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Climate Change: Melting Permafrost Imperils Arctic Residents

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Kim Holmén reaches the end of the road, gets out of his car and walks the rest of the way. He trudges over rivulets of snowmelt that have turned the earth into mud that sticks to his boots.

His companion shoulders a rifle that he’s brought along in case they run into any polar bears. Climate change has deprived the creatures of food, but that’s not what Holmén is most afraid of.

He’s the director of the Norwegian Polar Institute on Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean off Norway’s northern coast. The danger Holmén is most concerned about lies directly beneath his feet.

He’s wearing a lined jacket, a pink knitted cap and a has a long, gray beard that reaches his chest. Holmén is an eccentric scientist who is deeply concerned about the Arctic climate. “It changes first, the most and the fastest, and that affects the entire world,” he says.

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Due to global warming, temperatures up here are rising twice as fast as the global average. Since 1971, the average temperature in Svalbard has jumped by 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit). In winter, it’s risen by as much as 7 degrees Celsius. For reference, if winter temperatures in Berlin were to rise that significantly, the German capital wouldn’t be 2 degrees Celsius in January, but 9. In other words, winter would suddenly feel more like spring.

Too Much Thawing

Holmén reaches a low hill. His companion lifts the lid of a narrow wooden box that sticks out of the ground. Inside are cables, batteries and a sensor that reaches 10 meters (33 feet) into the earth, measuring the ground temperature like a thermometer.

Svalbard is a group of rough, lonely islands located about halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, its landscape dominated by rugged mountains and millennia-old glaciers. Fewer than 2,500 people live here. It has a hospital, a science center and a few bars.

When Holmén first arrived here some 30 years ago, the ground thawed to a maximum depth of 1 meter in the summer. Now the measurements show thaws of up to 1.7 meters. Similar things are happening in other parts of the Arctic as well.

Holmén has studied polar climates his entire life — in Siberia, in Greenland and in far-off Antarctica and is well-versed in the problem presented by the thaw. Twenty-four percent of the land mass in the northern hemisphere has a more or less frozen soil, an area larger than all of Russia. That permafrost stores up to 1.6 billion tons of carbon in the form of dead trees, dead animals or withered grass — about twice as much carbon as is currently found in the atmosphere today.





Daniel Etter/ DER SPIEGEL

Kim Holmén has been studying polar climates his entire life.

If this soil thaws, this matter will begin to decompose, releasing greenhouse gases. And if that happens on a large scale, climate change will take on a life of its own. The additional gases will accelerate the rise in global temperatures, which will further exacerbate thawing, which will release more gases. Scientists call such processes “feedbacks.”

Holmén knows the ground is thawing. What he doesn’t know is whether this phenomenon has already reached its tipping point. There are indications that this could, in fact, be the case.

A Climate Run Amok

The implications for humanity are already being experienced by the residents of Svalbard, with inhabitants already struggling to cope with a climate that is rapidly heating up.

Two days after the visit to the measuring station, Holmén and a handful of young scientists pile into a boat with a strong hull and an outboard motor. Clouds hang low over the fjord. Holmén had hoped to already be home by now, but the weather changed. Instead, he’s seizing the opportunity to show the researchers the effects of climate change up close.

The polar explorer doesn’t just look like an eccentric, it runs in his family. His great-grandmother was one of the first women to obtain an academic degree in Finland and was feared for her assertiveness. His father was born in a utopian community in Paraguay. Holmén himself rose through the ranks to become the international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute. His expertise has been sought out by the Norwegian queen, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and German Research Minister Anja Karliczek.

Holmén points to a rugged landscape to his left, the island Blomstrand. To his right is the Blomstrand glacier, a brittle wall of ice. Between the two is water. In the past, Holmén says, the island and the glacier were connected by a continuous surface of ice, leading the people of Svalbard to think Blomstrand was a peninsula since it could be reached on foot. “I still remember sitting in the canteen in 1992, when a young man came in and said he had driven a boat between the island and the glacier for the first time.”

Suddenly there is a crash on the right. A huge chunk of ice has fallen into the water, as if to emphasize Holmén’s point.

The Problem with Methane

The climate crisis ceased being an abstract concept on Spitzbergen and in the Arctic Ocean long ago, with the consequences of global warming clearly visible. Large parts of the Arctic that have been frozen for thousands of years are thawing and the ocean, which used to remain almost completely frozen throughout the summer, is now passable for ships. Back in September 1980, the sea ice stretched for more than 7.9 million square kilometers (3.1 million square miles). Last month, it only covered an area of 4.3 million square kilometers. The problem is that the bright ice surfaces long reflected nearly all of the sun’s energy back into space. But as these surfaces melt, the energy is absorbed by the oceans and earth instead, and they warm as a result. According to forecasts, the Arctic Ocean could soon be ice-free in the summer, the season when the sun’s rays hit the region day and night, causing temperatures to rise even further.

Known as polar reinforcement, this effect also causes permafrost to thaw even more quickly.

The same phenomenon can be observed elsewhere in the Arctic Circle as well, in Siberia, Canada, Alaska and Greenland. Large areas of the Siberian tundra, for instance, are softening, the soil is sinking and CO2 and methane are escaping.

In other places, methane is accumulating beneath the earth’s surface, causing the landscape to bulge. Methane as a greenhouse gas is even more dangerous than carbon dioxide. When a large methane bubble ignited in Siberia in 2013, the explosion could be heard 100 kilometers away. Canadian scientists, for their part, are alarmed because the permafrost there is thawing 70 years sooner than predicted while higher temperatures have also led to a greater risk of fire, with blazes last year devastating large swathes of land in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia. The “area burned and frequency of fires (including extreme fires) are unprecedented over the last 10,000 years,” writes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.


Mark Sabbatini lost his home in Longyearbyen to a sinkhole.


Daniel Etter/ DER SPIEGEL

Mark Sabbatini lost his home in Longyearbyen to a sinkhole.

Fifty billion tons of frozen methane are stored at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. If this gas was to escape all at once, global temperatures would rise by an additional 1.3 degrees Celsius and would trigger an abrupt change in the chemical composition of the atmosphere, causing the weather almost worldwide to shift radically. It would be climate change in fast forward. The United States government declared this a threat scenario 11 years ago and has been intensifying its research ever since.

‘I’m Afraid I’ll Die’

In August 2019, a U.S. research station in Alaska measured never-before-registered concentrations of methane. The data showed such a rapid spike that scientists around the world were alarmed. Meanwhile, residents in Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in Svalbard, are already experiencing this vicious cycle first-hand and live in the fear of catastrophe.

Varisa Photisat is standing near the center of town at a small crossroads, located at the foot of the steep Sukkertoppen mountain. The 17-year-old goes to school nearby. In front of her, right in the middle of town, lies an uneven open space, rutted and grooved like a poorly healed scar.

Longyearbyen is little more than a large village and it’s not uncommon to run into the same person more than once in a day, whether in one of the two small cafes, the grocery store or simply downtown. Everyone knows everyone here, and they help each other. Like when the avalanche struck before Christmas 2015.

Warm air absorbs more moisture, which eventually falls back down to earth in the form of precipitation. Four years ago in winter, a storm blew an unusually large amount of snow onto the steep slopes of the Sukkertoppen and the avalanche that ensued destroyed 11 houses and pushed some of the debris as far as 80 meters down the road. Eight people were hospitalized, while a 42-year-old man and a 2-year-old girl were killed.

Photisat was sick in bed that day. First, she saw pictures of the destroyed homes on Facebook. Later, she found out that the man killed by the avalanche was her music teacher. That’s when Photisat started to feel that no one in Svalbard was safe from climate change.

Every day on her way to school, she passes the place where the avalanche rolled over the houses. “I’m afraid I’ll die in the next 10 years,” she says, her eyes tearing up.

When Life (and Sinkholes) Get You Down

The people in Longyearbyen have always had a healthy respect for nature. Winters here are cold, hard and dark, but until now, they’ve at least been predictable. Climate change scares the residents of Longyearbyen because it is making nature unpredictable.

The local government is trying to compensate for this fear with money, building protective walls on the mountainside to shield against avalanches. Not to worry, residents were told, such extreme weather only happens once every 5,000 years. One year later, another avalanche came hurtling down the Sukkertoppen, and again, it struck an area that had been considered safe. Again, it buried several homes. This time there were no casualties, but this was merely a stroke of luck.

Mark Sabbatini, from the U.S., came to Longyearbyen 11 years ago, founded a local newspaper and invested his savings in an apartment. He’s one of those people who love life in the Arctic and because of his extravagant demeanor, he quickly became a familiar face in town. After the first avalanche, his newspaper was an important source of information, but since then, Sabbatini himself has become a victim of climate change.

One day, shortly before his paper’s printing deadline, Sabbatini got a phone call telling him that the ground beneath his apartment was unstable. Cracks had appeared in the walls and the building threatened to collapse. He had two hours to pack his things — and wasn’t able to save much.

His life has gone downhill ever since. He was able to stay with friends for a while, but he was unable to afford a new apartment. At some point, he began to drink. Last summer, he lived in a borrowed tent at a campsite on the outskirts of town. He survived by stealing food from a dumpster behind the supermarket.

“I wanted to make the news for this town,” he says, sitting in a café where he is allowed to spend time without ordering anything. “Now I’ve become the news myself.” It’s as if Sabbatini slipped on Svalbard’s thawing ground and hasn’t been able to find a foothold since. It’s a fate that threatens many people within the Arctic Circle.

Anthrax, Mercury and Exposed Corpses

Scientists at the University of Oulu in Finland predict that by 2050, 3.6 million Arctic residents — three-quarters of the population — will notice some effect of dwindling permafrost. Some 1,200 villages, towns and cities are located on top of endangered soil, including large urban areas like Yakutsk in Russia and around 100 airports. Forty-five percent of Russia’s Arctic oil and gas infrastructure sits atop permafrost that is becoming increasingly unstable, including a gas pipeline through which one-third of the EU’s gas imports flows. This pipeline stands on stilts anchored into the frozen ground. But that ground might not be frozen for much longer.

There are also viruses which lurk in the soil and could now become a threat again, such as anthrax. In 2016, a boy in Russia died after being exposed to the virus. There are also nearly 800,000 tons of mercury in permafrost. If it thaws, the toxic heavy metal will be released into the food chain and possibly into humans’ digestive systems.

Not far from Longyearbyen, there is an underground bunker designed to store all of the seeds used by humans for all of eternity. Initially, the idea was for permafrost to help in this endeavor, keeping the seeds cool. But two years ago, meltwater began trickling into the complex. Meanwhile, the local government is struggling to secure roads, bridges and buildings. In Longyearbyen’s old cemetery, the thawing soil is exposing corpses.

Economic forecasts often tout the advantages of a thawing Arctic, since this allows for huge oil and gas deposits to be tapped and shipping routes to be shortened. But these prognoses don’t take into account the massive costs of such a development. The escape of methane from the permafrost in the East Siberian Sea alone would carry a price tag of roughly $60 trillion (54.6 trillion euros), researchers at the universities of Rotterdam and Cambridge have estimated. To put that number in perspective: $60 trillion was roughly the size of the entire global economy in 2012.

A New Mission

Varisa Photisat, the high schooler, is meeting with several college students and a girl from her school in the cafeteria of the Svalbard Science Centre. They’ve been meeting here for weeks to organize a climate protest. The table is covered in empty coffee cups and a lunchbox. They hope that global warming can still be mitigated and the looming climate catastrophe halted. They’re part of the generation that would be hit hard if not.

A student from Germany is leading the meeting. When she asks who would be willing to speak at the final rally, Photisat volunteers, and she also raises her hand when it comes to the task of informing the local newspaper of their plans and printing the announcement posters. Contrary to before, Photisat seems comfortable and at ease in this setting. Having a goal seems to give her strength. And she’s not the only one with a new mission.

Arild Olsen, Longyearbyen’s local chairman, has also become an avid proponent of climate protection. Sitting on the couch of his spacious office, he says: “We’re experiencing climate change up close and we have enough money. It’s our duty to do something about global warming.”

Olsen is not the kind of person one might expect to be a climate activist. Longyearbyen is traditionally a mining town, and before Olsen turned to politics, he made his living as the head of the local miners’ union. But when, as a politician, he first experienced how climate changed claimed its first victims, he set himself an ambitious goal: Olsen wants to reduce his town’s carbon dioxide emissions to net zero within 10 years.

Currently, Longyearbyen’s residents produce some of the highest per-capita CO2 emissions in all of Europe, with their electricity being generated by a coal-fired power plant. Olsen’s plan is to use wind and solar energy to produce hydrogen, which could be stored and help alleviate the island’s dependence on coal. The biggest challenge is that the sun only shines in the summer here, meaning that in winter, wind power will have to suffice.

It won’t be easy, abut if they are successful, it would be a powerful sign from ground zero of climate change to the rest of the world. And Olsen is positive that he can do it.



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