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What I have learned so far

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Ocean waves & wind – sound recording, 1:05

Sunday September 12th, 2010
Today is my 38th birthday. It’s been a strange and melancholy one for me. We came upon a glacier, which was massive in width and strangely variable in color. The sound of the boat breaking through the ice to reach the glacier was unsettling. We all marveled at the glacier and took lots of images and a birthday cake, tea & coffee were served on deck right there in front of the glacier which dwarfed us with its massive unapproachability.

Then the boat made its way away from the glacier, toward the science station at Ny Alesund which, like Longyearbyen, used to be a coal mining site, leaving a glassy wake through the ice floes. Such variability of ice I’d never seen before and it’s truly a miraculous phenomenon.

Then upon arrival at Ny Alesund it was announced that the shop (the only shop) would be opened for one hour just for us, as it was a Sunday and would normally be shut. We all walked on shore through a small scattering of buildings to the shop and there ensued a frenzy of consumption, everyone (except Andrei our Russian guide and Kevin the environmentalist) including myself gazing at the array of standard gift-shop items – wool socks, stuffed polar bears, refrigerator magnets, tablecloths and maps featuring Arctic themes – turning them over in our hands, mesmerized. Slowly we emerged one by one from the shop, looking dazed and slightly sheepish, clutching purchased items such as reindeer fur rugs, hand towels, and silver cups.

Is there any escape from consumer culture? Why do we so ardently seek satisfaction where it can never be found? Why are we such slow learners? I for example have struggled for years to cultivate fiscal responsibility and have recently made a tiny bit of progress, joining a debt management program, cancelling all my credit cards, and living on a budget. I’ve already spent more than the amount I budgeted for this entire trip and had made a firm decision to spend no more except what’s necessary to get back home safely, yet I found myself obsessed with the idea of hats they had for sale back in the shop after I’d already walked away from it, wondering how much the hats cost and wanting to run back in and buy one. I even convinced myself that the hats I have are insufficient, which they are not. Very discouraging!

Then Andrei led us on a hike to the Amundsen dirigible launch pad, and proceeded to recount a seemingly endless tale of attempts to reach the North and South poles, fraught with bitter rivalries, injury, death, and the occasional miraculous survival.

Today I lost hope again, frankly. I don’t know what I’m doing here. I feel overwhelmed as by the glacier. It’s a simple problem with simple solutions that will be extremely challenging to implement, as they will require a complete shift in how we live our lives. Ultimately they may require massive decentralization, a reversion to pre-industrial technologies or at least attitudes of localized responsibility. And whilst we are all struggling for survival, just like the Pomors in the Arctic before us, how can we become willing to sacrifice any energy at all to maintaining a habitable climate for people who will live hundreds of years after we’re dead, whom we’ll never meet?

Tuesday September 14th, 2010
What is the most surprising is that I am so delighted by the entertaining cast of characters on board, which is the last thing I expected. For example Nina, the chronically unimpressed German, who upon arrival at a white sandy Arctic beach nestled in a cove amongst snow-capped mountains, to which Leonid had brought his “portable moon” emanating its supernatural light, announced: “It’s all very well and good to bring a moon to the beach, but whatever way you look at it, the landscape is really very bland.” And earlier today she said “Ach! Everyone is always collecting all these pictures and video recordings, and then when they get back home they have to figure out what to DO with them.”

And the cook, Sonia! She is a miracle worker, producing a different soup at every meal, three-course dinners and two-course lunches as well as breakfast daily for 22 people out of a miniscule kitchen on a rocking, unstable vessel.

Also today Renske captured a sea butterfly for Deborah, a tiny little pteropod creature which in spite of being a very early form of life and at the bottom of the food chain, is incredibly complex and beautiful, resembling a tiny underwater flying snail! Miraculous.

Wednesday September 15th, 2010
This morning we visited Moffen Island, a tiny hiccup of land North of Spitsbergen at 80 degrees. As Bob put it, Moffen Island is “a lonely place.” A lonely place indeed: Moffen Island is utterly uninhabited except by walruses, a wasteland of rocks and bones (which I assumed were the shrapnel of walrus meals, but turned out to be walrus bones) and scatterings of driftwood “from Siberia!” according to Andrei, our Russian guide.

(Andrei told a “small short story” proving this statement, about a man who had an “unsuccessful trip” on a boat off Siberia: his boat sank, froze, and then “disappear.” Andrei is a master of grizzly tales of heroism ending in disaster, death, and worse. The frozen sunken boat that disappeared off Siberia was found many years later off the coast of Greenland, showing that an ocean current runs from Siberia west along the north coast of Svalbard and on to Greenland. Thus it was that the Russian Pomors (hunters) were able to survive for years on end with almost no equipment or provisions in the forbidding landscape of the Svalbard archipelago, using Siberian driftwood for fuel to make fires over which to grill the meat of reindeer, polar bears, arctic foxes, seals, and walruses.)

As we walked along this barren landscape, bundled to the eyeballs against the freezing cold, ducking our heads downward against icy wind and snow, and scanning the ground for interesting bones, we began to come across bits of human rubbish, so visibly alien to this place – bottles of green glass and blue plastic, a crumpled milk container bearing Russian lettering, a white plastic soy butter container – we realized that in addition to driftwood, bits of Siberian human rubbish are also being carried by the ocean currents to this place otherwise untouched by human civilization.

It was a tangible reminder that just as this remote place has a direct effect on our lives, its ice sheets regulating the climate of our entire clement world, so do our actions have a direct impact on the far reaches of our world, our pollution washing up in places we’ll never see.

Things I’m Learning in the Arctic:
1. It is possible to survive on very little.
From the example of the Russian Pomors – whose grizzly tales of hardship were recounted by Andrei, our Russian guide, as we gazed upon the remains of their huts and graves scattered about the barren Arctic sea coast – I learned that it is possible to survive on very little. Andrei explained how some of these hunters survived for years at a time on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard (meaning snowy coast) in the 16th century with limited numbers of bullets and flints, killing reindeer with their bare hands and drinking reindeer blood for the vitamins to prevent scurvy.
2. If I don’t cultivate a greater respect for my own mortality, it’s gonna kill me (and the same goes for my species.)
3. On a boat, nothing is wasted.
Because we’re trapped on this micro-cosmos for these three weeks and must survive on whatever we brought on board at the start, we are forced to become hyper-conscious of how much water we use and how much waste we accumulate. We have one water tank for the entire journey, and if we run out of water, we won’t be able to stay hydrated nor cook nor bathe: thus, it is in our best interest not to waste water. We have a limited amount of space in which to live here: thus, no space is wasted. And any rubbish we accumulate during the voyage, we must travel with it: thus, we take care not to accumulate unnecessary waste. It’s a great lesson in the benefits of energy conservation, serving as a metaphor for our slightly larger little clement world outside the boat, our spaceship Earth, as Buckminster Fuller called it. We are all stuck with the consequences of any one of our actions. Yet this is much more tricky to perceive – or rather much easier NOT to perceive – in the realm outside the boat, when the repercussions of our actions ripple outward away from us, into invisibility.
4. To respect historical sites is beneficial to the spirit.
Andrei our Russian guide explained: “Not disturb these site. Not for me watching, but for spirit. Respect history, good for you spirit. You not historical guy! OK.”
5. Understanding climate change requires a vast perspective.
One difficulty of comprehending climate change is that it can only be recognized looking at trends occurring over many, many years.
6. Heat causes water to expand.
As water heats, water molecules are stirred up by the heat energy, causing the volume of the water to expand. Thus the increasing temperature of global climate causes sea level to rise in two ways: the addition of water from melting glaciers, and the expansion of water due to increasing heat.
7. Tranquility is a survival technique.
At the museum in Longyearbyen, I learned that Arctic animals have developed an array of techniques to survive in this harsh environment, including the tendency of reindeer to adopt “tranquil lifestyles” in order to conserve energy.
8. Fossil fuels are the decomposed bones of our ancestors, transformed over millions of years.
9. We live on a magnet.
The magnetic poles pull the ions radiating from the sun in toward them, manifesting the mystical phenomenon known as the Northern Lights, which emanates from the ionosphere, which lies beyond the stratosphere, which lies beyond the troposphere, which lies beyond our little clement habitable sphere. And yet, just like the light from stars which emanate from vastly further distances away from us, they are perceptible from Earth. Amazing!
10. We are affecting the RATE of climate change, causing it to accelerate at a speed to which WE will not be able to adapt fast enough.
11. We will most likely be able to sail to the North Pole by the end of this decade.
12. Interesting psychological fact: post-polar-exploration depression.
Amundsen suffered terrible depression after returning from his successful expedition to the South Pole. And three out of five explorers from this expedition later commited suicide.
13. “Continent which disappear” (“lost continent”) = a continent someone tries to find, which is not to be found, because it doesn’t exist.
14. The glacier we encountered on my birthday is 75 meters high and 10 kilometers across.

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Clinking glasses on ship – sound recording, 00:15

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Engine inside cabin – sound recording, 1:17

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Sloshing water from inside cabin – sound recording, 00:53


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