My Arctic Adventure

Latitude—it tells us how far north or south on the earth we are. The equator sits at 0 degrees; and Oslo at 60 degrees north and Melbourne 38 degrees south. Now imagine where in the world you could be if you ventured 78 degrees north.

Northern Norway? Perhaps. But nordkapp, the northernmost point of mainland Norway lies at 71 degrees north. We still have eight hundred kilometres of sea to cross. Where in the world are we?

What about Svalbard—an archipelago of Arctic islands administered by Norway? With 60% of the region covered by glaciers, and with a population of less than three thousand, Svalbard stands at the extremity of this earth. Temperatures in winter average between –12 ºC and –16 ºC, but can drop as low as minus forties. Added with wind chill and the place can become even colder!

Svalbard lies in the Arctic circle. Source: UNEP/GRID-Arendal 2008

Svalbard lies in the Arctic circle, eight hundred kilometres north of mainland Norway. Source: UNEP/GRID-Arendal 2008

Extremity also takes form in the sunlight. At the beginning of March, the sun rises at eight and sets at three—giving the residents of Svalbard about seven hours of sunlight. Within one day Svalbard gains an additional fifteen minutes of sun. Within a week, an hour and a half. Within a month, eight hours. And by April 19, the sun stays up until August.

Next week I will be flying to Svalbard to take a course in Arctic Environmental Toxicology. Pollutants play an interesting role in this extremity since we find so many toxic substances in animals such as seals, walruses and polar bears. How do pollutants reach the Arctic? Do they cause harm? Is there anything being done about this? Taking the course will hopefully answer some of these questions and give me the knowledge to better equip myself as an ecotoxicologist.

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