Are there butterflies?

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.

Snow Bunting (© Gerald McGee, Randall’s Island, New York, January 2014)

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.

Polar Biosphere.jpg

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.

growing plants                  peas

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.

Mountain Sorrel.jpg
Mountain Sorrel

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.

Arctic Cinquefoil 1.JPG
Arctic Cinquefoil

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.

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Arctic Mouse-ear

I like the name Arctic Mouse-ear.

Polar Scurvygrass. Likes to grow under bird cliffs.JPG
Polar Scurvy Grass

And Scurvy Grass.

Maybe it is high in Vitamin C and helps ward off the Scurvy. Perhaps I should eat some.

Wooly Lousewort 1.JPG
Wooly Lousewort

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:

poppy 1.JPG
The Arctic Poppy
Purple Saxifrage.jpg
Purple Saxifrage

And here is the only ‘tree’ that grows in Svalbard. It is a dwarf Willow and it looks like buried sticks.

Polar Willow.jpg

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.

5 thoughts on “Are there butterflies?”

  1. Having read your observations I quite understand that it’s described as a desert. The crunchy dust sounds unpleasant.
    It’s extraordinary to imagine a life without insects. So definitely no mosquitos. That’s a bonus.
    Has no one else tried to grow things in a green house? If that project is a success I would think that huge greenhouses would provide fresh food for everyone- or would it be too difficult to generate the heat and light? How is heat and light provided for the area ?
    Are there domestic animals? I guess there are no grazing animals because there’s no grass? Where do the supplies come from?
    Is there industry there? So many things I’d like to know. It does sound rather bleak- and fascinating.


  2. wow! I love all the little plants surviving in such harsh conditions! ‘Wooly Lousewort’ is my favourite name for a flower!!! Can’t wait to hear more and see more pics!!!


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