Why the Arctic?

The Arctic is an incredible place for artistic inspiration.  By sailing into the heart of the climate debate, we aim to draw people's attention to this climatic tipping point. 

The seas around Svalbard hold the key to understanding the health of the world's ocean currents that help regulate the earth's temperature. If you look at maps of Arctic sea ice, you'll see open water much further north in the Atlantic than in the Pacific. There is also a difference between the East Coast of Greenland on one side and North Norway and Svalbard on the other.

The ice-free waters in this part of the Arctic are due to the same system of ocean currents that give Western Europe its mild winters. These currents are the Gulf Stream, the North Atlantic Drift and the Norwegian Current - often referred to as simply 'the Gulf Stream'.

The Gulf Stream, a warm water current the size of 30 Amazon Rivers, flows north along the surface of the North Atlantic. Off the North Norwegian coast it cools and becomes saltier, as it reaches the Svalbard Archipelago it falls to the ocean floor, a sinking action that helps to drive the whole 'global heat conveyor'. This current, now very cold, flows south again along the sea bed of the Greenland coast. 

Svalbard, known by many as Spitsbergen, lies between the 78th and 80th parallel, 600 nautical miles from the North Pole. It is at the front line of climate change. Its ice and glaciers are melting and off its coastline the final part of the Gulf Stream, the West Spitsbergen Current, ceases its progress north and sinks to the ocean seabed, an action which acts as a vital pump for the whole North Atlantic Ocean Circulation.

Climate scientists predict that in fifty years there may be no summer ice at the North Pole as the planet continues its inevitable warming process, a warming which is a direct result of human beings releasing an excessive amount of Carbon Dioxide into the atmosphere. This process will accelerate as the ice reflects up to 80% of the Sun’s energy reaching it back into space. The ice-free Arctic sea will absorb over four times more energy, adding to the warming of our planet.

Within this scenario, there is the possibility that with the warming of the Pole, the resulting low density fresh water will stop sinking in the high Arctic and no longer draw the warm Atlantic water north to replace it. Such a scenario would result in the Gulf Stream deflecting south towards Africa, pitching northern Europe into a very different and cold environment.

The reality is that continued excessive releases of Carbon Dioxide and other ‘green house’ gases will have a fundamental effect on the environment of the Artic and consequently Northern Europe. The Svalbard Archipelago is at the fulcrum of this change – a really significant place for the Cape Farewell scientists and artists to work.
Dr Simon Boxall, National Oceanography Centre

Related Links

Dr Tom Wakeford 2005 / 78°N 11.5°E

Tom Wakeford "Today you will have almost certainly inhaled an atom of carbon exhaled by Julius Caesar, when he uttered the question 'Et tu Brute?' to his treacherous aide. Now multiply your breathing by the respiration of every plant, fungus, bacteria, human being and other animals. You do not need a calculator to conclude that organisms have, by their very existence, exerted a powerful influence over the global climate..."
Read the full blog post by Tom Wakeford, biologist and action reserarcher, from the 2005 expedition ›

The Noorderlicht archored in sea ice in Svalbard during the 2003 Expedition
 
The Gulf Stream, a warm water current the size of 30 Amazon Rivers, flows north along the surface of the North Atlantic... as it reaches the Svalbard Archipelago it falls to the ocean floor, a sinking action that helps to drive the whole global heat conveyor. Image: National Oceanography Centre, Southampton
 
 
Walking on an icecap during the 2004 Art/Science Expedition
The science crew launch Arty Bob, the ARGO float, during the 2007 Art/Science Expedition
 
The science crew taking measurements during the 2007 Art/Science Expedition
 
Satellite image showing sea surface temperature (SST). National Oceanography Centre, Southampton
 
 
The Noorderlicht on the East Coast of Greenland during the 2007 Art/Science Expedition
 
Illustration showing sea surface temperature. National Oceanography Centre, Southampton
 
Amy Balkin in conversation with Simon Boxall during the 2007 Art/Science Expedition
Illustration of the Gulf Stream flowing north along the surface of the North Atlantic

The Gulf Stream flows north along the surface of the North Atlantic. As it reaches the Svalbard Archipelago it falls to the ocean floor, a sinking action that helps to drive the whole 'global heat conveyor'.