Must be the Weather (I)

One of the defining things about being British is our obsession about the weather.  It is a safe topic of conversation and a source of constant interest. But our climate is also generally benign so it’s rarely more than an inconvenience (more of that in another post…)

 For the last few years an important component of my practice has been sea voyages to Arctic whaling destinations. I am the first to admit these were all late booked bargain cruises on smallish ships. But they were sailing from England and back and mostly in summer months.  One thing this does give you is an appreciation of distances – how big the sea is and how it feels to sail for days seeing no land, no other ships, just the sea and the wildlife. In parts of the ocean even wildlife sightings are sporadic.  I have spent hours at the front of these ships sometimes with wildlife enthusiasts and experts (who have almost universally shared their knowledge generously) and sometimes alone seeing nothing but sky and water until the water takes on the illusion of undulating solidity and it feels like you could walk on it.

Magdalena Fjord, Spitsbergen

Magdalena Fjord, Spitsbergen

In the summer of 2011 I sailed to Spitsbergen in the high arctic.  This included 10 days of constant daylight. Experiencing the disorientation of no normal day and night cues and the sun in the north was unsettling.  I was quite glad I had a cheap cabin with no window/porthole so at least I could sleep in the dark.  The rigour of the day being divided into watches would have been vital for the early whalers and walrus hunters. 

It was also a good introduction to the weather in the high arctic. Particularly the fog so thick it nearly prevented us from sailing into Magdalena Fjord but lifted in time for me to see my first wild walrus and my first glacier, calving into the sea, and so persistent that it enabled us to sail quite close to Bjornoya Island but fail to see anything except the tell-tail rise in the number of sea birds. 

As it happens 2012 was a record year of low arctic sea ice.  In fact it held the record for a bit. Arctic sea ice and weather in the arctic are important components of global climate and a great deal of measurement and analysis of the climate is now happening in this once forbidding and hostile place.

Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen

Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen

I was fortunate enough to visit Ny Alesund, the research base on Spitsbergen and the northernmost functioning civilian settlement in the world.  I saw the various research centres of the countries working there (and a weather balloon being released).  Huge amounts of data is being collected at places like this and being fed into climate models and analyses.