This study considers the impacts of climate change on the Svalbard archipelago of Norway. It focuses primarily on the impacts on non-human life in Svalbard because there are far fewer humans who reside there. Svalbard is seeing the fastest rate of warming in the entire Arctic (Descamps et al., 2017) along with other severe hazards, and the life that resides there is struggling to adapt.
Background on Svalbard
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago that sits between 74ºN and 81ºN, hundreds of miles of the northern tip of Norway. Svalbard consists of nine separate islands, the largest and most inhabited being Spitsbergen, home to the administrative center of Longyearbyen. There are only approximately 2,500 people who live on the Islands (Norwegian Ministry of Climate and the Environment, 2013), the vast majority living in Longyearbyen. There are more polar bears than people in Svalbard, and human residents are well aware that the bears are the true residents. People living in Svalbard carry rifles when venturing outside of the settlements to protect themselves from the bears (Visit Svalbard).
- The circumpolar Arctic is the fastest warming region of the planet, and the Northern Barents Sea, where Svalbard is located, is the fastest warming region in the entire Arctic (Descamps et al., 2017)
- By the end of the century, mid-winter air temperature in Longyearbyen is expected to be 10ºC warmer than current temperatures (Descamps et al., 2017)
Sea ice loss and sea level rise
- Sea ice is melting at an average of 8,800 square kilometers per year (Descamps et al., 2017)
Changing precipitation patterns
- Increased precipitation in fall and winter (Førland et al., 2011)
- Increased rain-on-snow events (López-Moreno et al., 2016)
Increasing variability in permafrost
- The area of near-surface permafrost is projected to decrease by around 35% under a high emission scenario (AMAP, 2017)
- Thawing and more discontinuous permafrost triggers a cycle called the permafrost-carbon feedback, where carbon previously stored in solid form is released from the ground as carbon dioxide and methane, resulting in additional warming (USGCRP, 2018)
Exposure and Vulnerability
The species of Svalbard are exposed and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Many species including the polar bear and the ringed seal depend on sea ice for their hunting and travel, and even those species that do not live on the ice live very close to the ocean. These species are especially vulnerable due to the isolated nature of Svalbard's islands, which makes it increasingly difficult for these species to move or adapt.
Impacts on Animal Life
- Polar bears have not been able to reach their past denning grounds due to lack of sea ice, and they are also having trouble hunting because they typically use sea ice as their hunting ground (Descamps et al., 2017).
- Juvenile ringed seals have been forced to change their foraging behaviors (Descamps et al., 2017).
- Increasing frequency of rain-on-snow events is making it difficult for reindeer and other terrestrial herbivores to access the low-lying grasses and shrubs they feed on (Norwegian Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment, 2013).
- This has been linked to a female bias in the adult sex population of reindeer (Peeters et al., 2017).
- Warming temperature's are causing an increase in species migration to and from Svalbard. Some species such as the blue mussel are establishing new populations in Svalbard, while some such as the polar cod are leaving in search of colder water (Descamps et al., 2017).
- Svalbard's isolated nature makes it very difficult for species to move northwards to remain in a favorable climate (Norwegian Ministry of Climate and the Environment, 2013).
Exposure and Vulnerability for Humans
- The few human communities that exist are at located at sea level, exposing them to rising sea levels.
- Humans in Svalbard rely on snowmobiles for travel (Visit Svalbard), often which includes traveling on sea ice. With melting sea ice and changing precipitation patterns, travel by snowmobile will become less reliable.
- One of Svalbard's largest industries is mining, which takes place in the permafrost zone. Therefore, the mining industry is vulnerable to thawing permafrost (Haldorsen et al., 2010).
Adaptation and Resilience
In 2013 the Norwegian Ministry on Climate and the Environment wrote a national adaptation strategy report to highlight what Norway will have to do in order to adapt to the changing climate. The report included a section specific to Svalbard, and it's key points were:
- Many species must move further north to adapt to melting ice and warming temperatures, although this is difficult given Svalbard's isolated nature;
- An action plan to prevent the introduction and spread of invasive species is being written;
- Adjustments to the hunting season and quotas need to be made in order to protect species who are vulnerable to habitat loss and other impacts of climate change;
- It is important to invest in maintaining infrastructures such as roads and buildings that may be vulnerable to sea level rise or thawing permafrost. Steps have been taken to address this issue, and Longyearbyen currently has a maintenance backlog for infrastructure improvement; and
- Measures have been taken to prevent shipwrecks or pollution off of Svalbard’s coast caused by heavier sea traffic in the area due to declining sea ice extent. Now, ships sailing within Svalbard’s protected areas are not allowed to carry heavy bunker oil and cruise ships are not allowed to carry more than two hundred passengers.
(Norwegian Ministry of Climate and the Environment, 2013)
About the Author
Gunnar Nurme graduated from St. Lawrence University in 2021 with a combined major in environmental studies and economics. He produced this webpage as a project for Jon Rosales's Adaptation to Climate Change course in Spring 2019. Gunnar was a member of the Outing Club on campus, as well as a student guide for the Outdoor Program. He was passionate about the outdoors and working to protect our natural environment.
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