rest of the world, where warming is slowing down. .”

Differences with seven years ago

“I didn’t even recognize a particular lake at first. It had changed enormously compared to seven years ago,” says Wim Hoek, also from Utrecht University. The previous expedition to Spitsbergen was in 2015. “It now had meltwater pools all around, which came from rain and thawing permafrost.”

He took soil samples from lakes for later analysis. Another researcher used a so-called ‘Greenseeker’, a device to find out if the vegetation is the same as that measured by satellites.

Still, the changes in the plant world don’t seem to be that bad, says Rene van der Wal from the University of Agriculture in Uppsala, Sweden. “It’s getting warmer and the growing season is getting longer. There aren’t many new varieties yet, but it’s getting easier for those that are already there.”

Sunbathing in a T-shirt

Parts of the ecosystem in the lakes will probably change drastically, believes Christophe Brochard from the University of Groningen. He studies plankton in freshwater lakes and saw many of these lakes dry up and disappear due to the heat. Plankton is at the bottom of the food chain. Because of the rapid growth, plankton react to changes much earlier than plants, which can live here for hundreds of years.

Temperature records are also being broken on Spitsbergen. Brochard put a thermometer in all kinds of lakes this week and saw that there were up to 17 degrees in them. More than he has ever measured here before. In between, the participants could sunbathe on the deck in T-shirts.

in panic

For the first time on such an expedition, behavioral scientists were also on board. They tried to find out what state of mind the participants have. Each day they could indicate whether they felt ‘optimistic’, ‘anxious’, ‘determined’ or ‘powerless’.

During meals, the conversation regularly turned to climate change. “I’m quite panicked,” said a 32-year-old Norwegian researcher. Another said that it was difficult for him to express himself in such terms. “You practice natural science, and so you don’t have to say what you personally think.”

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