“The climate on Svalbard is altering dramatically,” says Andrea Spolaor, who studies environmental chemistry at the Italian National Research Council. “This is a worrying situation for the archipelago, but at the same time provides a case study for understanding the effects on the environment. To understand change one must measure it, and Svalbard is, unfortunately, a good example.”
For scientists and researchers, there is no shortage of perturbing phenomena to assess: retreating glaciers, decreased snow cover, extreme precipitation, disappearing sea ice, avalanches, imperilled flora and fauna. No part of Svalbard, it seems, is immune to its climate predicament.
A vessel carrying researchers plies a route through sea ice off Svalbard. Fast ice – that which is grounded at the shore – has been declining at a rate of 40 square miles (c100 sq km) for decades around the archipelago and species from further south are appearing in coastal waters. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
“The thawing permafrost and the landslides in Longyearbyen [Svalbard’s largest town] are very obvious signs of change,” notes Lars Smedsrud, a professor of polar oceanography at the University of Bergen. “It [global heating] will hit the local ecosystems hard. With the current warming and ongoing emissions of CO2, Svalbard and the rest of the Arctic will continue to warm.”
Svalbard is strongly affected by Arctic amplification, a feedback mechanism where sea-ice retreat and atmospheric warming make each other worse. This is, in part, why Svalbard is seeing such alarming change, and is why its glaciers – which represent 6% of the planet’s glaciated area outside Greenland and Antarctica – are swiftly melting away.