Wednesday, 20 January 2021

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The cool coast may not be cold for much longer

Svalbard 19th century image

Svalbard is the only place on earth where the population of polar bears may outnumber humans, with roughly 3,000 of each species.

In Ny Aalesund, the world´s northernmost village, humans are under the obligation of carrying a rifle out-doors for defence against polar bears. However, it is not polar bears that are threatening the human population on Svalbard – it is rather indirectly at least the other way around.

Climate change driven by global human activity is slowly damaging the polar bears´ livelihood. As the sea-ice around Svalbard has shrunk, the population of seals diminishes and the polar bears lose their main staple of food.

Global warming is happening faster near the poles than on average on the planet. According to a new report by a team led by climate researcher Inger Hanssen-Bauer of the Norwegian Meteorological Institute average temperature can rise by 10 degrees in Svalbard until the end of this century.

“We have to go at least 12.000 years back in time to see the average temperature that we have today in Svalbard,” climate researcher Inger Hanssen-Bauer told the UNRIC Newsletter.

And this is on top of a five-degree increase since 1980. Rain is predicted to increase by 65%, which has even more impact in Svalbard than elsewhere because of the permafrost.

“Elsewhere the water would be channelled into rivers but since the ground is frozen it flows on the surface and creates big pools of water,” says Hanssen-Bauer.

Only decades ago the King´s fjord outside Ny Aalesund was full of ice, now there is only small debris from the surrounding glaciers that fall into the sea. The huts that house the population have had to be moved further away from the coast due to waves, which were inexistent when the bay was full of ice but can be harmful in bad weather since the ice disappeared.

Most of the ice around Svalbard has disappeared. Sea temperature has risen slightly and new species such as mackerel have appeared.


The population of Ny Aalesund is not large, only 30-35 on an annual basis rising to over 100 in summer but it is quite cosmopolitan. It is not an unusual sight to see Indian scientist wearing Sikh-turbans and lions outside research facilities symbolize the Chinese presence.

Scientists have been drawn to Svalbard for centuries. In late 1830 the so-called La Recherche expedition, an international French-led international scientific mission under the leadership of Paul Gaimard visited the island on two occasions.


In addition to scientific observations, the legacy of the expedition are drawings and paintings which give us an idea of how the island looked in the icier and colder 19th century.

Svalbard is an archipelago midway between Norway and the North pole. 60% of the surface is covered by ice. Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard (earlier Spitsbergen) was recognised in 1920, but its exercise is, however, limited. The signatories have equal rights to engage in commercial activities, and Russians have used coal mines in the archipelago for decades. 

The islands were for centuries a base for Dutch, French, Basque, English and Danish whalers. Some of them died and were buried in shallow graves in the permafrost. Two decades ago scientists studying the post-World War I Spanish flu epidemy dug up corpses frozen in Svalbard´s permafrost. If average temperatures will rise to around zero degrees the permafrost will obviously thaw at least to a certain degree.  Whether the corpses of long-dead whalers or Spanish flu victims will resurface accompanied by emissions of captured methane gas, due to the thawing, is however not one of the immediate concerns of the inhabitants of Svalbard.

The partial thawing could quite simply undermine all infrastructure, including buildings and other infrastructure. “The foundations are simply sinking, so major action is needed,” says researcher Hanssen-Bauer, adding that there will be a considerable risk of landslides and erosion due to the melting. Landslides and avalanches have in recent years damaged houses and killed people in Longyearbyen, the main town of the archipelago.

The seed vault in Longyearbyen in Svalbard is well known. The seed vault was created as a secure place to save-guard copies of seed which are also stored in other gene banks in the world in case of global crises.

Ironically, climate change is threatening the place that was supposed to be a safe-haven from disasters. Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten reported recently that engineers have had to intervene because of rising temperatures and build a massive structure with artificial cooling to keep it frozen.

The archipelago was until the 20th century named Spitzbergen after its biggest island, but Norwegian renamed it Svalbard. The name is first mentioned in an Icelandic annal from the end of the 12th century, although it could have referred to Jan Mayen. Svalbard in old Norse means “the cool coast” but with the predicted 10-degree temperature increase the archipelago will struggle to live up to its name.


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