Svalbard: the Arctic islands where we can see the future of global heating
Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago that lies deep inside the Arctic Circle, is on the frontline of global heating. This remote, largely barren cluster of rock, glacial ice and snow is experiencing observable, unsettling climate-induced transformation.
Studies suggest Svalbard is warming six times faster than the global average, with some researchers predicting that, by 2100, its glaciers will be losing ice at double the current rate, regardless of whether global climate targets are hit.
“The climate on Svalbard is altering dramatically,” says Andrea Spolaor, who studies environmental chemistry at the Italian National Research Council. “This is a worrying situation for the archipelago, but at the same time provides a case study for understanding the effects on the environment. To understand change one must measure it, and Svalbard is, unfortunately, a good example.”
For scientists and researchers, there is no shortage of perturbing phenomena to assess: retreating glaciers, decreased snow cover, extreme precipitation, disappearing sea ice, avalanches, imperilled flora and fauna. No part of Svalbard, it seems, is immune to its climate predicament.
“The thawing permafrost and the landslides in Longyearbyen [Svalbard’s largest town] are very obvious signs of change,” notes Lars Smedsrud, a professor of polar oceanography at the University of Bergen. “It [global heating] will hit the local ecosystems hard. With the current warming and ongoing emissions of CO2, Svalbard and the rest of the Arctic will continue to warm.”
Svalbard is strongly affected by Arctic amplification, a feedback mechanism where sea-ice retreat and atmospheric warming make each other worse. This is, in part, why Svalbard is seeing such alarming change, and is why its glaciers – which represent 6% of the planet’s glaciated area outside Greenland and Antarctica – are swiftly melting away.
“Glacier retreat after atmospheric warming is not instantaneous, but happens with a delay of years or decades depending on the size of a glacier,” says Ward van Pelt, an associate professor at Uppsala University in Sweden who focuses on changing climate conditions in the Arctic. “The strong glacier retreat observed in Svalbard today is the result of past climate change. Warming has accelerated further in recent years, and will continue to do so in the coming decades, which is bad news. The future for glaciers in Svalbard does not look bright.”
Many of Svalbard’s glaciers are at relatively low elevations, meaning they are more sensitive to warming. What’s more, Van Pelt’s predictions suggest that the loss of sea ice, and the resulting increased evaporation of seawater, will result in increased levels of precipitation, which will probably fall as rain rather than snow. Snow cover acts as a barrier, and plays a role in minimising glacial melt, but it is now falling with less regularity.
“Some of the additional rainwater may refreeze in snow, but this buffering capacity will vanish when permanent snow areas disappear. Furthermore, shrinking snow areas cause even more glacier melt. Our modelling results suggest that, even in the case of a relatively low emission scenario, glacier mass loss will strongly accelerate in the coming decades.”
Svalbard is, according to researchers at the University of Gdańsk’s Institute of Oceanography, also experiencing a severe “fast ice” decline, with its coastal areas losing about 40 square miles (c 100 sq km) a year in the past four decades. Fast sea ice anchors to shores or ocean bottoms, and gathers in fjords, around islands, and in shallow coastal waters. As well as acting as a barrier against erosion, this ice has, for thousands of years, been a cornerstone of healthy Arctic ecosystems.
“The links between life in the sea and on land are particularly close in the Arctic,” says Maria Dance, a guest PhD student at the University Centre in Svalbard. “Nutrients and energy flow from the sea to land through sea birds fertilising the tundra below their nesting cliffs. Foxes and polar bears move over land and the sea ice. Reindeer use sea ice to move between Svalbard’s islands. Without it you have a fundamentally different marine ecosystem, where everything from plankton to fish, seals to sea birds are impacted. But life on land is also affected.”
The effects of vanishing sea ice can also be seen below the water, according to Kim Last, a marine biologist at the Scottish Association for Marine Science. “The waters around Svalbard are becoming more akin to conditions at lower latitudes. With this we see a reduction in fauna such as polar cod, but an influx of more southern species such as the blue mussel and some types of jellyfish previously unknown this far north. As with all change, there will be winners and losers. Svalbard will probably be free from all sea ice in 50 years’ time. All the organisms that rely on the ice will either migrate, adapt or go extinct.”
The loss of sea ice in the Arctic is liable to be detrimental to numerous species – and potentially beneficial to others – but one creature could well find itself hit harder in the long run than any other: the polar bear.
“Svalbard is an interesting area for polar bears and climate change,” says Andrew Derocher, a leading polar bear researcher and professor at the University of Alberta. “We’re not seeing major changes in the population yet, but there are good reasons for this.”
Derocher says that the effects of global heating are currently “somewhat mediated” in Svalbard by the interaction between sea-ice loss and the loss of ice over the continental shelf. Because the shelf habitats have higher biological productivity, and are therefore ripe hunting grounds, the loss of sea ice – a hub for ringed seals, the bears’ primary food source – has yet to hit these particular populations hard. But, Derocher says, this is a temporary situation.
“The major concern for Svalbard’s polar bears is that sea-ice loss is happening at a faster rate than for other polar bear populations. It’s just a matter of time. We can expect to see the same impacts as have been noted in other areas: changes in sea ice, a drop in the body condition of polar bears, lower reproductive rates, lower survival for young and old bears, and, eventually, a decline in abundance. Much of my study area in Svalbard when I worked for the Norwegian Polar Institute is no longer polar bear habitat: there’s just not enough ice left,” Derocher adds.
A Canadian government report released in 2022 revealed that, between 2016 and 2021, the polar bear population in western Hudson Bay dropped by 27%, a fall largely attributed to the loss of sea ice. What’s more, a 2021 study published by the Royal Society found that, with less sea ice being formed each year, many polar bear populations were becoming increasingly fragmented. The result was less mating between different groups and, consequently, an increased likelihood of inbreeding, which could hamper the bears’ ability to successfully adapt to the changing environment.
Derocher adds that another issue for Svalbard’s polar bears will be one of habitat loss. “We have lost some areas that were major maternity denning habitats: they’re no longer accessible in the autumn when pregnant females are seeking places to den. While they can shift to other areas, it’s an erosion of habitat that is ongoing.”
Derocher also says that this loss of habitat is altering polar bear feeding habits. “Eggs, birds and reindeer have been a part of the polar bear diet for a long time, but we’re now seeing more of these eating behaviours. It’s challenging to be optimistic about polar bears anywhere, and particularly so in Svalbard. I very much doubt they will persist long in that part of the Arctic. I wouldn’t be surprised if the polar bear abundance in Svalbard drops suddenly in the coming years.”
Spolaor says: “The climate [on Earth] has changed in the past and nature has always adapted, but the difference with the period we are currently experiencing is that the speed of change is much faster. It is difficult to say how nature will react.”
Paul Wassmann, an environmental biology professor based at the Arctic University of Norway, agrees. “The challenge is the rapidness of change. Some mammals will increase, some decline. Arctic species will hide in pockets and recolonise Svalbard when the climate gets colder. The archipelago is changing, not dying.”
Life is, and long has been, resilient. Our planet has experienced periods of temperature fluctuation for millions of years, and the hardiest, most adaptable life always clings on. However, this fact is unlikely to be reassuring for those species seeing their environment deteriorate and melt away year after year. The future of Svalbard, nearly all research suggests, will be one of warmer weather, less sea ice, fewer polar bears and more rain. There will, of course, be species that emerge stronger, that will flourish in the warmer climate, but many of Svalbard’s current residents will be handed a simple ultimatum: adapt or perish.
“Across the Arctic, we’re finding that plants are ‘greening up’ earlier in spring, and tundra vegetation is taking advantage of the warmer summers by expanding to cover the once bare ground,” says Isla Myers-Smith, chair of climate change ecology at Edinburgh University. “Certain species, such as shrubs, grasses and sedges, are becoming more common, and as a result the biodiversity of plant life is shifting. Shrubs are growing more in warmer summers, an indication that they are a ‘winning’ species.
“Tundra ecosystems are carefully adapted to the cold, so warming and associated climate events such as icing can upset the balance of life, with repercussions across Arctic food webs.”
Naturally, winners cannot exist with losers, and Myers-Smith believes Svalbard’s immediate future will be one of dramatic, unprecedented upheaval.
“Tough times lie ahead for the planet, and in the Arctic rapid and accelerating warming is now locked in. “We are just beginning to see the types of changes that will play out with Arctic climate change in future. Because Svalbard is warming more than anywhere else in the Arctic, it could be a sentinel of change for what’s to come for the Arctic as a whole.
“I feel a strong sense that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of the changes that are coming for these ecosystems.”