A climate-change frontier in the world's northernmost town

  • Email
  • Star
PHOTO: Husky dogs pull a rig and musher Audun Salte through the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 6, 2019. Salte worries that as temperatures warm, climate change could lead to the extinction of all life on Earth.PlayHannah Mckay/Reuters
WATCH NatGeo explorer discusses effects of climate change
  • Email

Icebergs float like doomed islands past the small boat as it makes its way through a fjord filled with the slush of a melting glacier. Occasionally, as the warming waters dissolve the bottom of one of the icebergs, it becomes top-heavy and does a somersault, as if it were playing instead of dying.

PHOTO: The Wahlenberg Glacier is seen in Oscar II land at Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 5, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
The Wahlenberg Glacier is seen in Oscar II land at Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 5, 2019.

Interested in Climate Change?

Add Climate Change as an interest to stay up to date on the latest Climate Change news, video, and analysis from ABC News.
Add Interest

The Wahlenberg glacier above the fjord naturally calves, sheering off the icebergs into the water. But here it is happening at an increasing rate because of the warming ocean waters, said Kim Holmen, the international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute.

PHOTO:International director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, Kim Holmen, relaxes with a cup of tea as he travels past the Wahlenberg Glacier in Oscar II land at Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 5, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
PHOTO:International director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, Kim Holmen, relaxes with a cup of tea as he travels past the Wahlenberg Glacier in Oscar II land at Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 5, 2019.

Holmen, wearing a woolen hat with a hot pink pom-pom against the chill of an Arctic summer day, has lived in the northern Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard for three decades. He describes the changes he's seen as "profound, large and rapid."

"We are losing the Svalbard we know. We are losing the Arctic as we know it because of climate change," he said amid the constant crackle and trickle of dissolving ice. "This is a forewarning of all the hardship and problems that will spread around the planet."

PHOTO: A pile of antlers are seen on a ski sled in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 6, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
A pile of antlers are seen on a ski sled in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 6, 2019.

Since 1970, average annual temperatures have risen by 4 degrees Celsius in Svalbard, with winter temperatures rising more than 7 degrees, according to a report released by the Norwegian Center for Climate Services in February.

PHOTO: Children play at the skatepark in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 4, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
Children play at the skatepark in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 4, 2019.

The "Climate in Svalbard 2100" report also warns that the annual mean air temperature in Svalbard is projected to increase by 7 to 10 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Since 1979, the Arctic sea ice extent has declined by nearly 12% per decade, with the most pronounced winter reduction in the Svalbard and Barents Sea area.

PHOTO: An iceberg floats near the Wahlenberg Glacier in Oscar II land at Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 5, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
An iceberg floats near the Wahlenberg Glacier in Oscar II land at Spitsbergen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 5, 2019.

That's not good news for Svalbard's main town, Longyearbyen. With a population of slightly more than 2,000 people, it is the northernmost town on the planet.

PHOTO: The town of Longyearbyen is seen in the late evening light in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 4, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
The town of Longyearbyen is seen in the late evening light in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 4, 2019.

It is also the fastest-warming. Rows of simple white wooden crosses cling to a hillside over Longyearbyen, a sparse cemetery that appears vulnerable even on a sunny day in August.

PHOTO: White wooden gravestones at risk of landslides due to the thawing permafrost underneath the ground, stand at the side of a mountain in the Longyearbyen cemetery in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 3, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
White wooden gravestones at risk of landslides due to the thawing permafrost underneath the ground, stand at the side of a mountain in the Longyearbyen cemetery in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 3, 2019.

Ivar Smedsroed is the summer vicar at Svalbard Church, a red wooden building with white trim and a weather vane-topped bell tower. Inside the Lutheran house of worship, which claims to be the world's northernmost church, stained glass paints the snow-topped mountains nearby in a pastel hue.

PHOTO: The Svalbard Church, which claims to be the worlds northernmost church, stands in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 3, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
The Svalbard Church, which claims to be the world's northernmost church, stands in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 3, 2019.

The pastor has only been here for the summer, but in that short time he has already learned of people's fears about the effects of a rapidly changing climate.

SLIDESHOW: Stunning aerial photos reveal evolving Antarctic landscape

One such effect is a thawing of the permafrost beneath his feet at the graveyard, which he calls "a place of memories, a place of remembrance."As the permafrost thaws, things that are in the ground tend to be pulled up," Smedsroed says matter-of-factly as he sits on the ground near the graves. "That is happening more or less all of the time, so we might see that the graves literally come up, the coffins."

PHOTO: Interim Vicar, Ivar Smedsrod consoles Polish visitor Wieslaw Sawicki after a mass at the Svalbard Church in the town of Longyearbyen, in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 4, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
Interim Vicar, Ivar Smedsrod consoles Polish visitor Wieslaw Sawicki after a mass at the Svalbard Church in the town of Longyearbyen, in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 4, 2019.

There has been talk of relocating the graveyard after a landslide missed wiping it out by meters in October 2016. Nearly three years later, slabs of rock form a slash in the landscape just beyond the graves.

"Because of climate change and the difference that makes to the soil and the ground, some of the graves that we see behind us might end up actually sliding into the road," said Smedsroed, whose gray hair matches the woolen sweater beneath his white collar. "Or the next thing that we could see is that they might all be covered in the next big landslide coming down the hill."

Thawing permafrost isn't just a problem for the dead: It has caused problems for current residents of Longyearbyen too.

PHOTO: An aerial view shows snow-covered mountains in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 3, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
An aerial view shows snow-covered mountains in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 3, 2019.

Houses in the valley are built on small wooden stilts instead of deep foundations. Softening ground can lead to collapses, landslides and avalanches, and the houses here are no match for them.

On Dec. 19, 2015, an avalanche killed a man and a child in their homes.

SLIDESHOW:Birds-eye view shows effects of melting Arctic ice over Greenland and Canada

"It was the middle of the night, and nobody knew what was coming," Longyearbyen resident Anna Boegh said near the site where the houses once stood.

"This was thought to be an incredibly uncommon event, but two years after, in 2017, there was another avalanche, "added her partner, Erik Holmund.

PHOTO: A residential house is seen in front of snow capped mountains in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 4, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
A residential house is seen in front of snow capped mountains in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 4, 2019.

No one died in that avalanche, but several houses were swept away.

Erosion also threatens homes here. Three years ago, as winter approached, 13 meters of coastline fell away overnight, leaving Christiane Huebner's cabin perilously close to the fjord. Huebner, her family of three and their husky dogs abandoned the home.

"It was a wake-up call since it happened very quickly," she said. They returned the following spring and had to relocate the cabin 80 meters from the shore.

PHOTO:Husky dogs relax ahead of sledding, in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 6, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
PHOTO:Husky dogs relax ahead of sledding, in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 6, 2019.

The ground beneath Svalbard has proven deadly elsewhere. Wieslaw Sawicki's son Michal worked as a geophysicist at the Polish Polar Research Station in Hornsund on the southern side of Svalbard. The Polish scientist and meteorologist Anna Górska died when they fell from a mountain in May.

Michal, 44, was an experienced mountaineer, scientist and explorer on his fifth stint for the institute in the Arctic. Founded in 1957, it conducts year-round research and is the northernmost permanent Polish scientific institution.

PHOTO: A man looks at rugs for sale in a store in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 6, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
A man looks at rugs for sale in a store in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 6, 2019.

"Unfortunately, there was a huge snow cornice which looked like it was part of the peak of the mountain," said Sawicki, who was visiting Longyearbyen last month to meet with the governor of the archipelago. "It collapsed with them; they both fell into the abyss."

He talked about how Michal would send letters home to Poland describing the beauty of Svalbard.

PHOTO:A reindeer grazes on land in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 4, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
PHOTO:A reindeer grazes on land in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 4, 2019.

"He would interestingly describe the changes that were happening here, how the glaciers were melting, how during each stay you could see the temperature rising and how the natural environment was changing," he said, holding back tears.

The specter of climate change looms large over Audun Salte's dog farm. The Norwegian owns Svalbard Husky with his wife, Mia.

PHOTO: Audun Salte prepares his huskies for sledding at his husky yard in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 6, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
Audun Salte prepares his huskies for sledding at his husky yard in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 6, 2019.

When the dogs in the yard see Salte, they excitedly jump up, hoping to go out for a run. During the summer, with no snow on the ground, the dogs pull sleds along the bumpy gravel road on wheels, rattling past the few cars on the island.

Salte worries that as temperatures warm, climate change could lead to the extinction of all life on Earth. A man who likes kissing and dancing with his dogs – he has 110 of them – he's concerned most about the nonhumans on the planet.

PHOTO: A woman poses next to a polar bear mural in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 6, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
A woman poses next to a polar bear mural in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 6, 2019.

"If climate change should be the end of humanity, I really don't care, but if climate change is the end of any animal species who hasn't contributed anything towards the speeding up of this process, that's why I am reacting," he said.

Gesturing with a nod toward his dogs, he said, "It's just unfair to anyone that doesn't have a say in what is happening – the dogs, seals or polar bears or birds in the sky. That's why it is unfair, and that is why we should do something."

PHOTO: A sign warns of the danger from polar bears in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 3, 2019. Hannah Mckay/Reuters
A sign warns of the danger from polar bears in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway, Aug. 3, 2019.

He compares climate change to an accident that we can't help staring at, feeling lucky we weren't the victim.

"On the highway, when people slow down to look at a car crash, climate change is like that because everyone is slowing down to look at the accident but not realizing that we are actually the car crash," he noted.

wordpress theme seo women health health entertainment Free software health news news sports sports news