Fri, Sep 06, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Confronting climate change in the world’s northernmost town

Climate change is threatening life in the Norwegian town of Longyearbyen, as warming waters heighten risks of avalanches and coastline erosion

By Alex Fraser  /  Reuters, SVALBARD, Norway

Icebergs float like doomed islands past the small boat as it makes its way through a fjord filled with the slush of a melting glacier. Occasionally, as the warming waters dissolve the bottom of one of the icebergs, it becomes top-heavy and does a somersault, as if it were playing instead of dying.

The Wahlenberg glacier above the fjord naturally calves, sheering off icebergs into the water. However, here it is happening at an increasing rate because of warming waters, Norwegian Polar Institute international director Kim Holmen said.

Holmen, wearing a woolen hat with a hot-pink pom-pom against the chill of an Arctic summer day, has lived in the northern Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard for three decades.

He described the changes he has seen as “profound, large and rapid.”

“We are losing the Svalbard we know. We are losing the Arctic as we know it because of climate change,” he said, amid the constant crackle and trickle of the ice dissolving. “This is a forewarning of all the hardship and problems that will spread around the planet.”

Since 1970, average annual temperatures have risen by 4°C in Svalbard, with winter temperatures rising more than 7°C, a report released in February by the Norwegian Centre for Climate Services said.

The Climate in Svalbard 2100 report also warns that the annual mean air temperature in Svalbard is projected to increase by 7°C to 10°C by the end of this century.


Since 1979, the Arctic sea ice extent has declined by nearly 12 percent per decade, with the most pronounced winter reduction in the Svalbard and Barents Sea area.

That is not good news for Svalbard’s main town, Longyearbyen. With a population of slightly more than 2,000 people, it is the northernmost town on the planet.

It is also the fastest-warming.

Rows of simple white wooden crosses cling to a hillside over Longyearbyen, a sparse cemetery that appears vulnerable even on a sunny day in August.

Ivar Smedsroed is the summer vicar at Svalbard Church, a red wooden building with white trim and a weathervane-topped bell tower. Inside the Lutheran house of worship, which claims to be the world’s northernmost church, stained glass paints the snow-topped mountains nearby in a pastel hue.

The pastor has only been here for the summer, but in that short time he has already learned of people’s fears about the effects of a rapidly changing climate.

One such effect is a thawing of the permafrost beneath his feet at the graveyard, which he calls “a place of memories, a place of remembrance.”

“As the permafrost thaws, things that are in the ground tend to be pulled up,” Smedsroed said matter-of-factly, as he sits on the ground near the graves. “That is happening more or less all of the time, so we might see that the graves literally come up, the coffins.”

There has been talk of relocating the graveyard after a landslide missed wiping it out by meters in October 2016. Nearly three years later, slabs of rock form a slash in the landscape just beyond the graves.

“Because of climate change and the difference that makes to the soil and the ground, some of the graves that we see behind us might end up actually sliding into the road,” said Smedsroed, whose gray hair matches the woolen sweater beneath his white collar. “Or the next thing that we could see is that they might all be covered in the next big landslide coming down the hill.”

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