Svalbard grapples with great change

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It’s cold again now, but residents of Norway’s Arctic island group of Svalbard were basking in highly unusual temperatures on New Year’s Eve that resembled those normally registered in the summertime. New records were set when thermometers showed temperatures 20 degrees above normal for this time of year, and the climate isn’t the only thing that’s changing.

Residents of the city of Longyearbyen on Svalbard face all kinds of change, not least rising temperatures and the effects thereof. PHOTO: Landbruks- og matdepartementet

Residents of the city of Longyearbyen on Svalbard face all kinds of change, not least rising temperatures and the effects thereof. PHOTO: Landbruks- og matdepartementet

The Svalbard residents have gone from experiencing a hurricane and deadly avalanches just before Christmas, to recording temperatures of 8.7C (nearly 50F) just after. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that several places around Svalbard recorded temperatures less than two weeks ago that were 1.5 degrees higher than the last record set for December warmth in the archipelago’s main city of Longyearbyen.

Statistics from the state meteorological institute also show Svalbard has never registered such high temperatures during the period November to April. The statistics stretch back to 1911. There was only one day in June 2014 when it was warmer than it was on Tuesday December 29, 2015. On Monday, temperatures were relatively mild at minus-8C at midday and when Queen Sonja arrived late last week to express condolences and support after the avalanche, the justice minister accompanying her was outdoors without even wearing a cap.

Both climate and economic change
In addition to dealing with such signs of climate change, Svalbard also faces great economic uncertainty and change ahead. The community had planned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its biggest employer, the Store Norske Spitsbergen coal company, in 2016, but low coal prices and the controversy swirling around coal as a source of climate change have spoiled the party. Store Norske has already been forced to lay off staff and despite a government bailout, the future for coal mining on Svalbard has never been darker than at this dark time of the year.

Svalbard itself is of great strategic importance both to Norway and its allies in NATO, so the Norwegian government and Parliament is inclined to keep supporting its communities and finding new sources of income for residents. The government is expected to present a new plan for the future of Svalbard by March. Its tourism industry and location as a base for climate research isn’t enough to sustain it, so new sources of income are needed. There’s been speculation that Svalbard could emerge as a center for maritime traffic over newly ice-free Arctic routes, while others search for ways of reviving Svalbard’s relatively efficient coal mining in a way that would make it more climate friendly.

Still others see Svalbard, which long has attracted politicians, international dignitaries, royals and celebrities who are fascinated by its nature, as a center for cultural events. Its remoteness may make that difficult, but there’s potential for expanding Svalbard’s position as a unique center for education and Arctic research.

Brewing up new ventures
One determined group of locals made a breakthrough last year with an entirely different venture: brewing beer. A-magasinet reported recently on the first shipments of Spitsbergen Pilsner from the new microbrewery, Svalbard Bryggeri. Robert Johansen arrived on Svalbard in 1982 to work in the coal mine but has now succeeded in efforts with others to make beer from the mineral-rich waters of melting glaciers. “It gives the beer its own special flavour,” brewer Andreas Hegermann Riis told A-magasinet.

After finally succeeding at winning support and approval for the new venture, after Norway’s current conservative coalition government gained power in 2013, the first shipments of beer were sent from Svalbard to the mainland by boat in November.

“I love this island so much, but there wasn’t much more than coal here,” Johansen told A-magasinet. “Now times are tough. Maybe we can show that it’s possible to do other things up here.”

Queen Sonja, meanwhile, praised Svalbard residents last week for their resilience and over how they reacted to last month’s avalanche that left two people dead including a child. “We have met some of those who were buried (under the snow) and miraculously were found again,” the queen told reporters after meeting survivors, emergency crews and neighbours who helped dig victims out of their ruined homes. She said she was impressed by how rescuers “managed to make rational choices” and over the impulsive efforts made by volunteers.

Justice Minister Anders Anundsen, who was surveying the damage with the queen, said he was also impressed, but offered no specifics yet on how the government will support Svalbard. “We’re working on the Svalbard report, and it will have a range of perspectives,” Anundsen said.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund