We came to Svalbard to look at rocks, but that’s not all we got. In fact, there was a fair bit of flora and fauna to be found as we travelled around Spitsbergen island.
August is the only time in Longyearbyen when there isn’t snow on the ground. The plants reminded me of the ones in Denali National Park during summer, small and low to the ground. That’s characteristic of plant life in tundra environments. The growing season is short, permafrost prevents them from developing deep root systems since the ground is frozen, and harsh cold and snow encourage plants to stick close to the ground where they’re more protected.
Even so, there were a fair number of flowering plants while we were in Svalbard this time of year. These are the four weeks where plants are able to flourish and reproduce, so they’ve adapted to doing so in a very efficient manner.
Some plants have developed interesting tricks to flourish in the harsh environment. The mining town of Pyramiden once supported a herd of cattle to provide for the people who lived there. That was made possible by importing grass from Siberia. This grass is unique in that instead of sending out seeds, this grass sprouts its own baby plants, completing skipping the trouble of seeds having to sprout. Each of the skinny leaf-like appendages on the plant below is actually its own grass plant which will ultimately blow away and become independent.
In addition to the live plants, we also saw quite a few fossils, including well-preserved leaves. There are no trees there now, but back in ancient times (think before the continents separated to be where they are today), Svalbard was located at lower latitude where the climate was warmer and trees flourished.
There were other signs of a warmer climate, like ancient corals fossilized in rocks in a river bed. Being there on a geology trip meant we paid close attention to what the rocks were telling us, and paleontological evidence of a much different environment was one of the most interesting aspects for me.
In addition to the flora, there was also quite a bit of fauna to be found on Svalbard, though we got only a taste since our trip wasn’t focused on finding wildlife. One of the most interesting finds were these small red ticks on a metamorphic rock we were checking out on a beach. Our guide assured us that they were nothing like “ticks in the western U.S.” and that they couldn’t harm us, but for the most part we steered clear anyhow.
There was an abundance of sea birds. Below is the Northern Fulmar which are basically seagulls. They liked to fly around our zodiacs as we were getting to and from shore.
One of the more rare bird species we saw was the Ivory Gull. According to one of our polar bear spotters, this is an unusual bird to spot, especially when there isn’t sea ice around (i.e. during this time of year). Not a great photo, but these birds are pure white. It looks like they stopped by to see if we had left any food on the beach.
We saw some mammals on our hikes as well. It wasn’t unusual for a seal to pop its head up as we walked along the beach. They often seemed quite curious about what we were up to, poking their heads above the water then diving below and popping up somewhere else nearby.
Perhaps the most classic animal to see when you’re this close to the North Pole, though, is a reindeer. We saw several on our first full day on the boat, including a herd of 6 out grazing on a plain. The guy below was off on his own, not too worried about the mass of people trudging past in rain boots. Apparently other than the occasional polar bear, they have no predators on the island so they live relatively carefree aside from the harsh weather.
Reindeer on Svalbard are the smallest species of reindeer in the world, with characteristically short legs. Their compact bodies are typical of Arctic animals, which tend to be sturdy and built for conserving energy. When we were there, the reindeer were eating their fill to get them through the winter; our guides pointed out that they’re so short their stomachs nearly touch the ground this time of year.
The obvious animal missing from my list here is the polar bear. I’m sorry to say we never saw one on our trip. Though that was largely by design for our safety, I was a bit disappointed that we weren’t able to spot one from a safe distance. I suppose my consolation will be the great view of the polar bears I got at the San Diego Zoo this summer.