The most remarkable place on the planet I’ve visited, in the summer of 2005, is the Svalbard archipelago. Svalbard lies half way between the northern coast of Norway and the North Pole, between 74 and 81 degrees north, far within the Arctic Circle. About 60% of its surface is covered with glacial ice, and ice covers the seas to the north and east for much of the year. (Summer ice is reducing substantially and Svalbard is a world laboratory for measuring the progress of global warming.) Despite its remoteness and fierce climate its land and sea support around seventy species of birds and mammals, including humans, who were attracted first by whaling, then by coalmining – over the millennia Svalbard has drifted to the Arctic from the Antarctic – and more recently by polar research and tourism (you may remember David Cameron hugging huskies there in his green days) .
I was first drawn to Svalbard by an unlikely source, Philip Pullman’s novel Northern lights, the first part of the His dark materials trilogy. Pullman’s Svalbard, like his Oxford, is a heightened version of the real place. It’s populated, for example, by armoured bears, capable of speech. But reading the book aloud to our younger daughter all those years ago started a hunger that could only be assuaged by going to Svalbard myself.
The memories of being in that remote place have stayed vivid – the glacier cliffs, the Arctic terns and fulmars shadowing our boat, emaciated polar bears, the grim-faced miners and statue of Lenin in Barentsburg, the Spanish flu graveyard in Longyearbyen. Whenever the word Svalbard is mentioned on the media my ears now prick up. It happened again this week, while watching Autumnwatch on BBC2, from Caerlaverock, the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust reserve on the northern side of the Solway estuary. The most striking birds there are barnacle geese. I was astonished to hear that almost the entire Svalbard population of these birds, over 35,000 of them, make their way every year to Caerlaverock to overwinter.
The barnacle goose might have been engineered by the purest and most rigorous Scandinavian designer. Its head is white, with a black cap, and its bill, long neck, upper breast and legs are entirely black (the blackest of blacks). The belly is white, with grey steaks at the sides. The upper parts are blue-grey with parallel black bars or stripes across the wings. The geese arrive in Svalbard in late May to nest, on coastal islands or on cliff ledges, and migrate south in late August or early September. It’s thought that many of them fly direct to the Solway Firth without a break. How they accomplish this long-distance trip successfully is still largely a mystery: it’s thought now that they have the use of some kind of internal electromagnetic tool.
At Caerlaverock the barnacle geese swoop on a field and begin to strip it of grass. Autumnwatch showed how much grass each bird could eat in a day – a huge amount, most of it almost immediately evacuated as waste, since the nutritional value of grass is so small. The geese have their preferences, and care is taken to make sure that the length of the grass is just so, to suit their bills. When they’ve had their fill they lift off, all as one, in a cloud of geometric black and white, like a Futurist painting.
The Svalbard barnacle geese are a success story. Thanks to hunting, by the late 1940s only a few hundred individual birds were left, but careful conservation since then has increased their numbers dramatically. According to the Norwegian Polar Institute’s Birds and mammals of Svalbard (2005) they are the most studied populations of migratory geese anywhere in the world, with some research programmes extending over 25 years. But they’re still vulnerable to human impact because of their tendency to concentrate their breeding, staging and wintering on specific locations.
In Northern lights Svalbard is reached by balloon. We got there from Tromsø more prosaically, by aeroplane. Svalbard has a long history of polar flying, a history that includes a sad story from 1928.
Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who famously arrived at the South Pole a month before Capt. Robert Falcon Scott, on 14 December 1911, continued his explorations in Arctic regions in later years. Between 1918 and 1920 he sailed from west to east through the Northeast Passage to Siberia, and attempted, but failed, to fly over the North Pole. Much earlier, starting in 1896, air balloons launched from Svalbard had become the focus for Arctic voyages (perhaps they were Pullman’s inspiration for his balloon journey?). Then airships took over, with several more unsuccessful flights. Finally, in 1926, Amundsen succeeded in crossing the Arctic in an airship, the Norge, starting from Svalbard. Among his companions was Umberto Nobile, the Itlian aeronautical engineer who had designed the vessel.
In 1928 Nobile made another trans-Arctic flight in his airship the Italia, but it crashed when returning to Svalbard from the North Pole. Some of the crew disappeared, the rest, including Nobile, camped on the ice, sent out radio messages and waited for rescue. As Sara Wheeler says in her book The magnetic north: travels in the Arctic (2009),
News of the crash went global, initiating the most frenetic Arctic search in the history of exploration. The rescue turned into a race between rescuers, between nations, and between newspapers and radio stations.
Some of the rescuers had to be rescued themselves. Amundsen joined in the search. On 18 June 1928, now aged 55, he set out with a crew of five from mainland Norway for Svalbard in a French seaplane. They never arrived. Nothing more was heard of Amundsen or his crew, and the search for their plane was called off in September 1928. Later, fragments of wreckage were found near the Tromsø coast, and it was assumed that Amundsen had crashed somewhere in the Barents Sea (Nobile was finally rescued, though his homecoming was a miserable one.) Unlike the barnacle geese Amundsen lacked the navigational and directional aids that would have guided him safely to Svalbard.
We saw the monument to Amundsen at Ny-Ålesund in Svalbard, the second most northerly permanent settlement in the world and the home to several research institutes from as many as ten countries, including the British Antarctic Survey. It’s a melancholy sight, as is the airship mooring mast that still survives. Amundsen, like many of the polar explorers, was no saint. He was as ready as anyone to make a profit, especially during the First World War, and had a good eye for the main chance. He was a prickly individual, too, prone to fall out with his fellow explorers, including Nobile. But there seems no reason to doubt his readiness to risk, and lose, his life in an attempt to save those of others. Roland Huntford, in his biography of Fridtjof Nansen, Norway’s other great polar explorer, quotes from the radio speech Nansen gave following Amundsen’s death:
And so, when his work was finished, he returned to the Arctic wastes, where his life’s work lay. He found an unknown grave under the clear sky of the icy world with the whirring of the wings of eternity through space.
Huntford adds that Amundsen had received radium treatment in America and may have knew he was dying of cancer: ‘it was perhaps an exit half-deliberately chosen’.
A footnote. The Cardiff-born author Roald Dahl was named by his parents after Amundsen. He too had a history of flying. His fighter plane, an old Gloster Gladiator, was shot down over Libya in September 1940 and he was lucky to survive the severe injuries he sustained to his head, nose and back. He wrote about the episode in his short story ‘A piece of cake’ and in his book Going solo (1986).