We Will Remember Them: The Svalbard Archipelago

by matthay44

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One of the northernmost places in the world is the Svalbard archipelago. It is a land that makes a strong impression on almost everyone who goes there. Most people are entranced by it, others are repulsed by its cold climate, dark winters and barren landscapes.

I had the privilege of spending 9-weeks in Svalbard in the spring of 2010. To this day that trip remains the best of my life. I was so devastated to leave that I spent most of the flight home with my jumper over my face, crying into the fabric.

Today, November 30th, is ‘Remembrance Day for Lost Species’ and this post is my tribute to that occasion. However, I’m breaking the mould slightly in that I won’t be focussing on a specific animal or plant that our planet has lost. Instead I want to focus on a place – Svalbard. For while its physical form may still be there on our maps, Svalbard has breached a climatic tipping point. It is irrevocably changed from what it was even twenty years ago. It will never return to its former state; not while we are alive at least.

This piece mourns the loss of Svalbard as it was during the first part of my lifetime and indeed for much of the last millennium.

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Svalbard on a clear April day in 2014

Many people are familiar with Svalbard thanks to Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy. In the first book, ‘Northern Lights’, the novel’s protagonist Lyra visits Svalbard, an icy kingdom ruled over by sentient, armoured polar bears called ‘Panserbjørne’. Because of this many people think of Svalbard as a purely fictional place, one that was cooked up in Pullman’s head. Possibly even the majority are unaware that his inspiration was a real group of islands, which genuinely contain more polar bears than people.

About three times the size of Wales, the archipelago is situated between 74 and 81 degrees north, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. This is an astonishingly high latitude, responsible for the enormous fluctuations of daylight that Svalbard receives over the course of a year. From late October to the middle of February the sun does not rise. From mid-April to mid-August it does not set. In the swing seasons the day-length can change by over 30 minutes from one day to the next.

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Svalbard in relation to Norway, Greenland and the Arctic Circle

Despite its ‘High Arctic’ location Svalbard’s climate is not especially severe. For sure the winters are long, with snow on the ground from late-September until early June, but the temperatures never drop as low as in other parts of the Arctic, thanks to the warm Atlantic Ocean currents (known colloquially as the Gulf Stream), which run up the western flank of Svalbard’s main island, Spitsbergen.

As this ‘West Spitsbergen Current’ (WSC) flows north it encounters sea ice, which melts to produce a layer of low-salinity, fresher water. The greater density of the WSC’s saltier and warmer ‘Atlantic’ water means that it sinks below this layer of fresher water, eventually descending into the deep and flowing back towards the equator. The important point, though, is that as soon as the cooler, fresher water sits on top of the WSC’s warm, ‘Atlantic’ water it isolates the latter from the atmosphere, preventing its heat from being released into the air.

Having these clearly defined layers within the sea is known as ocean stratification. In the waters around Svalbard it is this mechanism that stops ever more ‘Atlantic’ heat escaping into the Arctic. It all hinges on the sea ice.

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Melting sea ice in the spring, seen from the seat of a Twin Otter aircraft

A 2018 paper in the journal Nature stated that, “The Arctic has warmed dramatically in recent decades, with the greatest temperature increases observed in the northern Barents Sea.” These are the waters around Svalbard and even by Arctic standards the climatic warming in this region has been extreme.

The paper argues that the cause is linked to the warm Atlantic currents, like the WSC, which flow into the region. Across the entire Arctic, less sea ice is forming during the winter and that which does form is thinner. With no ice to reflect sunlight, large areas of the Arctic Ocean’s dark blue waters are warming more during the summer months and taking longer to refreeze in the autumn.

The situation is exacerbated in the Barents Sea by the waters flowing into this region being much warmer to begin with. For every month the ocean remains uncovered by ice these currents release huge amounts of heat into the atmosphere, making it harder for deep cold to build and new ice to form.

It’s a classic positive feedback cycle, one of many working to shift the planet into what the ecologist James Lovelock calls Earth’s next “semi-stable state”, one that is roughly 5 degrees warmer than present. However, the difference with my Svalbard example is that I fear this particular feedback loop has already breached a critical threshold; a tipping point.

Sadly the Nature paper has come to a similar conclusion. The authors expect that the Barents Sea’s transition from cold, stratified and polar to warm, well-mixed and temperate is both inevitable and imminent: the “Atlantification” of the region has begun. Without its polar waters, without its sea ice, Svalbard ceases to be ‘High Arctic’. Its character and its ecosystems will become more akin to northern Norway, a different place entirely.

Where’s my evidence for this irreversible shift? Let’s start with some satellite imagery…

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The image above shows the Arctic sea ice extent in November 1978; the pink line marks the average extent as recorded between 1981-2010. Note the quantity of ice around Svalbard and the seas to its east. The entire archipelago is frozen in for the winter. Note also the total ice extent at 11.6 million square kilometres.

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Next up is November 1980, just to give you a sense that ’78 wasn’t a bumper year. Plenty of ice still around Svalbard…

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Approaching the new millennium now and we can see that all is still well in the Barents Sea. In November 1995 the ice is already a fair way south of Svalbard, reaching down towards the Norwegian Coast.

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Now, 2001. The total extent continues its downward slide, but sea ice in the Barents Sea is holding strong at the start of the 21st century.

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All good still in 2005, although the ice edge in the Barents is noticeably further north and the northwest coast of Svalbard is free of ice in this year.

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2007 marks the beginning of the end. Total ice extent is now below 10 million square kilometres and the Barents Sea is in a bad way. By bad I mean unfrozen. Svalbard is completely free of ice in November.

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Signs of hope in 2010? Although the total extent is again lower, ice in the Barents Sea seems to have rallied. Maybe the years following 2007 were just an anomaly?

Despite the strong showing from the Barents region in this image, I would like to draw your attention to the complete lack of sea ice in Hudson Bay. Contrast this with some of the images above to see how unusual it is for that part of the Arctic to be completely ice free in November.

The winter of 2010 saw very unusual weather synoptics across the northern hemisphere. In the U.K. we had our coldest December for 100 years and the Barents Sea also had below average temperatures. However, this came at the expense of cold in other parts of the Arctic, notably Canada. As I explained in a previous post, there simply isn’t enough cold air to go around anymore to allow the entire northern hemisphere to have a below-average or even average winter. For temperatures in the Barents Sea to be cooler than normal, the western Arctic had to endure record breaking warmth in a highly unusual meteorological setup.

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In 2013, the overall extent has recovered slightly and half of Hudson Bay is frozen over, but the Barents Sea and Svalbard are completely devoid of ice.

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More of the same in 2015: an ice free Barents Sea in November.

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Once again in 2017…

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This final image, November 2018, shows an ice edge that is further from Svalbard than any of the others.

Here is my claim: Svalbard will never again be surrounded by ice in November; not in our lifetimes at least. The region has breached a threshold. The warm currents flowing into the Barents Sea no longer encounter enough low-salinity (sea-ice) meltwater to be driven below the ocean surface. They therefore continue to release heat into the atmosphere above the Barents Sea, preventing the region from experiencing the winter cold necessary to form enough sea ice.

What does a changed climate look like? Well, possibly something like the image below:

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These are the mean monthly temperatures from Svalbard’s Longyearbyen weather station for the past 12 months, courtesy of the Norwegian Met Office. Every single month recorded a positive temperature anomaly, with the greatest divergence during winter. February this year, for example, was over 10 degrees warmer than normal.

I cannot emphasise enough how extreme that anomaly is. If February in the U.K. was ever 10 degrees above average we would be regularly recording daily temperatures into the mid to high twenties. Imagine that, 25 degrees in February, for days at a time. Imagine how terrifying that would be.

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A photo I took in April 2010, on my expedition to Svalbard

When I think about Svalbard now, I feel two emotions. The first is anger. Anger that we have destroyed one of the most magical places on this planet. Anger that no-one really cares. Anger that very few people see this as the harbinger it is. For sure climate change is happening faster in the Arctic than the rest of world. But that same scale of change will be coming for every region, undoubtedly. It may take decades, it may take centuries, but it is highly likely that the entire planet will transition to a new, warmer semi-stable state. Mankind will do too little too late to prevent it.

The second emotion I feel is sadness. When I think about what our planet has already lost it makes my heart bleed. Animals like the Great Auk, the Stellar’s Sea Cow, the Thylacine, the Warrah, the Caspian Tiger and the Yangtze Dolphin are gone forever. Functional extinctions too, like the Northern White Rhino, the Scottish Wildcat, the Philippine Crocodile, the Vaquita and the Amur Leopard are all around us. Closer to home, the U.K. will lose its only native Orca in the next decade alongside unprecedented collapses of its sea bird populations.

Three things are driving these losses. Animal agriculture, profit-based decision-making and climate change, with the latter also being a product of the former two.

We have so little time to rewrite the narrative that exists between humanity and the rest of the living world. I hope that I am wrong, but I suspect that we will fall short of curbing this catastrophic decline. I cannot see us ever ceding other species the space they need.

Our history has always been one of extinction. Everywhere humans have colonised, extirpations of the indigenous flora and fauna have followed. As the biologist E. O. Wilson remarked recently, future historians will note our era not for its inventions or scientific discoveries, but as a time of incredible loss of the Earth’s biological diversity. That will be our legacy and all of us, whether active participants or passive observers of that decline, will be judged by what we failed to protect. What we failed to do.

For me the loss of Svalbard creates a sadness I cannot adequately express. It does not make me want to cry into my jumper as I did nearly a decade ago. Rather it sits as an uneasiness in the back of my mind, a tendril of melancholy that I will probably never fully come to terms with.

Svalbard is still is a place of magic and wonder. But I will never forget how it used to be.

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My pal, Leo Carew, and me aboard a small iceberg in Isfjord