cleaning the top of the world
Near the North Pole there are more polar bear paw prints than human footprints. But there on beautiful forlorn shores are our remnants - a mustard bottle, a cigarette lighter, a slipper, a dolls head and endless plastic.
Our trash scatters the Arctic map and swirls in far north waterways, some arriving in the Gulf Stream, entangling wildlife and dissipating into our planet’s water molecules. Plastic created ostensibly to simplify our lives chokes us.
This survey of garbage on Svalbard is about us. Globalized peoples. Somebody somewhere eats Chinese noodles, another smokes British tobacco, drinks Russian vodka, uses Norwegian fishing rope; their discarded packaging washes up on shores of the most northern inhabited place on earth. A child’s plastic pig catches next to a rogue log that drifted from Siberia to Sjuøyene (Seven islands) above 80ºN.
These garbage “portraits” were collected around Svalbard during a citizen initiative, Cleanup Svalbard from August 28-September 4, 2015.
Svalbard is a group of islands at the top of Norway. The North Pole is closer to Svalbard than Oslo. The islands are home to the third largest ice cap after Greenland and Antarctica. From seas surrounding Svalbard a current of trash enters its many fjords.
A lot of discarded plastic has already disintegrated and entered our food chains and ocean systems, but much of it still harms wildlife, suffocating and entrapping them. While preparing for this trip I discovered a photo thinking at first it was an art work. Then I realized it was two reindeer struggling to death, their antlers caught in plastic net. I was obsessed to learn their fate. The image was taken by Sveinung Råheim who was out snowmobiling in Svalbard with his wife when they happened upon the beasts in distress. They were able to cut the rope and free the reindeer. This act made me certain it’s worthwhile making an effort, even removing one piece of plastic at a time. But this is far from enough.
We started our cleanup in Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s main port, and travelled into the pack ice north of the island Nordaustlandet, covered largely by a glacier. We cleaned up at four official stops on the way noting our GPS locations to share details with the Governor. Along the way we sighted polar bears, under threat from climate change here like everywhere they roam: the apex mammal is the icon of our potential extinction.
The volunteers were nature, travel and Arctic enthusiasts, adventurers and more - they included a British marine biologist, a Mexican environmentalist, a retired French editor, a Norwegian social documentary maker, an Israeli professor who lived in the Amazon rainforest studying natural medicines and a 13-year old Dutch boy with his nature journalist father. Many clearly have (a good) polar fever and environmental concerns. Over four days and some 10 nautical miles we picked up 13.5 cubic metres of garbage including 3.5 cubic metres of plastic nets.
Ultimately we need more radical personal, community and industrial behaviour change and regulations to use less and produce more recyclable and biodegradable products.
We are all to a degree planet trashers. Some are worse offenders than others.
Astronauts floating above our cosmos have assured us the planet earth will survive, but if we are to survive on it, we have our act to clean up.
Fortunately many inspiring innovations and initiatives recognize this.
Carol Devine, May 2016
Member: Association of Polar Early Career Scientists, Humanities and Social Sciences Expert Group (HASSEG) of Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, Linking Tourism & Conservation, Society of Women Geographers
Fellow Cleanup Svalbard participants from around the world for helping collect the plastic trash "gems" and for the wonderful company in Svalbard
Oceanwide Expeditions expedition staff & crew - Ko, Jim, Bill, Arjen, Mick, Michael, Katrin, Stefan, Harri, Alex, David, Fons, Captain Barría ++
Governor of Svalbard Sysselmannen for the Cleanup Svalbard Initiative
Supporting the cleanup initiative: AECO – Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators
The MOOC on Marine Litter by UNEP, Global Partnership on Marine Litter and Open Universiteit, Netherlands and Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment and Landbased Activities.
Dr David Pantalony, Curator, Canada Science and Technology Museum for encouraging me and interest in the objects
Sveinung Råheim for use of his inspiring and provocative image of the struggling Svalbard reindeer.
Inspiration & More information: Parley for the Oceans
Sandy Nicholson for loan of his photo studio so I could shoot the trash
Joe Vernachio North Face and Barb Chambers for gear