The race to save the hottest place on Earth

Svalbard

Deep in the Arctic Circle, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is home to the world’s northernmost permanent settlement, Longyearbyen, which is estimated to warm up to six times the global average. So what is being done to save him?

The Svalbard Church is a blood-red wooden building with a bright white finish, the northernmost place of worship in the world.

His priest, Siv Limstrand, has only been here for three years, but is shocked by the impact of climate change he witnessed during that time.

“Every Sunday, when we gather for worship, part of our intercessions is always about climate change and its threats,” Limstrand explains. “We know that time is running out”.

Siv Limstrand

Siv Limstrand

Life in Svalbard seems as precarious as life in a place that is not at war or torn by famine.

You need a gun every time you venture off the main road in Longyearbyen, the capital of this Norwegian archipelago, due to the risk of encountering polar bears.

The decrease in ice has reduced their hunting ground, which means that it is more difficult for them to find seals. So more and more bears are exploring built-up areas in search of food and are now eating reindeer, not their usual prey.

And with the rise in temperature causing unprecedented thawing of the frozen ground, the growing risk of avalanches hangs over this Arctic community in the winter. In the summer, mudslides are more likely than ever to wipe out everything in their path.

You feel borrowed here in what subsequent scientific studies have found to be the fastest warming place on Earth.

Map

Map

Experts from the Norwegian Polar Institute are among those who calculate that it is warming up six times faster than the global average.

The consensus is that the temperature on Svalbard has risen by 4 ° C over the past 50 years.

Wildlife and human life are now struggling to survive. This is why the Limstrand congregation is praying for help.

To show us the impact of man-made climate change, he leads us to the church graveyard.

The church cemetery of Limstrand

The church cemetery of Limstrand

Rows of white wooden crosses almost seem to cling to the side of a mountain, surrounded only by a few reindeer and the soft colors of the summer tundra plants.

To the left and right of the cemetery are tunnel-shaped ditches in the ground, which curve into the steep mountain behind. These ditches are the remains of a landslide that could have dragged the entire cemetery into the river below. She missed by a matter of meters.

“When I look at it, it’s like a wound,” Limstrand sighs, “and somehow it reminds me of our wounded planet.”

Now the risk of landslides or avalanches has increased enormously and the cemetery needs to be relocated. As Limstrand tells us: “This is no longer a safe place for the living or the dead.”

Short gray line of presentation

Short gray line of presentation

Searching for wildlife through her binoculars, Arctic explorer Hilde Fålun Strøm gives an excited gasp. You have spotted three polar bears, which doze together on the edge of a Pavlova-shaped glacier.

Fålun Strøm took us on an overnight expedition aboard his boat to show us the impact climate change is having on nature in Svalbard.

“To survive as a polar bear now, I think you have to be very good at hunting because the main food source, seals, are dwindling,” he explains. “And the ice on which both seals and bears depend is also decreasing.”

Hilde Fålun Strøm

Hilde Fålun Strøm

Since the 1980s, the amount of summer sea ice has halved and some scientists fear it will completely disappear by 2035.

This, combined with an avalanche that hit Longyearbyen in 2015, focused his mind.

“The avalanche claimed the lives of two people. They were the first deaths in Svalbard due to climate change,” he says.

Houses

Brightly colored houses in Svalbard

“We no longer felt safe in our own homes,” he says. “The power of nature that I had always loved now seemed to be totally out of control.”

For Fålun Strøm, it was a turning point in her life.

She quit her day job in tourism and started a project called Hearts in the Ice, together with fellow explorer, Canadian Sunniva Sorby. For two years they have lived alone and off the net in the most remote wilderness of the Arctic, spending their time working as “citizen scientists”.

“I had this climate anxiety and just wanted to actively engage in solutions,” says Fålun Strøm. “I still think there is time to save something.”

Short gray line of presentation

Short gray line of presentation

Few understand the archipelago better than Kim Holmén, a special consultant from the Norwegian Polar Institute who has been studying Svalbard for over 40 years.

Incredibly tall, with a long, thin white beard, with a bright red cape and a distinctive pink pom-pom hat, he guides us through a mess of rocks and brown mud on the way to what is at the foot of the Longyear Glacier.

Kim Holmen

Kim Holmen

Today he is our guardian of the polar bear, as well as scientific eyes and ears. He also carries a pistol, although this is a standard accessory on Svalbard.

Holmén points to the top of the hill which, according to him, marks the level of the glacier 100 years ago.

At that time, he estimates that 100 m (328 ft) of altitude were lost. Melted ice has raised sea levels around the world.

Glacier withdrawn

Glacier withdrawn

“We have already committed the planet to further warming,” he says. “So we expect 20 years of further warming even if we, by magic, stopped all emissions today.”

The fate of this place is inextricably linked to that of the world as a whole.

Despite its extremity, Svalbard is a geopolitical hotspot. And here too the war in Ukraine is taking effect. The conflict has now disrupted cooperation between climate scientists in Russia and the West, says Holmén.

“One of the consequences is that official exchange with Russian institutions is not possible at the moment. And, of course, half of the Arctic is the Russian coast.”

According to Holmén, this has already weakened the fight against climate change.

“If we can’t share knowledge and data in both directions, it will hinder our ability to understand what’s going on,” he says. “We need each other to do good science.”

Short gray line of presentation

Short gray line of presentation

Meanwhile, 8 km (five miles) into the Svalbard mountainside, a drop of sweat dripping onto Bent Jakobsen’s blackened face is illuminated by the light of a helmet.

Jakobsen bent

Jakobsen bent

This is the last remaining coal mine in Norway.

“Imagine a large cake with a lot of cream in the middle,” explains Jakobsen, a production foreman. “You want to get as much cream out as possible without the cake collapsing, so that’s basically what we do. We love the cream. And the charcoal.”

He is showing us this underworld before it closes forever.

His company, Norwegian state-owned Stoke Norske, said it will soon close the mine as part of its shift to renewable forms of energy.

“It makes me sad,” he sighs. “I’ve been here my whole life. Knowing it was a mining town and now it’s coming to an end. It’s more and more of a tourist town, a La La Land.”

Tourism has long since overtaken coal mining as the main source of income on Svalbard.

View from the mine

A view from the mine

But the tens of thousands of visitors each year, arriving by plane and ship, are putting a strain on this fragile environment.

Ditching coal, at least, will reduce Svalbard’s skyrocketing carbon footprint.

But Jakobson is not convinced.

“If you can’t get it from here, you’ll get it somewhere else,” he says. “They haven’t found the perfect substitutes yet. So coal is still here to stay.”

However, two weeks after our visit, there is a great development. Store Norske is making a U-turn. He says he will now delay the closing of the mine. The company says the energy crisis in Europe, fueled by the war in Ukraine, now makes it a more profitable operation.

Which begs the question: If the fastest-hitting place on earth can’t give up fossil fuels, what hope for the rest of the world?

Longyearbyen Deputy Mayor Stein-Ove Johannessen agrees that a new green strategy should have been developed years ago. “The difficult answer is that we probably haven’t paid enough attention,” he says. “But we’ve been really awakened in the past few years and we’ve seen that we really need to get things done.”

But Johannessen argues that being so remote, coal was a vital way to provide energy security to the archipelago.

“Having our own local coal production to provide safe energy to the local community was very important to us. But I can agree that we should have started a long time ago.”

Like communities across the planet, Svalbard is simply not doing enough, fast enough when it comes to climate change.

This year’s global climate change conference in Egypt will be difficult, dominated by the ongoing impact of the war in Ukraine. Governments around the world will once again be asked what sacrifices they are willing to make today – to save tomorrow.

Photo by Nick Beak

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