Christmas, midwinter and the Arctic

This 2015 video is called [Nat Geo Wild] Wild Russia: Arctic HD (Nature Documentary).

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Grandfather Frosty’s seasonal box of delights

Saturday 24th December 2016

PETER FROST, the Star’s Santa, brings a whole cornucopia of midwinter stories to amaze, amuse, annoy and perhaps even inspire

SHOCK horror, Jesus wasn’t born at Christmas. He was actually probably born in midsummer. Luke’s gospel tells us the shepherds were in the fields at the time of the birth and they would not be out in the fields in the cold and wet Judean winter.

Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem to register in a Roman census. Such censuses only happened in the summer months when primitive roads were passable.

In about the fourth century the Christian Church realised there would be benefits in celebrating Christmas around the winter solstice. Most cultures and religions have a major celebration at midwinter. Pagans call it the birthday of the sun.

The Christians jumped on the midwinter bandwagon. Or should that be sleigh?

The reason midwinter is so popular is simple and doesn’t need a spiritual content. By midwinter primitive cultures could calculate whether the stores of food and winter fuel were going to last until the spring. If things were looking good then they decided to have a party.

While we are bursting a few Yuletide myths, here is another one. Don’t believe the story that the jovial red-cloaked Father Christmas figure we all know and love was designed by the Coca-Cola company advertising department back in the 1930s. It is an urban myth but with just a bit of truth.

The red suit and hat with the white fur trim have given rise to the belief among some that Santa’s outfit was dreamed up by canny ad men who recast him in Coke corporate colours.

When Coke stopped putting active cocaine in its drinks it needed a new, cleaner image. What better than a jolly fat Santa? However his colour scheme owes more to medieval ecclesiastical vestments than a brainstorm on Madison Avenue.

An early man in red was the original Saint Nicholas, who was the Bishop of Myra in the fourth century. Red and white were what traditional bishops wore.

Saint Nicholas is still remembered in some countries, particularly in the Netherlands and Poland on December 6 — Old Christmas as it is known.

In medieval England and for centuries afterwards, the figure of Father Christmas represented the spirit of benevolence and good cheer appearing in mumming plays.

“In comes I, Old Father Christmas, welcome or welcome not, I hope that Father Christmas will never be forgot,” is his typical first line in many of these ancient plays.

In the 19th century, Dutch emigrants took their story of a legendary gift-bringer called Sinterklaas to the US, where his name became Santa Claus.

Coca-Cola pinched the character in the early 1930s, when Swedish artist Haddon Sundblom started drawing ads for Coke featuring a fat Santa in a red coat trimmed with fur and secured with a large belt.

In fact his jovial character is a real internationalist, appearing all across the globe. All over Russia, for instance, at this time of year children and their parents are ready to welcome Ded Moroz — a character rather like our Father Christmas.

Ded Moroz translates as Old Man Frost, although Grandfather Frost is an even more common description. He normally delivers presents to children on New Year’s Eve when he is usually accompanied by his granddaughter and helper known as the Snow Maiden. The pair of them are dressed in silver-blue robes trimmed with white fur. Although over the years his long coat has been just as likely to be bright red as electric blue.

During early Soviet times Ded Moroz was seen as an ally of the priests and the kulaks, but only 10 years after the revolution he was back in favour as the main symbol of the midwinter pre-festival celebrated by atheists and the Orthodox Church alike.

In the Czech Republic they celebrate another saint and one well known to us too. Good King Wenceslas, who as everyone knows went out on the Feast of Stephen when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even.

This Czech saint seized the throne of Bohemia in a coup. He was also undoubtedly gay. His page and lover Podiven had no shoes but the saintly king simply commanded him to walk in his royal footprints. Miraculously the footprints proved hot and the page’s feet stayed warm and toasty “where the saint had treaded.”

Podiven, church history relates, was closest of all the king’s many young pages. Wenceslas, it seems, used to wake his pages in the middle of the night to join him in doing “charitable works.”

Both Wenceslas and his beloved Podiven are buried side by side at St Vitus Cathedral in Prague, where many Catholics will come this Christmas to pay tribute to the two. I wonder how many of them realise they are at the grave of a same-sex couple?

Saint Nic, Santa Claus, Grandfather Frost and even Father Christmas are all supposed to live high above the Arctic Circle.

They may be the fictional inhabitants of these snowy and icy lands but there are plenty of real ones too. Polar bears, reindeer, whales, walruses and other marine mammals as well as many tribes of aboriginal peoples.

Sadly things in Santa’s back garden aren’t looking too rosy. The Arctic has experienced record lows in sea ice extent in November this year.

Despite what Donald Trump and his latest backwoodsman appointee Scott Pruitt want you to believe about global warming, the Arctic really is getting warmer all the time.

Warm temperatures and winds are driving record declines in Arctic sea ice. Arctic sea ice reduced by three quarters of a million square miles. That is an area of ice larger than Denmark, and this at a time when sea ice is usually growing.

The slump in November sea ice follows a persistent trend in the Arctic, where warming temperatures are causing problems for indigenous communities and wildlife, like polar bears and walruses.

The loss of reflective sea ice makes the warming process worse by exposing the dark sea, which soaks up more heat which in turn helps melt more ice. Sea ice and snow are white and reflect the sun’s warmth.

That warming is particularly difficult for polar bears, which venture out onto the pack ice in winter to hunt seals and walruses. Now they have longer and longer to wait before the ice is thick enough to bear their weight.

Although polar bear numbers are shrinking the Canadian government is still selling the right to kill one of these magnificent creatures for about £30,000.

Santa loves his reindeer and so do the Sami people who occupy the area of land at the most northern reaches of Sweden, Norway, Finland and western Russia.

The whole area is sometimes called Lapland and on these huge areas of Arctic tundra the Lapp or Sami graze their huge herds of semi-wild reindeer.

The Sami have for centuries been the subject of discrimination and abuse by the dominant cultures claiming possession of their lands right up to the present day. None of the countries in which the Sami make their home have ever treated these nomadic people well.

Norway is probably worst of all and has been greatly criticised by the international community for the politics of Norwegianisation of and discrimination against the Sami.

In 2011 the UN racial discrimination committee made recommendations to Norway, including on the educational situation for students needing bilingual education in Sami.

In Finland, Sami children, like all Finnish children, are supposed to be entitled to day care and language instruction in their own language. However the Finnish government has denied funding for these education rights.

More and more of the Sami’s traditional reindeer grazing lands are being stolen for wind farms and other such projects.

The rights and rich Nordic culture represented by these “people of the deer” all across the Arctic lands are being trampled underfoot in the name of something called progress.

Prospecting for oil in Arctic waters is another massive threat to the delicate balance of life in the ocean above the Arctic circle.

Whales and walruses are still hunted and their traditional waters are under more and more threat from pollution and the exploitation of the area’s undoubted mineral wealth.

So there it is, Frosty’s Christmas round up. Peace on Earth — if you ignore Syria, Palestine and a dozen other war zones.

Goodwill to all men and women if I can leave out Trump, Farage, Le Pen, the Tory Cabinet and a few other right-wing cretins trying to make the world a more frightening place.

Have a good holiday, eat and drink well and come back in the New Year fighting fit to get on with the job we all have to do: building a world of peace, equality and social justice. That’s all I want for Christmas.

What about you?

Bowhead whale drone video

This video says about itself:

Bowhead Whale Drone Video 2016 Season Research Highlights

from Brian Whiteside

In 2016 VDOS Global supported research on Bowhead Whales in the Arctic using Drones. This video contains some of the video captured during the summer of 2016 missions. Contact VDOS Global at for more information. Flight operations managed by VDOS Global Copyright 2016.

Thick-billed murres video

This video says about itself:

Thick-billed Murre

23 September 2016

Video by David O. Brown / Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

I was privileged to see a nesting colony of these mainly Arctic birds on Svalbard.

Red knots damaged by climate change

This video from Brazil says about itself:

The red knot (Calidris canutus) (just knot in Europe) is a medium-sized shorebird which breeds in tundra and the Arctic Cordillera in the far north of Canada, Europe, and Russia. It is a large member of the Calidris sandpipers, second only to the great knot. Six subspecies are recognised.

Their diet varies according to season; arthropods and larvae are the preferred food items at the breeding grounds, while various hard-shelled molluscs are consumed at other feeding sites at other times. North American breeders migrate to coastal areas in Europe and South America, while the Eurasian populations winter in Africa, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and New Zealand. This species forms enormous flocks when not breeding.

From Science:

Body shrinkage due to Arctic warming reduces red knot fitness in tropical wintering range

13 May 2016

Migratory animals have adapted to life in multiple, sometimes very different environments. Thus, they may show particularly complex responses as climates rapidly change. Van Gils et al. show that body size in red knot birds has been decreasing as their Arctic breeding ground warms (see the Perspective by Wikelski and Tertitski). However, the real toll of this change appears not in the rapidly changing northern part of their range but in the apparently more stable tropical wintering range. The resulting smaller, short-billed birds have difficulty reaching their major food source, deeply buried mollusks, which decreases the survival of birds born during particularly warm years.

Science, this issue p. 819; see also p. 775

Reductions in body size are increasingly being identified as a response to climate warming. Here we present evidence for a case of such body shrinkage, potentially due to malnutrition in early life. We show that an avian long-distance migrant (red knot, Calidris canutus canutus), which is experiencing globally unrivaled warming rates at its high-Arctic breeding grounds, produces smaller offspring with shorter bills during summers with early snowmelt. This has consequences half a world away at their tropical wintering grounds, where shorter-billed individuals have reduced survival rates. This is associated with these molluscivores eating fewer deeply buried bivalve prey and more shallowly buried seagrass rhizomes. We suggest that seasonal migrants can experience reduced fitness at one end of their range as a result of a changing climate at the other end.

View full text here.

Red knot from Arctic Canada to Terschelling: here.

Polar bears and research in Canadian Arctic

This 2015 video is called Polar Bears / Documentary (English/HD).

From the Wildlife Conservation Society:

Going to Need a Tougher Buoy

January 5, 2016

The time a polar bear temporarily sunk important research equipment

The top of the world is warming at almost twice the rate of the rest of the planet and scientists there are grappling with what that means for local wildlife.

For instance, as the ice retreats and shipping in the area increases, how will it impact resident marine mammals?

Answering such a question in the far north comes with unique challenges, though.

Our Arctic Beringia Program faced one such obstacle last year. As Dr. Stephen Insley detailed on WCS Canada’s blog, the team had placed a buoy in Sachs Harbor, in the western Canadian Arctic, to record underwater noise.

This would give a better picture of what the local whales and seals were up to and help the team better understand how the animals might be impacted by increased human activity.

At some point, before Insley and the team could retrieve the data they had recorded though, the buoy disappeared underwater.

Suspicion fell on polar bears.

The disappearance coincided with a sighting on the outskirts of the nearby town. The local safety officer had chased two bears out of the area and one was seen swimming off in the direction of the buoy.

Eventually, after hours of dredging the water to no avail, Insley and a local colleague (who also happened to be said safety officer) struck research gold—they hooked onto the rope that was attached to the buoy and pulled it up.

On it, they had their smoking gun: water poured out of the busted float from a pair of teeth-sized holes, which were separated by roughly the width of a polar bear‘s jaw.

Arctic zooplankton, new study

This video says about itself:

Arctic Werewolves

7 January 2016

In this video, Last et al. provide evidence for lunar influence on Arctic zooplankton communities during the dark polar night. During full moon periods, zooplankton migrations are driven by moonlight in synchrony with the altitude and phase of the moon. Such lunar vertical migrations occur throughout the Arctic, in fjord, shelf, slope, and open sea. Credit: SAMS Communications

From Science News:

The moon drives the migration of Arctic zooplankton

by Sarah Zielinski

2:11pm, January 11, 2016

The daily rising and setting of the sun propels what is thought to be the world’s largest migration: Tiny zooplankton move from the near-surface waters — where they spend the night feeding — down into deeper, darker waters during the day to avoid predators that rely on sight for finding a meal.

It was thought that in the perpetually dark waters of the Arctic winter that such a migration wouldn’t happen. After all, there’s no sunlight for weeks or months. And until last year, researchers believed that the Arctic pretty much shut down for the winter; it turns out that the region can be surprisingly active in the dark of the polar night.

Now a new study that combines 50 years of observations from locations across the Arctic shows that zooplankton are still migrating in the depths of winter. But with the sun gone, they have tied their timing to the next biggest source of light — the moon.

Zooplankton may be tiny — some are less than 2 micrometers long — but they are so numerous that acoustic instrumentation can detect their presence. Sound bounces off the itty bitty critters, creating what can look like a false ocean bottom (or at least it did to World War II sonar operators). And for more than five decades, scientists have monitored zooplankton with moored acoustic instruments at several locations in the Arctic.

Kim Last of the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban and colleagues gathered data from those instruments to look at daily zooplankton movements at locations across the Arctic. The moon plays an important role in zooplankton migration, the team reports January 7 in Current Biology.

In spring and fall, when the sun sets and rises daily in the Arctic, zooplankton follow their normal pattern of vertical migration, moving down deep in the day and rising toward the surface at night. But after the sun sets for winter, the zooplankton adjust their schedule, swimming up and down the water column not every 24 hours but every 24.8 hours, following the rising and setting of the moon. And every 29.5 days, when there is a full moon, the mass of zooplankton fall to a depth of about 50 meters, where they can keep out of the brightest moonlight. The movement may help hide the zooplankton from predators that need light to find their prey, the researchers say.

In 2013, researchers found a marine worm with a biological clock tied to the phases of the moon, but it is not yet clear if there is a similar molecular mechanism at work in zooplankton. The invertebrates could be responding to subtle changes in illumination, diving deeper to avoid getting eaten by what Last and his team call the “werewolves” of the Arctic night.

Svalbard weather station working well

This August 2015 Dutch video is about meteorologist Peter Kuipers Munneke and others installing an unmanned weather station on a glacier in the eastern part of Spitsbergen island in the Svalbard archipelago.

Peter Kuipers Munneke told Dutch NOS TV today that the station is working well. Even though there has been a snow storm. And it is now polar night, meaning the solar panels don’t work, and batteries have to provide the energy.

A few days ago, it was 24 degrees Celsius below zero at the station.