Arctic Adventure Gang member Beth has got a question. She says:
Are there butterflies in Svalbard?
Sadly Beth, there is not a single butterfly here, and nor are there bees or beetles or spiders or snails. That is one of the things that feels strange when I go outside, nothing buzzes past your ear or scuttles past your toe. There is only one type of bird that sings, the Snow Bunting. I really miss the sound and movement of birds and insects.
Some of my favourite creatures are worms and woodlice, in England they do an important job making crumbly soil for the plants to grow in. So what happens here where there are no worms or woodlice? And how do the plants reproduce without bees and butterflies to pollinate them?
I went to meet a man called Benjamin Vidmar. Benjamin has built a plastic domed greenhouse, which is the most Northerly Greenhouse in the whole world (many things here are described as the most Northerly, yesterday I discovered the most northerly sundial!)
Benjamin’s company is called Polar Permaculture and he is experimenting with growing herbs and vegetables to use in cooking here in the Arctic Circle. It is a difficult job because this place is very cold, and dark in the winter, and so dry that it is described as a desert. Not ideal for growing food. I went to visit Benjamin’s greenhouse where he is trying out different plants.
Inside the dome it felt much warmer and it was good to be out of the Arctic wind which whistles down the valley outside. I saw peas, mustard and tomatoes growing in plastic flower pot towers. It was wonderful to see the green leaves all around me instead of the endless rocky mountains and ice which surround us here.
Benjamin told me that instead of worms and woodlice the arctic soil is crumbled up by little mites which crawl around in the ground.
Many of the wild plants here have a red tinge to their leaves, this is because there is not much Nitrogen in the soil. In England there is loads of Nitrogen so the plants grow green and bushy.
Arctic plants are small and compact, they grow close to the ground to keep out of the freezing wind and instead of being pollinated by insects they use the wind or they produce runners like strawberries and spider plants.
These plants are hairy, some look like they have silver fur. The hairs help to trap moisture from the air because it is more often foggy than raining.
I took my camera and went out to see what plants I could find, then I got some books from Longyearbyen Library to find out what they are. Counting the petals, looking at the leaf shape and recording where it is growing are all good ways to identify a plant.
I like the name Arctic Mouse-ear.
And Scurvy Grass.
Maybe it is high in Vitamin C and helps ward off the Scurvy. Perhaps I should eat some.
Wooly Lousewort is very hairy, I thought it was coated in spider webs until I remembered there are no spiders here.
The two prettiest Arctic Flowers are these two:
And here is the only ‘tree’ that grows in Svalbard. It is a dwarf Willow and it looks like buried sticks.
Loads more flowers have come out in the four weeks that I have been here. The snow has melted away from the lower slopes of the mountains and the top layer of the earth has thawed; well only about 50cm, the rest remains frozen. The fine earth becomes an icy dust as the wind blasts it through the air into my eyes, hair and clothes. I never expected it to be dusty here, I have got crunchy teeth.
I’m so pleased to have seen Polar Summer here in Svalbard, it has been a real surprise to see all these tiny flowers thriving in such a harsh environment and so strange to experience the midnight sun. You can’t tell what time of day it is as the sun is always high above the mountains. Even at bedtime. Even at 2.00am. Even at 3.00am. Even at 4. 5. 6. It always looks like midday.
It’s enough to drive you mad.