We are four scientists from different fields of research (glaciology, social anthropology and archaeology) and we will accompany the expedition to Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean in order to study the anthropogenic impact on changes in climate and the effects that it has had in the past, today and the effects it will have in the future. These are all already known effects, but by revisiting and reviving the A.E. Nordenskiöld expedition from 1872–1873 we want to highlight and communicate the climate changes from afar.
Short notes on glaciology
When Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld tried to reach the North pole in his 1872–73 polar expedition the glaciers in Svalbard were still growing from the cold spell during the Little Ice Age (c. 1300–1900). Nordenskiöld and his team made numerous observations of the extent of the glacier and ice masses, through photos and other observations.
Since then, during the last 150 years, much has happened to the glaciers. Our task will be to observe and document these changes as thoroughly as possible. By photos from the exact positions that Nordenskiöld visited, studies of lichens and samples of glacial striae we will be able to reconstruct older limits of the glaciers, thus calculating the glacial changes on Svalbard.
Glaciers are the perfect natural instruments of climate changes through time, since they react physically to changes in temperature: colder climate – glaciers grow, warmer climate – glaciers shrink. But of course, different kinds of glaciers react differently; depending on size, aspect, altitude, latitude, angle, bedrock structure and if the glacier snouts end on land or in water. These factors may be examined both before, during and after the expedition, to calibrate the dynamics of the specific glaciers we will study along the route.
The results will hopefully shed some light on the magnitude and speed of the changes in climate in these areas.
Short notes on archaeology
With the archaeological research, we will focus on the material culture that surrounded the expedition to Svalbard in the 19th century and the one in 2022. Some of the interests from the archaeological point of view lies in the material that the members of the expedition brought, but also in what they left behind. The texts and diaries mention that different objects were left; however, nothing seems yet to have been recovered.
On the 18th May 1873 Alexander Leslie, reporting from the diary of Nordenskiöld, mentions that a boat and various other objects, that were not necessary for the trip and to lighten the sledge, were left on Parry Island. What else did they leave behind? On the topic of food and sustainability, what did they do with their trash, is that something they brought with them or left on the way? Is this something that we can expect to see and how are we dealing with trash? Are they considered as archaeological remains and cannot be removed?
Also, the expedition employed four Saami for their knowledge about reindeer, as well as about Arctic and mountainous landscapes. Who were they and is there anything to learn from their point of view, in the 19th-century society, on sustainable landscape use? And how does it compare to today?
Another important historical aspect of the Nordenskiöld expedition in 1872-1873, also considering the effect on the climate, is what the trip was planned for and what immediate, or indirect effect, it had on the climate. Besides the scientific purpose, there was also mining (coprolites) and geopolitical interests.
Some archaeological ideas:
What about the driftwood? Is there any driftwood there today and can it be used? It seems to be abundant in some places and they are relying on it to be there.
Short notes on social anthropology
At first glance, Svalbard may be an interesting home for social anthropology research because it never had an Indigenous population. However, Svalbard is at the terminus of the Gulf Stream, which brings with it not just ice-warming salty water but also plastics, toxins and pollutants from around the world. All of these are drastically changing the environmental landscape and the local ecosystems. Today, polar bears have heavy loads of mercury, fulmar birds die from starvation from plastic ingestion, and soot from ships accumulates in the ice and air. As the ice melts and becomes increasingly unpredictable, the effects of people are even more prominent. This is to say that humanity has created a legacy in a place it has never inhabited.
Previous anthropological and archaeological studies have shown such plastic objects and fragments are drifting alongside the shores in the Arctic and are an obvious consequence of modern societies' effect on climate change. As the route of Nordenskiöld has largely remained untouched by humans, we have the perfect opportunity to use documentation of our 2022 findings to highlight the indirect and visible negative impact of both the marine and terrestrial environments.
As the Arctic is warming four times faster than the world’s average, changes in Svalbard are abrupt and have devastating effects that ripple around the world. By bringing a human element to the untouched wilds of Nordaustlandet, where we are confronted psychologically by the devastation of our species. What impact will this have on us psychologically as researchers? Given there are so few humans in Nordaustlandet yet so much pollution, much of the environmental degradation goes under the radar. How can we highlight the true impact that humanity is having on this fragile region and bring it to the fore of international policy to demand action? Although we aspire to be carbon-neutral, what impact will be on the local ecosystem beyond pollution? Above, we have indicated what we can learn from the 1872-1873 expedition on sustainable landscape use, but on another level, polar bears in Nordaustlandet have presumably never seen another human–how might they perceive us?