The area of Svalbard described in this book is the southernmost part of Spitsbergen, the largest island in the archipelago of Svalbard. Sørkappland (South Cap Land) is bounded by latitudes 76°30’ to 77°N and 16° to 17°E longitude. Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on the island, is at 78°N, a near latitudinal opposite of McMurdo Station in Antarctica, at 77°51’S, where the climate is markedly colder. Northernmost Svalbard extends to nearly 81°N. The geography is mentioned here because of the differences that ocean currents and related factors produce in local and regional climates. The Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic Ocean warms landmasses, producing major differences in climate compared to those in the Southern Hemisphere. In addition, ocean currents and weather are different on the eastern (cold current) and western (warmer current) sides of Sørkappland, and that is the setting to keep in mind when reading the account of the field research discussed in this book.
Svalbard is governed by Norway as a result of the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, which came into force in 1925, and is an ‘open treaty’ to other countries, numbering about 41 in 2001. Poland is one of those countries, and within the last decades, only Norway, Poland, and Russia have had permanent research stations in Spitsbergen, with other countries present in various locations conducting research. The Polish settlement on the north side of Hornsund has been there since the International Geophysical Year of 1957–1958, and provided the logistics necessary for the three investigators from Jagiellonian University who did the fieldwork on which this book is based. Although the time period for fieldwork was relatively short (7–23 August 2005), and considering the usual weather conditions in this area (mostly wet), these men gathered a great deal of information relating to the changes in glacier extent, landform development, wildlife, and vegetation that accompanied climatic changes over the past century or so.
The area of study is relatively small. The programme started on the eastern side of Sørkappland, where the ship from the Polish station transported the three scientists, who then moved on foot northward to the head of a fjord and then west across an approximately 10 km-expanse of glaciers to reach the head of Hornsund, where the ship evacuated them. The chapters in the book include details on the geographical setting, weather conditions, landscape elements (1900–2005), glacial recession and shoreline changes, animal colonisation (primarily birds and mammals), flora, soil development, mapping methods, and changes in the landscape since 1900. The text spans pages 7 through 62, in double-column format with the left side of each page in Polish and the right side in English. References follow on two pages. The 22 plates that follow the references include a general location map of the field area at a scale of 1 inch to 5 km, numerous color photographs of the area, examples of birds and vegetation types, and geomorphic examples of the shorelines, cliffs, and related features illustrated in maps and listed in a descriptive table. Of the 14 species of birds observed, only six breed locally, in a narrow expanse of the coastline. Five or six taxons of mosses, 15 species of vascular plants, and 30 species of lichens were found, some of which are illustrated in color photos.
The regional map and sketch maps show the recession of glaciers in Hambergbukta fjord (east side of Sørkappland) and Hornsund fjord in the years 1900, 1936, 1990, and 2005, with major glacier retreats in each year. Early studies were factors in measurements from those years, and satellite imagery and GPS measurements more recently will provide a more detailed and continuing record of what these glaciers do through time. The pass separating Sørkappland on the south and Torrell Land to the north is a good example of those changes. It is glacier-covered (Hambergbreen and Hornbreen), and in 1900 was more than 30 km in length (east to west), and had a highest elevation of more than 300 meters above sea level. By 2005, it was 7.5 km long, with a high point 180 m asl, a dramatic change in 105 years. It is uncertain whether the glacier-covered pass is on bedrock above or below sea level, but it can be assumed that if recession of the major glaciers that comprise the pass continues, an open-water channel might occur from Hornsund on the west, transforming Sørkappland into an island, or become separated from the rest of Spitsbergen by a low, narrow isthmus (up to 3 km wide and a few dozen metres high) (page 61). Although not mentioned in the text, crustal rebound as the weight of ice is removed might make the difference in this scenario as it develops. The ocean currents on either side, consisting of the warmer waters of the Greenland Sea on the west, and the colder waters of the Barents Sea on the east, could then interact to change the dynamics of much of what is discussed and recorded in this book. The authors have thus provided a snapshot of conditions as of August 2005 that can be compared with changes predicted for the next 40 years or more to show the vulnerability that applies to the environment, landscape, surrounding waters, and flora and fauna. The area of only 12.72 km2 that was mapped in 2005 will become a baseline for changes in this part of the archipelago and the North Atlantic. This is a major attraction of this useful documentary account of what might be attributed to a warming planet. The book is recommended for physical and biological scientists who maintain interest in the subject, as well as the general public and research libraries.