After decades of warnings, Norway’s Arctic settlements on Svalbard are suddenly facing more dramatic effects of climate change. Its current, highly visible consequences on Svalbard are emerging just as climate and environmental advocates met once again last week, for a Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco that also attracted Norwegian officials caught between efforts to curb climate change while preserving revenues from Norway’s oil industry.
Now it’s the permafrost that’s melting on Svalbard. That’s literally undermining the very foundations of buildings in Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s administrative center, and forcing major disruption for residents and more security concerns for their famous international seed vault.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Monday that around 250 homes must be torn down, a lot in a community where only around 2,200 people live. Holiday homes also need to be moved to more stable ground, while other settlements are threatened by more avalanches, landslides and erosion.
Problems caused by the melting permafrost have turned Svalbard’s famed seed vault from a local landmark on the hill above Longyearbyen’s airport into a construction zone, just 10 years after it opened. Its stained glass window is covered by plywood and large freezing elements have been installed on the rocky slope behind it. The ground around the entrance to the seed vault now needs to be frozen artificially.
Officials have stressed that the vaults deeper inside the mountain, built to store seeds in the event of global catastrophe, are safe but the entrance area has been plagued by the runoff from melting snow, ice and permafrost. The tunnel has needed new water-tight construction around it, but the earth into which the entry tunnel to the vault was bored “has become very unstable,” Rainer-Helge Braun, project leader for the Norwegian state building agency Statsbygg, told Aftenposten. “The permafrost doesn’t stabilize in the same manner that it did before.”
He said the new freezing elements erected around the project, which is costing the state NOK 100 million, are needed to keep a constant temperature of minus 30-40C, and hopefully reestablish the permafrost. “We’ve also drilled down freezing elements into the earth around the opening (to the tunnel),” Braun added. “We’ve never done this before.”
A recent rash of mild winters with unstable weather and rain has led to the process of not just melting ice and less snow but also to the thawing of the permafrost that kept land firm. “Because of the climate changes, we had to find new methods of building homes,” Hege Njaa Aschim of Statsbygg told Aftenposten, referring to the local housing for state workers. “We’re building with a 60-year perspective, with foundations of steel now anchored to rock, not the permafrost.”
Most buildings in Longyearbyen are built on wooden beams bored into the permafrost. Rising temperatures have thus made them unstable and more vulnerable to rot. The warmer climate has also led to the rash of avalanches and landslides, including those in 2015 and 2016 that had fatal consequences.
Svalbard has become one of the places in the world where the consequences of climate change have become most clear. Kim Holmén, a climate researcher and international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, thinks it can turn Svalbard into a type of laboratory to try and test methods of adaptation.
“As a platform for innovation and development, I think Svalbard will have even more to offer in the future,” Holmén told Aftenposten. “Things that function here can also function in other places affected by climate change.”
The drama unfolding on Svalbard comes just as climate researchers, companies, organizations and local and regional authorities from around the world met in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit last week. The goal has been to mobilize, form alliances and share experiences with measures aimed at stemming and, hopefully, reversing climate change. The gathering also took place in an effort to counter US President Donald Trump’s pending withdrawal from the UN Climate Agreement hammered out in Paris.
It all presents another paradox for Norway, which has long advocated climate- and environmentally friendly policies at the same time it has an active oil industry that’s also keen to expand into the Arctic. Norway’s new government minister in charge of climate and environmental issues, Ola Elvestuen, comes from the Liberal Party that’s long wanted to curtail the oil industry, but most of his government colleagues are keen to preserve and develop it, because of all the money it generates for the state treasury and pension fund.
Elvestuen and Oslo Mayor Raymond Johansen were among Norwegians taking part in the summit in San Francisco, committing funding for an initiative to help cities save their trees, parks and local forests since they help cleanse the air of carbon emissions. Norway’s massive pension fund known as the Oil Fund is also selling off investments in the coal industry while debate flies over whether it should also sell off stock in the fossil fuel industry. Norway, it’s argued, is over-exposed to the oil industry given the Oil Fund’s portfoilo of oil shares, the state’s 67 percent stake in Equinor (formerly Statoil) and its direct ownership stakes in offshore fields through the state-owned agency Petoro.
Developments on Svalbard will likely continue to illustrate the calamity of climate change amidst charges that Elvestuen and his government colleagues are still far too passive in tackling climate change. Bård Vegar Solhjell, a former top politician for the Socialist Left party who now heads WWF in Norway, was also in San Francisco and told newspaper Dagsavisen that Norway’s own oil industry “remains the big elephant in the room.” As the state is forced to spend hundreds of millions repairing climate damage on Svalbard and bracing for more, it continues to reap the financial benefits of its biggest business.
“We can’t only prevent drilling off Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja (on Norway’s northern coast),” Solhjell said. “The oil reserves in the Arctic have to remain in the ground, untouched. I’m convinced that Norwegian oil policy will change dramatically during the next decade. What I fear most, is that folks will wait too long, though, and not do this in a managed and thoughtful manner.”