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Ocean life in a big plastic tube

The mesocosms are impressive pieces of equipment. It’s only when you see them up close and with people beside them that you realise how big they are and what a logistical challenge it is to get them up here to the Arctic and deployed in the Kongsfjord.

Professor Ulf Riebesell has been explaining to me exactly how they work.

He arrived two days ago and it’s “all systems go“, now that the season has started and the fjord is more or less ice free – at least at the point chosen here. There are nine separate “tubes“, which will be lowered from the Esperanza once everything is ready, each to contain their own little mini-cosmos of ocean life. The ocean absorbs around 30% of the CO2 we emit – good to buffer climate change, says Ulf, but bad for the creatures in the ocean that rely on calcium to form their shells or skeletons.
Co2 reacts with water and forms carbonic acid which makes oceans slowly more acidic. Lab experiments show that some organisms have a hard time, especially calcifying organisms, which need calcium to form their shells and skeletons.
On a global scale, this has implications for example for coral reefs, with their huge biodiversity, importance for coastal protection, the food supply and also for tourism. Calcifying organisms are everywhere, Ulf stresses, many organisms in ocean depend on forming calcium carbonate and are crucial links in the food webs. Scientists here will be looking particularly at a type of snail,the pteropod up to 1 cm in length, which, as our Professor puts it, have transformed their feet into wings. They’re also knows as butterflies of the sea.
They’re a key link in the food web between algae and higher trophic forms like whales etc. But they form their shells from material very susceptible to acidification. The scientists want to see what happens if they are affected by acidification, and what that would mean for the food web.
The Greenpeace boat has also transported loads of equipment the scientists will need to collect and test the samples in the Ny Alesund marine lab.

The Arctic, says Ulf, is the place to be to study ocean acidification. Cold waters take up more gas than warm. The polar oceans are close to the stage where water becomes corrosive for organisms depending on calcification. In 20-30 years some parts of Arctic will be completely corrosive for many organisms. Now that’s a scary thought.
And while there’s a lot of debate going on about what extent of climate change will have what effect – with ocean acidification, there’s no debate, Ulf says. It’s a chemical process and it’s easy to model how acidification will increase with certain levels of CO2 emissions. The big unknown is how it will affect marine life. And that’s the point of the giant test-tubes in this Arctic fjord. Unlike a lab experiment, which will look at individual organisms, the scientists here are looking at whole communities of life-forms. A daunting task – with potentially devastating results. We need to do something to reduce the CO2 emissions very, very soon, says the Kiel professor.


May 28, 2010 | 7:56 am



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The Mountains of Silence – in more ways than one

(TV interview with sign language)

We had some amazing visitors on the Esperanza this evening. The Greenpeace team had come across a group from France who came here to Ny Alesund from Longyearbyen on skis over the past 18 days. Most of them are deaf and dumb, from an organisation called “Montagnes de Silence“ or mountains of silence. Their aim is to empower people who cannot hear or speak and encourage them to do everything they want to do, showing that their handicap needn’t prevent them from doing anything. They have an interpreter who translates sign language

(Interpreter at work)

Their Norwegian guide told me it was a challenge but a pleasure to be with the group. One of the best things, he said, is the silence. And that helps you to experience the nature of Spitsbergen all the better, he says. More power to you guys (and gals). And it was a nice gesture of the Greenpeace crew to invite all 15 of them onto the boat for dinner. We had some amazing „conversations“ with the help of the interpreter – and pen and paper.

(Conversation in writing)

They’ve been vido-conferencing with deaf kids in France, and blogging using satellite technology every day. Here’s the website:Mountains of Silence

This is the some of the group in their outdoor gear. They have four dogs with them to pull some of their gear. They’re tied up on the pier right now while the group give a videoconference from the French-German research station.


May 28, 2010 | 7:50 am



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The world’s most northerly permanent settlement – and marine laboratory

The weather seemed much the same as yesterday when I woke up in Longyearbjen this morning – but there was a surprise when I went out to the airport, which is close to the water. The bay was full of chunks of sea ice which had wafted in during the night. It completely changes the panorama and reminds you you are indeed in the Arctic.
The weather is calm but cloudy, so picture-taking was difficult. This gives an impression of the area we were flying over, though:

The plane to Ny Alesund in the far north – just 1,000 miles from the North Pole – is a small one – there were 9 of us on it this morning – reserved for scientists and people with official business in Ny Alesund – the world’s most northern permanent settlement.

Once a coal mining village, Ny Alesund is now a scientific research centre, with the world’s most northerly marine laboratory. Clearly an ideal choice for a project looking at marine life. There’s only a very small group of people here over the winter, but at the moment, the staff are preparing for the challenge of having around 60 extra people here, working on the EU-sponsored EPOCA programme, looking at the effects of ocean acidification on marine life. More details later.
Some of the locals were out to greet us:

The Greenpeace ship Esperanza was also waiting in the harbour.

This will be my home for the next few days, as the team of scientists headed by Professor Ulf Riebesell from the IFM-Geomar Institute of Kiel University and the technical experts get the mesocosms ready to be deployed in the fjord and set up the equipment to do the monitoring in the marine lab.

These ‚’medium-sized worlds’ are around 8 metres high, the ‚floating frames’ have what look like rolled up plastic sacks inside, which will capture sections of the ocean complete with ecosystems inside, where scientists will change the acidity of the water to different levels in the different mesocosms. ´
They will stay in the water here for five weeks, during which time the experts on all different aspects of marine life will check what effect this has – weather permitting. More soon when I talk to the Professor himself.


May 28, 2010 | 7:35 am



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The Permafrost and Global Food Security

My first day in Spitsbergen brought a very special highlight. I was fortunate enough to come on a day that coincides with a visit by Professor Roland von Bothmer from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who also looks after public relations for the SVALBARD SEED VAULT.

You may vaguely remember hearing about this when it was set up in 2008, with the aim of storing samples of food seeds from all over the globe under super-safe conditions, deep under the permafrost of Svalbard.

You may also have heard of some damage to the entrance to the vault because of permafrost melting. Was climate change already threatening the very facility that should help ensure food security no matter what changes – climatic or otherwise – endanger the planet?
No way, says Prof. von Bothmer. The damage to the entrance to the tunnel which leads down to the subterranean vault has no effect on the operation of the vault itself, he says, and the reason for building this facility this far north and under this permafrost, is still valid. It’s thought to be one of the safest places on the planet, even in a rapidly warming world.

Access to the vault is very strictly controlled.

Human warmth affects the temperature inside. So there are only a few visits a year, often with visiting heads of state or the UN, as with the case last year. And very occasionally, a visiting journalist.
Professor von Bothmer is a man who loves his work and is dedicated to it. He has collected seed samples all over the world himself and considers himself very lucky to be involved in the Svalbard Seed Vault project, in a way the highlight of his professional activities to date. The idea of protecting crop diversity in a world where for one reason or another species are dying at an alarming rate, is one that inspires him.
The tunnel entrance is high above Svalbard airport. It’s cold outside today, but he warned me it would be much colder where we were going. We went into the entrance tunnel, where workmen are carrying out some maintenance and repair work. Then we went into the warmer “master control room” – well, the computer room – and changed into thermal suits.

They look hilarious, but I wouldn\’t like to go down into the vault without one.Minus 18 C. is thought to be the ideal temperature for storing seed material. So it was pretty “nippy” when we finally got into the main chamber, which has a complex cooling system in addition to the natural permafrost.
You go through a system of “air locks” to reduce any warm temperature impact from your body on the vault itself. It is still being extended into the hillside to increase capacity.

Seed samples are sent in from gene banks around the globe – we saw samples of Danish barley and some seeds from India, vacuum packed, ready for storage – for who knows how many hundred years?

The climate change crisis has given the vault increased relevance, even over the past two years, says the Professor. Even with “winners and losers”, areas being hit by drought, flooding, warmth, cold, new or changing pests and diseases, will need a diversity of crop types to cope. So this remote, icy area with its dearth of arable land and crops of its own, could provide the back-up seeds to feed the world of the future.
Svalbard Seed Vault


May 26, 2010 | 6:57 pm



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Back in the Arctic

Well, here I am,Spitsbergen, Svalbard, Longyearbjen tonight. Every time I catch my first glimpse of those snowy mountain tips rising out of the clouds, I know why I love the Arctic and feel so concerned about the rate at which it is warming. Let me just share some of those images of the trip with you for now.

On the approach to Tromso, Norway’s “Gate to the Arctic”.

Svalbard peeping out of the clouds.

Moonscape in white?

Its their home:

But this fella’s reduced to keeping a wary eye on the luggage coming into Svalbard airport.

This is the view from the runway. And people ask me why I’m so keen on such a cold place…


May 26, 2010 | 5:55 pm



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