The race to save the fastest-warming place on Earth


Deep inside the Arctic Circle, the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is home to the world’s northernmost permanent settlement, Longyearbyen, which is estimated to be heating at six times the global average. So what is being done to save it?

Svalbard’s church is a blood-red wooden building with bright white trim – the most northerly place of worship in the world.

Its priest, Siv Limstrand, has been here for only three years but is shocked by the impact of climate change she has witnessed in that time.

“Every Sunday when we gather for worship, a part of our intercessions is always about climate change and its threats,” explains Limstrand. “We know that the clock is ticking.”

Life on Svalbard feels about as precarious as it gets in a place that is not at war or riven with famine.

You need a gun whenever you venture from the main road of Longyearbyen, the capital of this Norwegian archipelago, because of the risk of encountering polar bears.

Diminishing ice has reduced their hunting ground which means it is harder for them to find seals. So more bears are exploring built-up areas in search of food and are now eating reindeer – not their usual prey.

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  • Listen to the documentary Svarlbard’s climate change fight on BBC Sounds
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And with the rising temperature causing an unprecedented thawing of frozen ground, the growing risk of avalanche hangs over this Arctic community in winter. In summer, mudslides are more likely than ever to wipe out everything in their path.

You feel on borrowed time here in what successive scientific studies have found is the fastest-warming place on Earth.

Experts from the Norwegian Polar Institute are among those who calculate it is heating six times faster than the global average.

The consensus is that the temperature in Svalbard has jumped 4C in the past 50 years.

Wildlife and human life are now in a struggle to survive. This is why Limstrand’s congregation is praying for help.

To show us the impact of man-made climate change, she leads us down to the church’s cemetery.

Rows of white wooden crosses appear to almost cling to the side of a mountain, surrounded only by a few reindeer and the muted colours of summer tundra plants.

To the left and to the right of the cemetery are tunnel-like ditches in the ground, which curve up into the steep mountain behind. These ditches are the remnants of a landslide that could have washed the entire cemetery into the river below. It missed by a matter of metres.

“When I look at it, it’s like a wound,” sighs Limstrand, “and it reminds me somehow of our wounded planet.”

Now the risk of landslides or avalanches has hugely increased, and the cemetery is to be relocated. As Limstrand tells us: “This is no longer a safe place for the living or the dead.”

Scanning for wildlife through her binoculars, Arctic explorer Hilde Fålun Strøm lets out an excited gasp. She has spotted three polar bears, dozing together on the edge of a pavlova-shaped glacier.

Fålun Strøm has taken us out on an overnight expedition aboard her boat to show us the impact climate change is having on nature in Svalbard.

“To survive as a polar bear now, I think you have to be super good at hunting because the main source of food, the seals, are diminishing,” she explains. “And the ice that both the seals and the bears are dependent on is also diminishing.”

Since the 1980s, the amount of summer sea ice has halved and some scientists fear it will be gone altogether by 2035.

This – combined with an avalanche that hit Longyearbyen in 2015 – focused her mind.

“The avalanche claimed the lives of two people. They were Svalbard’s first deaths from climate change,” she says.

“We no longer felt safe in our own homes,” she says. “The power of nature which I had always loved seemed to now be totally out of control.”

For Fålun Strøm, it was a turning point in her life.

She left behind her day job in tourism and set up a project called Hearts in the Ice, alongside fellow explorer, Canadian Sunniva Sorby. For two years they lived alone and off-grid in the most remote Arctic wilderness, spending their time working as “citizen scientists”.

“I had this climate anxiety and I just wanted to become actively engaged in the solutions,” says Fålun Strøm. “I still think there’s time to save something.”

Few understand the archipelago better than Kim Holmén, a special advisor at the Norwegian Polar Institute who has been studying Svalbard for more than 40 years.

Incredibly tall, with a long, wispy white beard, sporting a bright red coat and trademark pink bobble hat, he leads us through a mess of rocks and brown mud on the way to what is the foot of the Longyear glacier.

Today he is our polar bear guard as well as scientific eyes and ears. He also carries a gun, although this is a standard accessory in Svalbard.

Holmén points to the top of the hillside which he says marks the level of the glacier 100 years ago.

In that time, he estimates 100m (328ft) of elevation has been lost. The melted ice has raised sea levels across the world.

“We have already committed the planet to further warming,” he says. “So we expect 20 years of further warming even if we, by magic, stopped every emission today.”

The fate of this place is inextricably linked to that of the world as a whole.

Despite its extremity, Svalbard is a geopolitical hotspot. And even here, the war in Ukraine is having an effect. The conflict has now halted cooperation between climate scientists in Russia and in the West, Holmén says.

“One of the consequences is that the official exchange with Russian institutions is not possible at this time. And of course, half of the Arctic is Russian coastline.”

Already, this has weakened the fight against climate change, Holmén believes.

“If we are unable to share knowledge and data in both directions it will hamper our ability to understand what is happening,” he says. “We need each other in order to do good science.”

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Meanwhile, 8km (five miles) into Svalbard’s mountainside, a bead of sweat trickling down Bent Jakobsen’s blackened face is illuminated by the light of a helmet.

BBC news