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Warming climate upends Arctic mining town

Svalbard is warming five to seven times faster than the planet as a whole, meteorologists say

Svalbard is warming five to seven times faster than the planet as a whole, meteorologists say.

Tor Selnes owes his life to a lamp. He miraculously survived a deadly avalanche that shed light on the vulnerability of Svalbard, a region warming faster than anywhere else, to human-induced climate change.

On the morning of December 19, 2015, the 54-year-old school monitor was napping at home in Longyearbyen, the main town in the Norwegian archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the Arctic.

Suddenly a mass of snow fell from Sukkertoppen, the mountain that overlooks the city, accompanied by two rows of houses.

Selnes’ house was swept 80 meters (263 ft) away. The room where he slept was completely demolished amid “a scraping sound like metal against a road”.

In order not to be buried in snow, he clutched at a ceiling lamp.

“It’s like being in a washing machine, surrounded by shelves, glass, sharp objects, anything you can think of,” Selnes recalls.

He survived, with only scrapes and bruises. His three children, who were in another part of the house, were unharmed.

But two neighbors – Atle, with whom he had played poker the night before, and Nikoline, a two-year-old girl – were killed.

The accident, unimaginable in the eyes of locals, sent shockwaves through the small community of fewer than 2,500 people.

“There’s been a lot of talk about climate change since I arrived…but it was kind of hard to take in or see,” author and journalist Line Nagell Ylvisaker, who has lived in Longyearbyen since 2005, told AFP.

“When we live here every day, it’s like watching a child grow up — you don’t see the glaciers retreat,” she says.

The Norwegian Archipelago Svalbard

The Norwegian Archipelago Svalbard.

Eye opener

In Spitsbergen, climate change has led to shorter winters; temperatures that yo-yo; more precipitation, increasingly in the form of rain; and thawing permafrost — all conditions that increase the risk of avalanches and landslides.

In the days following the tragedy, unusual rains drenched the city. The following fall saw record rainfall in the region, then another avalanche in 2017 swept away another home, this time with no casualties.

“Before there was a lot of talk about polar bears, about new species, about what would happen to the nature around us” with climate change, explains Ylvisaker, adding: “The polar bear floating on an ice sheet is kind of the big symbol “.

The series of extreme weather incidents “was really an eye opener of how this will affect us humans as well”.

After the two avalanches, authorities condemned 144 homes they believe were in danger, or about 10 percent of the homes in the city, and installed a massive granite anti-avalanche barrier at the foot of Sukkertoppen.

It’s an ironic turning point for Longyearbyen, which owes its existence to fossil fuels.

The city was founded in 1906 by the American businessman John Munro Longyear, who came to extract coal. It grew up around the mines in a jumble of brightly colored wooden houses.

Nearly all mines are now closed, the last due to close next year. A huge sci-fi-esque hangar of trolleys towers over the city, testifying to its past as a mining town.

Now it is man-made climate change that is leaving its mark on the landscape here.

The thawing permafrost is changing the soil in Longyearbyen

The thawing permafrost is changing the soil in Longyearbyen.


According to Ketil Isaksen, a researcher at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, the Svalbard region is “the place on Earth where temperatures rise the most”.

In the northernmost part of the Barents Sea, where the archipelago is located, temperatures are rising five to seven times faster than on the planet as a whole, according to a study he co-authored and recently published in the scientific journal Nature.

Why? The shrinking sea ice, scientists explain. It normally acts as an insulating layer that prevents the sea from heating up the atmosphere in the winter and protects the sea from the sun in the summer.

In Longyearbyen, thawing permafrost means the ground is sinking. Lampposts tip over and building foundations must be braced because the ground shifts. Gutters, once redundant in this cold and dry climate, have begun to appear on roofs.

On the outskirts of town, people used to snowmobile over the now not-so-appropriately named Isfjorden (Icefjord), which hasn’t been frozen since 2004.

Even the famed Global Seed Vault, designed to protect the planet’s biodiversity from man-made and natural disasters, has undergone major renovations after its mountainside access tunnel was unexpectedly flooded.

At the office of the local newspaper Svalbardposten, editor-in-chief Borre Haugli sums up climate change in the region: “We don’t talk about it. We see it”.

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© 2022 AFP

Quote: Warming climate turns Arctic mining town upside down (2022, June 22) retrieved June 22, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-climate-upends-arctic-town.html

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