Going Dutch: Researchers return to ‘completely different’ island 40 years later

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When Ko de Korte, 72, first came to Svalbard to study birds in 1966, he and three fellow Dutch students knew they’d be dealing with lots of isolation and a need to be highly self-dependent. Forty years later he was anything but alone during his observations, but there was still an element of isolation.

“Everyone’s looking at their iPads,” he said with a laugh.

Korte, now an Arctic programs consultant for Oceanwide Expeditions, was essentially a tribal elder during a large-scale return by the Dutch to Edgeøya to see how things have changed since he spent three years there during the late 1960s, including overwintering in 1968-69. About 55 researchers and roughly an equal number of tourists explored the island and its waters from Aug. 19 to 28 during the Netherlands Scientific Expedition Edgeøya Spitsbergen, which organizers said is the largest-ever Dutch expedition in the polar regions.

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Paul de Groot, Eric Flipse, Ko de Korte and Piet Oosterveld brave the elements while spending the winter of 1968-69 at a research station on Edgeøya. Photo by Eric Flipse.

He said there are vast overall changes, such as previously lush areas now devoid of vegetation, as well as smaller ones involving the gull colonies he observed.

“I found they’re breeding one week earlier,” he said, adding he doesn’t yet know why.

One huge human-related change is that, despite far more footprints from people on the island, there are far more polar bears than during the 1960s, Korte said.

“At that time there was enormous hunting,” he said.

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Ko de Korte, center, discusses changes on the island this summer with Piet Oosterveld and Paul de Groot, the other surviving members of the expedition.
expeditions. Photo courtesy of NOS.

Back then he and his companions were trapping the bears, often with snares, in order to study them. This year, of course, “we don’t give them the change to react because we stay so far away.”

Korte also shot numerous birds during his studies in the 1960s to see what they ate, and the men’s diet was carefully rationed with set meal times. Now preservation of wildlife and the environment is carefully regulated, while people are free to indulge in a culinary free-for-all aboard the cruise ship that brought them to Edgeøya.

“The food then tasted better,” Korte said. “Quality and taste is subjective. We were very hungry. We were physically very active.”

Korte found himself accompanied by about 20 researchers and tourists during his outings this summer to observe the gulls, but he said the companionship wasn’t unwelcome.

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Dutch geologists examine a deep meltwater channel in a glacier. Photo courtesy of the Wageningen Research Center.

“It was stimulating because those tourists had to adapt,” he said. “It gave a zeal to the trip.”

Another advantage: “I felt kind of a relief I didn’t have to make so many notes as I did in the past.”

The next step for the scientists will be analyzing the data, an intensive process in both the short and long term. Annette Scheepstra, one of the trip’s organizers and guides, said researchers from The Netherlands have been coming to Svalbard almost every year since 2007, but this year’s long-planned expedition still resulted in surprising findings.

“They expected a change, but what they didn’t expect was that it would be completely different,” she said.

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Dutch biologists examine marine life samples off the coast of Edgeøya. Photo courtesy of the Wageningen Research Center.

The expedition received widespread coverage in The Netherlands throughout their trip, to the surprise of some participants.

“We were looking for media attention and expecting some, but we didn’t expect to be on the eight o’ clock news for several days,” Scheepstra said.

The project has been in the planning stages for the past few years, but getting funding proved to be a sticking point, she said.

“We thought it would never happen, but then suddenly we had the money,” she said.

Scheepstra said they hope to keep visiting the island in future years, but in something a bit more reminiscent of the old days, with fewer participants staying for a longer time doing more detailed research.

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