Places | Earth

An Island of Trash at the Top of the World

On a remote island north of the Arctic Circle, several centuries’ worth of human-made pollutants have come to rest.

At the 79th parallel, an autumn sun struggled throughout the day to climb above the horizon, throwing brilliant orange and pink hues of dawn and dusk across black-veined mountains. I stood in the cutting Arctic wind on the beach of an island near the North Pole. Behind me lay the remains of a centuries-old whaling station, and all around were the gravesites of men who once plied these waters in pursuit of whales.

The Golden Compass As I grew older, my interest in Svalbard shifted—now, the landscape seems to stand between the relative stability of the world I grew up in, and the precarious future that lies ahead as our collective environmental breakdown accelerates.

I had arrived in Svalbard familiar with what I thought were the entire set of facts: As carbon dioxide builds to historically unprecedented levels in the atmosphere, the climate is rapidly warming. Changes in the Arctic’s temperature shift weather and precipitation patterns globally; temperature increases in the Arctic lead to rapid glacial melt, which in turn raises global sea levels. If unchecked, this process, known as the Arctic Death Spiral, will irrevocably alter our climate and destroy the conditions that make our lives possible.

National Geographic

Photograph by Brandon Holmes