LONGYEARBYEN, Svalbard — Unseasonal winter rain had seeped along the floor of the ice cave, freezing the last incline. That had made slipping to the bottom easy enough, but finding a way out was now a problem. Ten miles outside the northernmost town on the planet, six travelers were trapped at the back of an ice cave.
The solution required cooperation. One man sat down to brace his back and feet against opposite sides of the tunnel, while others used him as a platform from which to push their guide, Marcel Starinsky, upward. He managed to pull himself the rest of the way along the slope, under a roof recently opened by rain. After reaching the top, he hauled the rest of the travelers up, one by one, into the polar darkness that blankets the region up to 24 hours a day in winter.
Such rain and ice cave collapses are not the only recent anomalies on Svalbard, an archipelago halfway between Norway’s mainland and the North Pole. Average January temperatures have been at least nine degrees above normal for the past six years. In late 2015, an avalanche reached homes in Longyearbyen, killing two people. A second avalanche damaged houses in 2017.
Climate change by some measures is happening two to four times as quickly in the far north as it is in lower latitudes. And the western side of the Svalbard archipelago is warming more quickly than the Arctic as a whole. The international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, Kim Holmen, who lives in Longyearbyen, says of climate change here, “This town is certainly the place where it’s happening first and fastest and even the most.”
Holmen notes that Svalbard used to be where students came to observe Arctic conditions. Now it is the place they come to study a climate in transition.
Longyearbyen, population 2,160, has an airport, a library, a coffee shop and the church closest to the North Pole. The ways it is learning to cope may provide lessons about what climate change means, the possibilities and limits of technology, and the ways both are bound up with the transformation of the planet.
And then there are Svalbard’s polar bears, legendary since at least since 1596. In the first recorded sighting of the islands, Dutch navigator William Barents’s men spent hours trying to kill a single bear.
“One of our men stroke her in the backe with an axe, which stuck fast . . . and yet she swomme away with it,” wrote an officer on the ship, immortalizing the creatures in literature as fierce, fearless beasts.
Searching for a northeasterly passage from Europe to China, Barents called the first island he discovered Bear Island and the second one Spitsbergen (the name means “pointed mountains”), then sailed on. There was no indigenous population, but Dutch whalers were soon fishing in the region, and trappers came to hunt on land as well. By the mid-1800s, scientific expeditions made their way to the islands. Before the end of the 19th century, organized tourism was underway.
In 1901, American industrial magnate John Munro Longyear headed to Svalbard as a tourist, returning later with excavating equipment, dynamite and dozens of miners. In 1906, the workers overwintered, and a company town — Longyear City, or Longyearbyen — was born.
“There’s this incredible difficulty of going to a place that’s not really suited for human habitation. You have to bring your environment with you,” says University of Hartford historian Michael Robinson. “Svalbard becomes almost a contact zone between the possible and the impossible.”
After World War I, Svalbard was placed under Norwegian sovereignty through an international treaty. Still in place today, the Svalbard Treaty guarantees nationals of all its signatories access and the right to conduct “maritime, industrial, mining, or commercial enterprises” on the archipelago.
Everyone comes to Longyearbyen to scry the future. Ban Ki-Moon, Ted Turner, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Martha Stewart and Google’s Larry Page have all visited.
About 65,000 visitors disembarked from ships or planes at Longyearbyen in 2017 — to conduct research, play with sled dogs or take a tour to see polar bears, whose population rebounded after gaining protection in 1973.
Intrepid travelers with some time to spare can go on multi-day dog sled expeditions to the interior, where signs of climate change are dramatic. Sections of rocky ground are bare, and rains scrape away what little snow remains in other spots, creating icy cover in low-lying ground. Asked what visitors will do when there is even less snow and winter here becomes more like winter in northern Europe, Green Dog Svalbard guide Starinsky notes that the huskies can also run on roads, pulling carts with wheels and hand brakes.
Arild Olsen was a miner here for 12 years and is now two years into his term as Community Council leader. Sitting in his office on the second floor of the bright red government center, Olsen acknowledges that climate change presents challenges. “It moves the fish in the sea and the herds on the mountains. It affects everything,” he says. “So of course it affects us here in Longyearbyen in every way.”
The town, for example, was not designed to handle rainwater running in the streets. Thawing permafrost stretches power lines and threatens to destroy pipelines. Roads designed for freezing temperatures are thawing. Longyearbyen’s buildings were built on permafrost when it was believed the ground would never melt. Mudslides now join avalanches as a threat.
Svalbard is best known for its Global Seed Vault, which houses samples from around the world. The constant cold made the region attractive for the global project, which aims to protect seeds from devastation caused by war or natural disaster.
The vault, which sits two miles from the main street of the town, has already had to deal with the consequences of climate change. At the end of a tunnel stretching deep into the side of a mountain, the seeds sit in an air-conditioned storage area. But permafrost thawing in recent years led to a growing problem with standing water in the entrance tunnel. Construction is underway to add waterproof barriers and other improvements to protect the facility.
Seed vault coordinator Asmund Asdal says the building has become a more potent symbol than its founders ever imagined, with people coming from around the world just to see the exterior.
It has also surpassed original expectations for its first decade: The millionth seed sample entered storage in February. Inside the vault, Asdal observes, “you have Russian seeds and Ukrainian seeds on the same shelves. . . . South Korea and North Korea are quite close.”
Like Longyearbyen itself, the seed vault has roots in the mines. Before the vault’s construction, a Nordic gene bank sat not far away, in an abandoned shaft of Coal Mine No. 3. While that bank has since been removed, some samples remain as part of a 100-year experiment on how long seeds stored in permafrost keep the ability to germinate.
Svalbard is “a hotbed of scientific research,” says Mark Serreze of the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. In May, the Norwegian Polar Institute counted more than more than 600 scientists from 23 countries doing research on and around Svalbard. Their 77 active projects deal with such issues as heavy-metal contamination of soil and the capture of ptarmigan chicks.
Serreze says that in the long term, there will be winners as well as losers. Polar bears are dependent on sea ice, which has been in steep decline in recent years. The maximum extent of Arctic sea ice for 2017 was the second-lowest on record. Serreze identifies the bears as one of the likely losers in climate roulette, but he predicts Russia will be a winner, because of increased use of Arctic shipping routes and expanded production of natural gas. Caribou, he says, will probably face hard times, but as the tundra changes to shrub vegetation, moose may find conditions more appealing.
Olsen realizes that, whatever adversity is coming, Longyearbyen will not have to deal with the tornadoes, severe flooding and forest fires that are likely to increase in lower latitudes. If there are winners and losers in the planet’s ecological turmoil, he says, Norway — including Longyearbyen — might eventually be one of the winners. Though residents are still working to adapt to their new reality, he thinks the town has gotten a head start in dealing with its challenges: “What we are seeing is the fact that we can cope with it.” He notes the increasing importance of Norwegian fisheries in the region, where commercial species have already become more abundant.
Kit Kovacs, research section leader for biodiversity at the Norwegian Polar Institute, focuses more on a litany of challenges for Svalbard’s nonhuman species, such as the ringed seals that have been forced to molt in open water instead of on sea ice. Yet, like Olsen, she reveals a streak of optimism. There are still things we can do to mitigate the larger crisis, she points out, such as reducing carbon emissions and carefully managing Arctic marine mammal populations. “The future is pretty bleak. But if we don’t start making changes, it’s going to be even worse.”
In early 2018, despite a handful of cold days, Svalbard was trapped in a bubble of extreme heat, with temperatures more than 20 degrees above normal in one 30-day period. On Jan. 13, in the dead of the usually frigid Arctic winter, the temperature reached 43 degrees.
A collapsing roof, a slippery slope and the promise of collaboration. Svalbard’s present, in which these consequences of climate change are apparent, is a window onto the future. In the northernmost town on Earth, and around the globe, it comes down to what is still possible and what people are willing to do.