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At the Edge of Europe

Twilight time

In a remote region, a village struggles for its life as scientists face the global challenge of warming.

Rob Barrett looks for puffin birds' nests in the cliffs of Hornoya, Norway.
Rob Barrett looks for puffin birds' nests in the cliffs of Hornoya, Norway. (Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / September 9, 2007

VARDO - At the intersection between Norway, Russia, and the open ocean, the midnight light of high summer can so often deceive. Soul-soft sun mutes rooftops and tufted tundra. Distance, whether from dock to buoy, or from sandy seashell to orange-hued horizon, dulls. Time, in these eerie, extra hours, drifts in a slack sea.

Or so it seems.

There, on the rock-ribboned heights of Hornoya, an island seabird sanctuary, chaotic colonies do not go gentle into the good night. Male guillemots, black-and-white birds smaller than a gull, bob in the shallows of the sea and prepare to migrate. The fathers call to their children clamoring on the cliffs above.

"GRRRR! . . . GRRRR! . . . GRRRR!," they cry, somewhere between a growl and a purr. "Come! Jump! Now!"

Other twilit moments also illuminate critical times for land and lives at the Arctic edge of Europe. At an inland bog south of Hornoya, biologists watch as warming soil seethes. In the living room of one of Vardo's huddled island homes, a great-grandmother sits and sifts memories of world war occupation and fishing booms and busts, of family fun and solitude.

In such shifts, the stakes are high for life here, and worlds away. So lean in, as a scientist might, and look closely.

On Hornoya's cliffs, an important seabird nesting ground just across a choppy channel from Vardo's sleeping port, the cacophony does not cease. Kittiwakes quick-clip their gray wings and scream toward home. Puffins sputter to sea, and cormorants arch backs on black rocks.

Amid it all, a single guillemot chick steps to the edge of a 60-foot-high ledge. The chick is 3 weeks old, more or less, and weighs only half a pound. It cannot fly. But black-backed gulls lurk. An otter is somewhere about on the island. Temperatures will not hold long near 60 degrees. A father continues its call from below. It is time to go to sea.

The chick looks, and leaps.

But turn toward shore to consider different dramas. Across Varanger Fiord, the long, lean water to the south of Vardo and Hornoya, dwarf birch, yellow cloudberries, and tight white flowers of Labrador tea help weave the bog's sharp, spongy carpet. Beyond this soggy swath, brown bears roam Norway spruce and tall birch in the Pasvik Valley, the beginning of the taiga that spans Russia to the Pacific Ocean.

Stop near Neiden, though, at the bog only 6 miles inland, and walk a half-mile to its center. There rise several big bumps, low hills called palsas, with ice in their cores. The palsas are an early stage of permafrost, the frozen layers of soil beneath millions of square miles in the earth's polar and subpolar regions.

Such high latitudes are thought to be warming twice as fast as more temperate parts of the planet. Yet it is uncertain how carbon-rich northern land - whether permafrost, or milder wetlands - will react as temperatures increase. As soil warms, how fast is it adding carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere's greenhouse gases, accelerating global warming?

This bog, quicker to warm than permafrost, could be giving early indications. So scientists from nearby Svanvik and distant Washington, D.C., stand on top of a palsa and wonder: Might the bog share secrets?

Not yet. Hush instead to hear a rollicking conversation in Vardo, a 700-year-old town anchored atop a treeless island just off the eastern edge of the mainland. In a second-floor sitting room framed with black-and-white portraits, eight old friends - women all, widows most - gather to celebrate a birthday. Their evening began at 2 and will run until 10. The women range in age from 65 to 84.

Says one: "The age changes with the mood, and sometimes we are 20 years old!"

They banter about chakras, energy centers into the body and soul, and read fortunes in the dregs of their cups.

Says another: "We're not as crazy as we look, but it's important to keep your brain going."

Topics turn to bus trips to southern fiords and flights to Italian beaches.

Adds another: "You should always go away from where you live, because it's so much better to come home. To a comfortable bed and an empty wallet!"

Most who have hit the road do not return. Vardo's fishing industry, once with boats thick in the harbor and docks bustling with fillet factories, collapsed when offshore factory trawlers began bypassing the town to ship fish for processing in China and elsewhere. Vardo's population was halved over the past 30 years, from 4,500 residents to 2,300. Many homes hugging the port sit empty.

The gray-stroked streets are quiet, then, as one great-grandmother, Lillian Frantzen, 73, strolls from the party, thoughts of twilight leading her home.

No such comforts for the guillemot out on Hornoya. The chick crashed with a thud, and has gathered itself up at the base of the cliff. It stands all of 6 inches tall beneath boulders and well-fertilized scurvy grass with lush leaves the shape of spinach.

The chick's parents most likely swam from the North Sea to spend the summer searching for Barents Sea fish. A recent rebound of herring stocks, reflective of altered fishery management in other parts of Norway, helps the guillemot chicks, which can gulp down the thick herring. It has hurt the puffins, as herring eat the larvae of sand lance and capelin which the puffins prefer.

Rob Barrett, a marine ornithologist from the Tromso University Museum, has been reaching into puffin burrows and intercepting leaping guillemots for 25 years to track their health. This summer, some hunting kittiwakes have returned to the cliffs with pipefish dangling from their beaks.

"Whether this is global warming or not," Barrett says, "there is certainly a warm-water fish turning up in these waters."

No food now, though, for the just-leapt guillemot. It swings its head from side to side and opens its beak wide: "CHEEP! CHEEP! CHEEP!"

Some leapers call calmly after landing, as though humming to themselves. Others, like this one, sound the alarm.

Fifty feet of rock-scrabbled slope below, a particularly frantic father, still circling in the sea, calls in four-second intervals.

"GRRRR! . . . GRRRR! . . . GRRRR!"

Child and father cannot see each other. The chick stumbles, alone, toward the water's edge.

Progress is not so obvious on the bog. The end of an ice age began to unlock this land some 10,000 years ago. The Gulf Stream has long sent warming waves across the northern Atlantic, keeping Norway's coast ice-free in winter, and the land at its outer edges hospitable enough to welcome a network of highways, airports, and heated homes. Before such modern construction, temperatures cooled during the Little Ice Age, which had peaks as late as the 19th century. Many of the bog's palsas began to form then.

Stand on a palsa with a biologist such as Paul Aspholm, from the nearby Svanhovd center of Bioforsk, a Norwegian environmental institute. Aspholm knows the unseen rhythms of a palsa's life. When winter temperatures and precipitation are low, a palsa freezes water from the surrounding bog to expand its core. As temperature and precipitation increase, the palsa loses insulation, and its core begins to melt. Over decades, the palsa pulses: Its mound swells, then edges crack into spongy gorges of peat and shallow pools.

Listen as Bert Drake, a US plant physiologist from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and Daniel Rasse, a Belgian with Bioforsk, join Aspholm to consider where best to put instruments to track changing climatic conditions. They hope to measure air movement and the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in it. Factor that with temperature, radiation, and other data, and an understanding could begin to emerge about the silent seep of the Arctic earth.

The ease of August belies the urgency. One standard estimate predicts the north will warm 7 to 13 degrees in the next century. Yet some scientists contend there is twice the amount of carbon locked in northern soil as exists in the atmosphere.

"If it all starts coming out, then we've got a feedback that's really terrific," Drake says, "and our guesses about how high the temperature is going to go are way off."

For years, Drake has measured how ecosystems respond to rising carbon dioxide and other climate change in Maryland and Florida. The study he and Rasse are planning in the bog would be the first of its kind in Norway. And it could become the northernmost part of a broader effort to measure greenhouse impacts from soil emissions on land throughout Europe.

First, though, Drake and Rasse need to find money for the project. They stand on the palsa and watch the wind shift across the bog.

"Where," Drake says, "do we want to put the instrument?"

Back in Vardo, Frantzen, her hair short and dark, her mind quick, settles into a soft chair before a muted Sony television and looks not forward, but back.

Predecessors to the native Sami communities existed in the region more than 5,000 years ago. Throughout the last millennium, Norwegians, Finns, and others arrived. For the past few centuries, especially, Vardo has reacted to outside influences: ideas of free trade traveled north with the French and other revolutions. Local fishermen swapped for timber and grain with Pomors, sea-faring Russians from the White Sea.

Frantzen opens a hardback volume of Vardo history and thinks of a grandfather, Mattis Bjorklund. In the 1870s, barely 20 years old, Bjorklund walked from famine-stricken Finland to Vardo's busy port. Nearly fifty years later, the Bolshevik Revolution broke up the Pomor trade. World War II brought German occupiers and Russian bombs. Relations with Russia were cut off by the Iron Curtain. In the 1950s and '60s, though, local fishermen sent millions of cod and haddock westward to world markets.

In the dismal end of day outside Frantzen's living room window, the harbor stills. The tourists who disembarked with the coastal steamer's afternoon stop have long since departed. An American-built radar tower that monitors space debris - Russians claim it watches them - looms on an eastern hilltop. In an office less than a mile away, on the island's western edge, Norwegian officers monitor the distant passage of tankers. Traffic will increase as Russia's Gazprom teams with France's Total to develop the offshore Shtokman natural gas fields, one of the world's largest remaining deposits. Norway already profits hugely from oil found off its western shores. Vardo could cash in as a weigh-station for Russian tankers heading west. But such speculation has sputtered for 20 years.

Frantzen fetches a dessert of fresh waffles with strawberry jam and a pitcher of hot coffee from the kitchen. She remembers scrambling with young friends to fight wartime hunger with seagull eggs. She misses her late husband, a sturdy man who won wrestling competitions across this edge of the Arctic. She is not as fond of the distance she feels Norway's central government has kept from Vardo.

"While the town is bleeding," she says, "they see it only for strategic importance."

Frantzen takes shelter with friends and family from the seemingly constant climate of her life: "We were born and raised in this weather. Cold and foggy."

Small cities near Vardo fare better: Vadso as a government seat, Kirkenes as a center for renewed trade across the land border with Russia.

In her August twilight, Frantzen lives apart from most of her five children and 14 grandchildren, who have left Vardo for work in Trondheim, or study in Bergen or Tromso. What, then, for the people who remain on the island as the sun swings toward winter's total darkness?

"Those who are left in Vardo now," Frantzen says, "are staying."

Things are not so certain for the bog. While rising temperatures melt polar ice to the north and glaciers in Greenland, Canada, and other Arctic points at similar latitudes as the bog, one long-term fear here is the opposite. Despite the short-term presence of the warm-water pipefish, will increased rain and melting ice deliver too much cooler water to the sea? Will the crucial warm waters fed from the Gulf Stream be cut off? If the world warms too much, in other words, will this temperate stretch of the Arctic eventually freeze?

Atop a palsa in the silver evening light, cloudberries, nearing ripeness only weeks away, shudder against a chill breeze.

And the guillemot chick out on Hornoya? The chick's father has hopped onto the last boulder, two feet from the ocean's edge, and waits.

The chick scrambles up. The birds brush chests, heads back, beaks open only inches apart. The father cranes its neck:

"GRRRR! . . . GRRRR! . . . GRRRR!"

The chick answers:

"CHEEP! . . . CHEEP! . . . CHEEP!"

They will swim north into the Arctic Ocean for weeks, then turn southward for a winter spent at sea. Scientists do not know where, exactly, the guillemots will go when the seasons change. Neither do the birds.

The father turns on the rock and leaps into the sea. The chick hesitates, then takes the next plunge.

Tom Haines can be reached at thaines@globe.com.

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