Mon 1 Jul 2019 11:00 BST
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In the world’s northernmost town, temperatures have risen by 4C, devastating homes, wildlife and even the cemetery. Will the rest of the planet heed its warning?
People settle in the world’s northernmost town, Longyearbyen, for many reasons. Some are captivated by the otherworldly wilderness of the Svalbard archipelago, a snowscape that exceeds even the most fantastical images of Narnia, Hoth and the lands north of the wall in Game Of Thrones. Others are drawn to the tight-knit community of 2,300 people, who must support one another, because temperatures often plunge below -30C and it is the biggest town for 500 miles. Many say they fall in love with the Arctic light, which, even in the depths of a sunless winter, surprises with pale shades, soft glimmers and celestial glints.
But there is also, in many cases, a pioneering urge. This has always been the case in this group of Arctic islands, lodged halfway between the north pole and mainland Norway. Historically, the first residents were whalers, who arrived 400 years ago and helped to hunt the bowhead close to extinction. Then came coal miners, who dug pits, fed furnaces and shipped fuel across oceans. More recently came high-end tourism workers catering for “last chance to see” cruises through the disappearing Arctic ice. Now, a growing body of academics and diplomats are here to examine how Svalbard and its people adapt to living on the frontier of climate breakdown.
Nowhere on the planet is heating faster. This was the message of a report commissioned by the Norwegian Environment Agency, unveiled in February to a stunned audience in Longyearbyen, the archipelago’s de facto capital. People knew things were bad, but it was only when they heard the forecast that they realised how bad. A local reporter described how people at the meeting fell silent when they heard the statistics, which sounded like the “gloomy horror scenario of a bad thriller”.
Since 1971, temperatures here have risen by 4C, five times faster than the global average. In the winter, when the changes are more marked, it has gone up by an astonishing 7C. These are increases that the rest of the world is not expected to experience until the 22nd century. They are far ahead of most computer simulations. Yet there is still more to come. On current trends, Svalbard will hit 10C of warming by 2100.
“It was quite shocking,” says Morten Wedege, the earnest, middle-aged head of the environment department in the Svalbard governor’s office. “My first thought was: ‘How are we going to manage the environment in that setting? We can’t handle that.’” Since then, though, he and other residents of the town have set about the business of adjusting with renewed intensity.
That process began in 2015, after the most devastating avalanche in the history of the town. Unusually heavy winter rain had fallen on Sukkertoppen (Sugar top), the mountain that flanks Longyearbyen. It froze and was then blanketed by thick snow, which could not stick to the soil. The unstable pack collapsed late at night, six days before Christmas, sliding down the mountain and into the bedrooms of sleeping residents. Eleven homes were pushed 20 metres from their foundations. Cars were overturned. Neighbours scrambled frantically to dig people out. A 42-year-old man and a two-year-old girl died. Eight others, including three children, had to be taken to hospital.
“It was terrible. There had been nothing like that before,” says the leader of the local council, Arild Olsen, a pragmatic former miner who sees the disaster as a turning point for him personally.
Svalbard is unique, but also a microcosm of what is happening in the wider world. The archipelago – which is slightly smaller than Ireland – is at the centre of a perfect climate storm. Temperature pressures come from above (the Arctic atmosphere, which is heating at twice the global average) and the nearby ocean (which brings ever warmer currents from the Gulf of Mexico). As its white, snowy surface melts, the land reflects less and absorbs more heat from the sun. As the ice around the shores disappears, the previous calm continental weather is being replaced by rough coastal storms.