Experts say Arctic sea ice is disappearing earlier in summer and returning later in the fall. An AP animation shows how sea ice coverage has dropped an average of 34,000 square miles per year. (Aug. 15) AP
That’s because the weather here on Norway’s Arctic Circle island of Svalbard is tame in comparison to what it should be, despite the icy breeze that flows in from the sea.
Residents and experts fear this tight-knit community — where polar bears outnumber people — is at risk of disappearing because temperatures are rising at an accelerated pace compared to the rest of the world.
“Every single consecutive month has been above average,” said Kim Holmén, international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute. “We have tremendous increase in the wintertime temperatures, almost 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) increase over the past 30 years or so.”
“Wherever I look there is change, very obvious change. The snow melts earlier in the spring, the glaciers are diminishing by a foot, 2 feet per year in thickness,” Holmén said from the Svalbard Science Center in Longyearbyen. “It influences life, it influences the landscape, and it influences the people, of course.”
Melting permafrost and higher temperatures have caused havoc here in recent years, triggering sometimes deadly avalanches on the steep mountains that flank the town. Houses have been destroyed, while roads and some areas have been closed or declared unsafe to live because of the risk.
Within the past two years, hundreds of residents have been affected, some having to evacuate from their homes.
Mark Sabbatini, a local journalist, has lost his home and is now bankrupt due to melting permafrost. In front of him sits the weekly alternative English language newspaper he publishes. (Photo: Julie Ovgaard)
Mark Sabbatini, 49, a local journalist and Longyearbyen resident, said he lost his apartment because the melting permafrost created dangerous cracks in the foundation. Sabbatini, who is originally from Alaska, said he is now bankrupt.
“We lost the whole value of the apartment, with no insurance compensation or any compensation. We had people who were left broke and had to leave the island, people like me who’ve been left bankrupt and living off borrowed funds and begging — literally begging at times — for just barely enough money to stay alive,” an emotional Sabbatini said.
While Sabbatini’s home has been cordoned off by officials for being unsafe for habitation, other homes have been hit by avalanches.
The region was seeing an “amplification” of global warming, Arctic climate expert David Barber of the University of Manitoba told USA TODAY. He warned that projections predict “profound effects on the physics, biology and geochemistry of the Arctic.”
The consequences won’t be confined to the Arctic. Melting ice sheets from the north have the ability to influence ocean currents that also help control the climate farther south.
Uncertainty about global warming and how it will transform Longyearbyen and the surrounding fragile landscape plagues this community.
“There are some people who didn’t want to move back into homes that were hit by avalanches," Sabbatini said. "There are folks who are finding all the uncertainty about the town’s economic future hard as well — I’m certainly among them.”
Longyearbyen, a former mining town established in 1906 by American businessman John Munro Longyearbyen, has diversified its economy in recent years, profiting from adventurous tourists as well as researchers studying the Arctic.
The changing conditions could put these newer economic developments at risk.
“At Scott Turner Glacier where we do our ice cave tours, we see from year to year how fast the ice is melting," said Martin Munck, founder of the Green Dog tour company in Svalbard. “If worst-case scenario comes, and there is no snow during winter ... I doubt anyone would like to live here. No tourism and four dark months, with no light-reflecting white snow and no way to go out on tours.”
Like Sabbatini, Munck moved to the Arctic island several years ago from his native Denmark. In fact the island has no indigenous population, and Longyearbyen is mainly made up of migrants from mainland Norway, neighboring Scandinavian countries and Thailand.
A building built on stilts in Longyearbyen due to melting permafrost. (Photo: Julie Ovgaard)
It’s a community of misfits from around the world, as one resident described the town, yet the concern is people may not want to stay as more parts of town become unsafe and life invariably gets tougher.
There’s also a clear pride in living in such an isolated and unique part of world, which helps foster the town's remarkable spirit that transforms the dark, winter months into a period of cozy community gatherings and communal projects.
While people in other far north communities struggle with seasonal affective disorder — a winter depression from little sunlight — the illness is barely seen in Longyearbyen.
Yet with the annual average temperature of Longyearbyen expected to reach above freezing in the next year or two — a phenomenon never seen in the town's recorded history — there’s frustration and anger.
“Man has changed the atmosphere,” Holmén lamented. “There are many people I hear now who are discussing moving down (to mainland Norway). But (Longyearbyen) is still a place that many newcomers find extremely attractive, and many fall in love with it. It is resilient.”
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