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81 Degrees

What an elation! After four weeks of winter in the barren vastness of the far north, we were able to set foot on green land again. As much as we enjoyed feeling the mild late summer breeze in Kirkenes, we miss the beautiful memories we collected during the last weeks circumnavigating the fantastic Svalbard Archipelago. Although these experiences are hard to put into words, I’ll try to summarise the highlights of our journey in a few points.  By and large, we made it our goal to reach the outermost points of Svalbard in order to filter the water for eDNA traces and micro-plastic particles in collaboration with the ETH Zürich, Western Norwegian University of Applied Sciences and NORCE Research Center. The eDNA tells us which animals have moved through the respective waters over a certain time period. Determining the plastic content with the manta net does not yet allow causal conclusions to be drawn on the plastic’s impact, but at least correlations and overlaps can be identified. Marine ecologist Meret Juncker explained that up to 80% of some arctic bird species were found to carry plastic in their stomachs. A frightening number that calls for more research on the effects of the plastic in the species guts! At the same time, we wanted to continue with our routine clean-ups to free the beaches from plastic – if we could actually find any so far away from civilization! And the less we expected it, the more sobering the experience was of encountering it in large quantities even in the most remote places. A great number of fishing nets, food packaging, buoys, boilers, lighters, and other waste piled up even in the sheltered fjords of the Northern coast of Nordaustlandet.  Removing the plastic often felt like a Sisyphean task that could have kept us busy for months. Once the big chunks were removed, you discovered how many medium and small particles were hidden in the sand underneath. The friendly filmmaker Robert Wittmer joined our trip and recorded everything that happened. His own movie about the plastic flood on the Greek Islands is called  In Between Beauty and Waste – A title that sums up our own experiences in Svalbard quite poignantly. Because although the currents coming from the south carry in these remainders of human activity, the largely untouched piece of Arctic has provided us with tremendous impressions of nature and wildlife.

Our expedition report in Longyearbyen marked the last waypoint to the north, where we still had internet and telephone connection. In the following days, we sailed to the small village of Ny Ålesund – the northernmost year-round inhabited settlement in the world. The place has its origin in the dwelling of workers from the Kings Bay mining Company from 1916. However, the Norwegian Government had to buy all the shares in the economic crisis of 1929. Today, the settlement is a permanent Arctic research station consisting of environmental monitoring institutes from Norway, Germany, France, China, Italy, Great Britain, Japan, Spain and the Netherlands. Researchers from Sweden, Denmark, Greenland and the USA are regular guests! A launch site for sounding rockets (SvalRak) is located on the outskirts of the town. The Kings Bay Company maintains a marine research laboratory, port facilities, a canteen, workshops, and a common infrastructure for the inhabitants.

 

After our little detour to the east, we continued our journey to the westernmost point of Svalbard; the Forlandet Nationalpark on Prince Charles Island. During a walk on the white beach, we were surprised by what we discovered! About 30 walrus were lying on a heap – twisting and rolling on the spot to keep warm. These animals are up to three and a half meters long, and their weight exceeds 1200 kilograms. Fascinated we watched the spectacle from a distance before we dared to approach these arctic giants. In the background, we discovered humpback and fin whales diving up and down. The scene felt a bit like watching “Mother Earth” and falling asleep by the sight of its fantastic pictures. A similar impression we experienced when we anchored for a walk at the ‚Mosselbukta‘ and unexpectedly met a polar bear mother with two cups on a stroll. Feelings of respect, perplexity and fascination overcame us when we watched these incredibly exciting creatures so carefree in their natural environment from no more than 40 meters. Fortunately, the animals neither felt disturbed by our presence nor did they enjoy it so much that we ended up on their menu. Quite casually the animals noticed us, continued playing and disappeared after a while. While sailing we discovered two other bears, one of them even crossing our way in the water.

 

For the further journey, we lacked reliable maps since only few people sail this far north. The situation with the floating ice and pack ice is particularly difficult to assess, as it changes day by day.  The highlights of our trips were – in the truest sense of the word – the ascent of the highest peak of Svalbard and sailing to the pack ice border at 81.17 degrees north! On 28 July 2020, we climbed “Perriertoppen” with 1712 m.a.s.l. which is exactly one meter smaller than the official Top of Svalbard “Newtoppen”! However, as Perriertoppen is more demanding in terms of alpine climbing and also looks more like a mountain, we decided to honour it and added one and a half metres of height by shovelling snow and adding a reindeer antler on top. 🙂 Coinciding with our arrival at the top, the heat record on Svalbard was broken. Below the summit meltwater splashed out of a crevasse as if from a fire hose! Bare ice without any remnants of snow demanded good ice axes. On the way back to the boat, we were confronted with streams of meltwater, two debris flows through the permafrost and even a landslide. For Dario, this was something he had never experienced before – even after 30 years as an international mountain guide. The glaciated mountains on Svalbard are sweating themselves to death! The distance from our boat to Top was about 25 km and 1790 meters in altitude. However, the difficult terrain kept us busy for 24 hours without a break. Tired and happy we found back to the boat and rested for two days before we tackled the 200 nautical miles to the northernmost point of Svalbard. Several times we navigated through floating chunks of ice and we had some spectacular encounters with whales and dolphins.

 

On the Swiss National Day we broke the ToptoTop record and were only a little more than 500 nautical miles away from the North Pole. In the pack ice above 81° North, I (Simon) was baptized “Blue Whale” with an ice-shower in the warm outside temperatures. This northerly position of a normal sailing ship (without assistance from an icebreaker) shows how far the pack ice has already retreated!

 

After passing the island of Kvitøya next to the Russian border, we anchored our boat for the last time in the very southern island „Hopen“. Two meteorologists, a cook and an engineer operate a local weather station and welcomed us very warmly as their first visitors for years, except the supply vessel that was last time there 6 months ago! Tom Johansen told us over coffee and cake that he has been running the station for the last 15 years. In his first years there, the water around the island froze in October, then it would freeze in December and now last year only in February. The thawing of the permafrost layer in the warm months has also risen from an initial five centimetres to 50 centimetres now – data which confirmed our overall impression that the Arctic is currently warming rapidly. The “Sysselmannen” (Government of Svalbard) told us that we might be the first boat under sail in history to circumnavigate Svalbard including Nordaustland – especially so early in the summer. Until now, the ice always blocked the way, which would have made a circumnavigation impossible. In the next few days, we sail via Alta, Lyngseidet to the Lofoten and look forward to meeting our friends again! (Simon, 13.8.2020)

 

Here our routing of the circumnavigation of Svalbard.

Note: Mohit from India just reminded us about the 10th anniversary of the first TOPtoTOP Climate Solution Award:

Hello Gabi, Stefan, Tiffany, Macarena, Gao, Chris, Zofie, Debbie, Lucia, Annemarie, Andrea and Dario!
How is everyone! Hope you all are doing great! It’s been exactly 10 years since our expedition in Switzerland! I went back to our camping grounds and recorded a video message and uploaded it on youtube for all of you. Hope it brings back some nice memories. Mohit Agarwal 🙂

 

Northway

Watch our new film “TOPtoTOP sails stormy arctic waters to sample micro-plastic in Svalbard” and read our report to find out how we made it to Svalbard!

Video:

Better resolution on Vimeo:

Report:

From the ‘Top of Finland’ back in the Lyngenfjord, it was soon time to pack up and get ready for our big project in the North. As is well known, the sea between Norway and the southern Tip of Spitzerbergen can be very rough and every possible time window with good weather must be used to set sail. Shortly after Salina and Meret reached us save and sound (see the last report), fortunately, also the lost-thought luggage followed. Hence, we could start our first expedition stage from Lyngen to Alta. Just arrived, our friends Inger and Lars Krempig spoiled us with a delicious meal, a warm shower, and even some relaxation in their garden sauna. We especially enjoyed gobbling up vegetables and fruits for the last time, knowing that these pleasures will be meticulously rationalized in the weeks coming. Inger is a tutor for biology at the Alta University and Lars teaches young adults arctic survival skills in the local ‘Folkehøgskole’. With their children, Narve, Runa, Ida, and Guro the couple produced a series of thrilling outdoor movies with the title Villmarksbarna“. For our trip to Svalbard, they were able to provide us with some precious advice, a couple of maps, and a riffle for polar bear attacks. Hoping to never actually use it, you have to be prepared for all eventualities on this remote Arctic Island. After the last big shopping in Hammerfest and a skilled food-Tetris on the mama-boat, we were finally ready for the crossing.

The sea was choppy at first, but settled off the coast of Bear Island. The wind forecast, however, provided us with two options; Either we stop at the Island and wait for one whole week or we sail through and make our first stop in Svalbard. Given a rather tight time window where the ice in the north is passable, we decided on the latter option. The ongoing rhythm of two hours watches and four hours break in a steadily bright and cloudy environment made us feel like in a semi-awake delirium for three days. One difficulty was caused by a loose Dingi which we almost lost in the high waves. Only masterly teamwork in a hectic night shift could solve the problem. Another issue was caused by two broken toilets, which forced us to do some balance exercises on the deck every now and then. In between those acrobatic feats, we took diligently care of our microplastic samples. So who thinks that sampling is a piece of cake has definitely never been on the Greenland Sea! 😉 For our encouragement, though, we were faithfully accompanied by a group of dolphins jumping and prancing in front of our bow.

On the fifth of July early in the morning, we could recognize the silhouettes of Svalbard appearing on the horizon. The closer we came, however, the more difficult it was to navigate through alternating winds and drifting ice blocks. In a sheltered bay called Kamavika, we found some more protection tried to anchor the boat. The first try failed because the chain slipped out of the roll. The second cast was successful but did not hold us in position as the anchor wrapped up in the algae of the seabed. In a head over heels action, Salina freed us from the plants with the Jungle Knife. One last attempt we wanted to make and we finally managed to find a safe anchorage. Now we could breathe and take notice of our surroundings; A barren but fascinatingly beautiful landscape made us realize well that the tree line was now no higher than the sea level itself. Especially impressive was the mighty glacier that adorns the scenery. Its outlets flow directly into the sea where a good number of break-offs sent waves and drifting ice in our direction.

During the first two days, we were able to catch up on sleep and took turns with the anchor watch. When our batteries were charged and our clothes dried, we decided to move northwards into the nearest fjord. Already at our arrival, the first visitors welcomed us with great curiosity; the so-called Svalbard reindeers. The tame mammals are a small endemic subspecies of the reindeer that is at home in the high arctic archipelago. Since the animals rarely see people in this environment, they were approaching us with great interest. Being back on land after a long time made us all feel pretty exhausted. Nevertheless, we enjoyed it very much to stretch our legs for two days. Salina and Andri were especially happy to have a bit more space for their daily training session than the boat deck provides.

After two days, we decided to set off for Longyerbean –  one of the most northern settlements on earth (78° 13′). The capital of Svalbard was founded in 1906 by an American entrepreneur as a mining town. Until that time, the entire archipelago was an uninhabited and stateless territory, where people of different nationalities were engaged in fishing, whaling, and mining. The Treaty of Svalbard from 1920 gave Norway sovereignty over all islands but obliged the country to ensure that citizens and companies of all signatory states may engage in economic activities on equal terms. Switzerland has been part of this agreement since 1925. Coal mining today is mainly operated in Sveagruva and Barentsburg whereas Longyearbyen lives from tourism and research. There is a branch office of the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI), the UNIS – a joint project of Norwegian Universities – as well as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a long-term storage facility for seeds. The researcher Andrew Hodson welcomed us on the harbor and took us out to the nearby swamp area. Andrew has been conducting research in Svalbard for 20 years and could show us on-site, how stored methane deposits in the permafrost soil are increasingly released into the atmosphere due to global warming (see video for details).

Last, we could use the provision of the internet to seek information on our onward journey to the unknown (and sparsely recorded) north. The next opportunity for a post could be some four weeks away – we look forward to keeping you up to date asap! (Simon, 14.07.2020) Until then – track us

Check out our newest media coverage:

Opportunities To Learn Hands-On About The Sea – Ezvid Wiki was the world’s first video wiki – 2020-07

Gipfelstürmer – Yacht 13 – Deutschland -2020-05

Check out our references.

TOP of Finland – a climate-friendly challenge

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Special thanks to all our friends in Lyngseidet and Alta. We are sampling microplastic and e-DNA. Now we are heading for Svalbard and the polar bears. Stay tuned!

 

Salina’s report about her journey back to Lyngseidet:

Once again it was time to say goodbye in Switzerland after being in school for 3 weeks when schools reopened. I am very grateful for all the friends I have, they will always have a place in my heart. My grandparents came and picked me up. I was looking forward to see my family again.

We arrived at my grandparents’ house. Wenn I got there, there were so many boxes on my bed – it was crazy! Shortly after, I was told that all these boxes had to come with me. If you know my family, then you know that packing is always stressful. It took me the longest time to get them all into only one bag. When we finally got all the boxes in, I was really happy because I thought I was done. Then I realised that the bag was 12 kg overweight – bummer! I gave up and went to bed.

Me and my grandparents got to the airport and met Meret – a very close family friend and like a sister to me. She is joining the expedition for a month to collect microplastics samples. We had planned enough time to pack again so that we could divide our weight between all of our bags. In the end, all our bags were 1.2 kg overweight but luckily they let us through without any difficulties.

The Norwegian border patrol was quite strict with the whole COVID-19 situation. We had to show many letters telling saying we are allowed to enter the country. In the end, they let us through with a smile. There I learned my first Norwegian word: politi  =  police! Have to learn something new every day 😉

We got to our end destination with two bags missing but other than that we had a fun trip. In the end, thankfully, we also got our bags back. But what would the TOPtoTOP team be without a little chaos?! The last leg of our trip was on a ferry and then finally I got to see all my siblings and my family. I was happy to see them again. Every time I see them again it’s crazy how much they have grown in the last few weeks.

I did have to get used to the temperature difference and the tight space but other than that I am quite happy on the boat as it is. So now we are quarantining for 10 days and hoping to get a good weather window to sail to Svalbard.

Paradise Lofoten

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Many thanks to Victorinox, Patagonia, Hanne Lykkja from Eggum, Torgunn & Yngvar @kremmervika, Morten and Roman from Polar Kajakk, Carlos & Kryztina from Northern Explorer Lofoten.

For people, they like to watch the film in higher resolution on Vimeo, click here.

Currently, we are in the Lyngen Alps still skiing.

Tomorrow we sail, cycle, and ski towards the TOP of Finnland; visiting schools, cleaning up and taking samples…