Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Talk About Remote: Jan Mayen Island

Map picture

If you were to draw a line from the northern coast of Iceland to the most northern area in Norway, Svalbard, about a third of the way along that line you would run into an extremely remote Island named Jan Mayen. Indeed it is safe to say that it is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world! Still, that is where we visited yesterday, and it was a fascinating experience.

Let me paint the picture of “remote inhabited island.” The land is nothing more than a 55 km long lump of volcanic rock, smack dab in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. At one end is the 8,000 ft. high Beerenberg volcano and at the other are the remains of a now extinct volcano. The two ends of the island are connected by a narrow isthmus. The island has absolutely no exploitable resources outside the fishing rights in its surrounding waters, and it has no ports or harbors, and only a few offshore anchorages.

It is a part of Norway, and is home to both a radio communications station and a meteorological station. During the summer, perhaps as many as 18 people are in residence, while in the winter when the research peaks, it may be home to a maximum of 80 personnel. It is visited by a supply ship only once per year, and then during the summer only. There is a newly constructed gravel runway, and weather permitting, it receives four flights per year. As for visitors, the base commander stated that the island will be visited by four ships this summer, two of which are private yachts, and two of which are expedition ships of which our ship is one. So, as you can see, I do think the word “remote” is truly applicable.

Before arriving at Jan Mayen, everyone on board had to undergo a Bio Security Check to insure that our clothing and shoes would not be bringing any unwanted guests, such as bugs and seeds, to the island. We were told that landings are far from assured because of the weather. The island has only 25 days of sunshine in a year, while the rest of the time it is covered with a dense low overcast of clouds. As we approached the island, in the early hours of the morning, it was indeed gray and cloudy. The outside temperature was a little below freezing; however, the ocean was calm and the winds gentle. Our little scout crew left the ship shortly after we dropped anchor, and about an hour later, word came back that a landing would be possible, and so excitement immediately peaked as we all rushed to figure out how to dress for such cold and for our first “wet” landing.

The passengers are divided into four groups for landings, and on this occasion, our group was to be the last to go ashore. As it turned out our waiting proved to be a good thing. To the amazement of everyone, the sky started to clear; slowly at first and then very quickly a hole opened in the fog revealing a starkly beautiful landscape. According to our experts, a small opening had appeared in the overhanging clouds which allowed a little sun to reach the blackened hillsides. As the hills heated, a draft of rising air was created which created an outflow boundary that pushed the fog back from the island. They said that if we could see a satellite picture of the area, it would be covered by low clouds with the exception of this giant hole over Jan Mayen. If the sun became covered again, or as the sun went lower in the sky, the island would eventually lose its heat, and the fog bank would once again envelope the island. So, not only were we greeted with a beautiful sunny day, but by the time it came for us to depart, the Jan Mayen Island, NorwayBeerenberg volcano itself became visible, and that is an extremely rare event.

We came ashore at a beautiful black sandy beach which had a rather steep drop-off into the surf. Jan Mayen Island, NorwayAs our Zodiac approached, it turned around and approached the shore backwards and 4 members of the Expedition Staff in wet suits, waded out in chest deep water to pull the little craft up to the beach. Even at that, the surf threw the little craft around. The idea was that each of us in turn, would pivot on the side of the craft and then “time” when to put our feet down as the tide was going out, and then run quickly before the tide once again came in. Of course, I missed the timing, and the tide caught up with me sending water over the top of my waterproof boots. Jan Mayen Island, NorwaySo from the beginning, I was walking in waterlogged socks, which were going “squish, squish” with every step. In any event, I slogged, and others walked up a hill to the main camp at the top. There we were greeted by the base commander, who presented a short history of the island and set out a few guidelines for our visit. From there we were free to explore on our own.Jan Mayen Island, Norway

A small group of people set out on a very steep trail that a member of the expedition had marked earlier which climbed to the top of the mountain ridge. Another small group set out on a hike to the isthmus area, a walk of several miles. The majority of us walked quite some distance in order to photograph two unique icons of the island. Jan Mayen Island, NorwayThe first was a traditional large post with signs attached showing the direction and distance to different locations around the world. The other icon was a road sign that I will not even attempt to describe – let me just say that if you are interested, I suggest you look at my pictures. Jan Mayen Island, NorwayWhile walking I noted that each and every vehicle we came across, had the name of a woman lavishly painted along the doors on each side of the vehicle. I saw what appeared to be one private car, and it too was “named.” So I guess if you said “I’m going to take Sally for a ride” that everyone knew what you meant! Once again back on our ship, we set off to the North, and were quickly enveloped in fog, as was predicted.

I just checked our TV, and noted that we are located at 74 degrees of North latitude, so we are clearly within the Arctic Circle. As a reminder of something we all learned in school, but have probably lost somewhere in our memories, allow me to define the Arctic and Antarctic Circles of Latitude. When we look at a map of the earth, where it is shown as a globe with the North Pole at the top, then we all know that the ring of Latitude around the center is called the equator, and that this mark is defined as zero degrees of latitude. As you move away from the equator, then successive rings of latitude are defined as being so many degrees of latitude north or south of the equator; so for example Kansas City, if my memory serves me, is approximately 48 degrees north of the equator. If you go all the way to the North or South poles, then they are located at 90 degrees north or south respectively from the equator. Now two more pieces to complete this picture; on our map, let’s draw a line from the north to the south, thus representing the central axis of the earth; if we rotate our earth map clockwise 23.5 degrees, then we are placing our earth image in the correct orientation as to how the earth is aligned with the sun. So finally, let’s draw a line of latitude that is 23.5 degrees below the north and south poles. That would mark latitude of (90-23.5) 66.5 degrees. Therefore we will define the Arctic Circle as being at 66.5 degrees north, and the Antarctic Circle as being at 66.5 degrees south. This is significant because within those latitudes, the sun never sets for six months, followed by six months without the sun.

We crossed the Arctic Circle two days ago, and so are now considered as being
“in the Arctic.” Eventually I believe we will travel all the way to 80 degrees of North Latitude.

I hope this did not confuse everyone, and yes, I know that there are different ways in which to define “the Arctic” however using latitudes is the easiest. Take care, and I will try to write again, although we are now getting far enough north that I understand that is not a given.


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