Svalbard from the air, by Irene Quaile.

Changing Arctic, Changing World

Authored by Irene Quaile

A white desert of snow-covered peaks, startlingly blue skies, face-tingling ice crystals in the crisp cold air,– when I first flew into Svalbard on a reporting mission in the spring of 2007, the beauty of the high northern landscape fulfilled all my expectations of the cold, remote region of my imagination.

I had been covering climate change since the 1990s, when it was anything but a mainstream topic, either of conversation or media interest. Now the International Polar Year had brought me to the place most people would at that time still have assumed one of the last to be bothered by “global warming”.

Creatures of (cold) habit

As I walked through the research village of Ny Alesund, the world’s northernmost year-round research station, I glimpsed a black, grey and white creature with a brushy, bushy tail, darting out from beneath a blue wooden hut. This was my first Arctic fox, coat changing with the end of winter.

A bigger, solid creature with stubby antlers wandered along the “main” road of the base. Svalbard reindeer are unlike any of the wispy, skinny-legged dancers and prancers that pull Santa Claus’s sleigh.

“Beyond this point, you have to be accompanied by someone with a rifle, for safety”, the station chief told me as we reached the outskirts of the research village. Polar bears are at home there, elusive white giants, to be treated with respect – and distance.

The birds swooping and screeching were more familiar to me, as they turn up all over the world. Arctic terns migrate huge distances, between the Antarctic and the Arctic. These ones had come to Ny Alesund to breed, and swooped around in search of prime nesting spots, diving at my head when I inadvertently came too close to a chosen site. This is their summer habitat – and climate change is diminishing it. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature—these birds are projected to lose 20 to 50 percent of their habitat due to the temperature changes.

A hardy breed: Arctic scientists

Every spring, scientists from all over the world migrate, like the terns, to this temporary “summer habitat”. They study the air, the ocean, the snow, the ice, the land that lies below – and all the life forms that live in the cold. And everywhere, things were – are – changing. The cold, white Arctic is not immune to climate change. On the contrary. The scientists I was seeking out were trying to find out how our human behaviour – in areas far remote from the Arctic – was steadily – and no longer slowly – disturbing the peace of nature and threatening the unique qualities that define the Arctic as we have known it.

On Zeppelin Mountain, a hill above Ny Alesund, is the Zeppelin Observatory, which monitors greenhouse gases and aerosols. The location was chosen because of its remoteness, far away from substantial contamination sources, to monitor the atmosphere with as little local intervention as possible. It is part of a network around the globe. Perhaps the most famous is Mauna Loa in Hawaii, which, in 2021 recorded an unprecedented CO2 concentration of 421 ppm.

Since the mid-1980s, the Arctic has warmed at least twice as fast as the global average. The sea ice extent has been diminishing steadily. Last year saw record temperatures across the region, including the highest known temperature ever recorded anywhere north of the Arctic Circle, at 38.0°C. In the Siberian Arctic, temperatures more than 5 °C above average fuelled the most active wildfire season in an 18-year long data record. The Laptev Sea, on the margin of the Arctic Ocean, experienced a marine heatwave lasting from June to October.  The annual Arctic Report Card published by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for 2020 documented “the sustained transformation to a warmer, less frozen and biologically changed Arctic”.

The Arctic: a global concern

It has become ever clearer how and to what a huge extent these changes are not only of local significance but influence the global climate. The decreasing extent of sea ice and snow cover along with the melting Greenland ice sheet lead to an acceleration in the rate of warming of surface air temperatures in the Arctic. The loss of the reflective white surfaces of snow and ice leads to more heat absorption, more melting and more warming. Land ice melting into the ocean is contributing to global sea level rise and the resulting changes in salinity are changing ocean circulation patterns which, in turn, influence our climate and global weather patterns. The past year has seen widespread public interest in studies related to a possible collapse of the Gulf Stream, the effects of changes to the jetstream and the release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost.

I have been back to Svalbard several times since my first trip, visited Arctic Alaska and Greenland, making radio features, talking to locals and scientists, writing articles, taking photos, creating and developing the Ice Blog. I am fascinated by the fragile beauty of the unique ecosystem, the animals and plants that thrive in the cold – and the people who live there. And I am deeply disturbed by the extent to which our behaviour has warmed and goes on warming the planet, endangering these icy regions.

Life-changing warming

For creatures who live in the Arctic permanently or on a seasonal basis, the changes can be existential. Polar bears tend to get most attention. They are losing the sea ice on which they depend to hunt and eat. Species like the Arctic fox are under pressure as their non-Arctic relatives move north with warming temperatures. Fish stocks are moving north. Cold-loving creatures are finding their range becoming ever-more limited. Migratory birds, arriving to breed, find their arrival times no longer match the availability of food supplies. At Zackenberg station, in north-eastern Greenland, I walked with researchers monitoring the nests of Arctic skuas. That year there were hardly any, because changes in the snowfall pattern had reduced the numbers of lemmings, the key prey for the impressive birds. Everything is connected – and many of the changes are happening too fast for the natural world to adapt.

At home in the cold

The Arctic is also permanently home to around four million people, around 10% of them Indigenous. In Barrow, Alaska, Inupiat residents told me how the traditional subsistence whale hunt had become increasingly dangerous, with the sea ice less stable, less predictable, sometimes completely absent at times and in places where they had relied on it for generations. Whole settlements have to be abandoned, as coastal erosion increases because the protective barrier provided by regular sea ice wanes and wave heights increase. Back in 2008, archaeologist Anne Jensen told me how people would call her up during the night to rescue the remains of their ancestors from being washed into the sea. This year, I saw advertisements for full-time “climate archaeologists” to help save history and heritage in the region before it disappears into the ocean.

Across the Arctic, the ice which often forms the only transport route for much of the year is becoming unreliable.

In Greenland, I saw buildings whose foundations were being artificially cooled to keep them steady. The main airport will have to close because the permafrost beneath the runway is thawing.

Across Siberia, housing, workplaces, pipelines are perched precariously on sagging ground.

The not-so-frozen North

In 2010 I was fortunate enough to visit the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, opened in 2008, as a “last bastion”, below the permafrost, preserving essential seeds where they would be safe from any form of catastrophe to hit the planet – including changes to the climate. But even that thick permafrost is not immune to our human interference with the temperature. When I visited, just two years after it opened, repairs to the entrance area were in progress. In 2017, the entrance hall was flooded, as permafrost thawed.

The Northern sea routes are attracting increasing interest and traffic. Last year the captain of a new Russian ice-breaker had to break off tests close to the North Pole – because there was no ice thick enough to smash.

This year I have spoken to Sami reindeer-herders, struggling to adapt to the changing climate – and at the same time to cope with the influx of people and technology that is coming as the region and its coveted resources become more easily accessible, and the “green energy revolution” brings mining and turbines to reindeer migration and breeding sites, endangering the livelihood of locals.

The message hits home

There is an increasing – long overdue – sense of urgency about the need to put the brakes on climate change. US President Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate brought some new announcements of pledges and targets. The Climate Action Tracker, (CAT) an independent scientific analysis produced by two research organisations tracking climate action since 2009, says those announcements together with others announced since September 2020 have lowered their estimate of warming by 0.2°C. But that still means the planet would warm by an estimated 2.4°C by the end of the century – way beyond the limit of “well below 2°C and preferably 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”, set in the Paris Agreement.

Current global warming is already at 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels. In the run-up to the UN climate conference in Glasgow in November, countries have to up their ambitions. There is an increasing awareness that “net zero” targets, so far adopted or under consideration by 131 countries covering 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions, are not the most important issue at the moment. “It is the updated 2030 NDC (nationally determined contributions submitted to the UNFCC) …that contribute the most to the drop in projected warming compared to our last estimate, highlighting the importance of stronger near-term targets”, says CAT in its May 2021 analysis. Earlier dates for reductions lower cumulative emissions, bringing us closer to the long-term goals.

The crunch comes when governments have to adopt policies to actually meet their targets. CAT estimates that with currently implemented policies, we would get to a 2.9°C temperature rise by the end of the century.

The right to climate action

In Germany, where I live, the country’s highest court, the Federal Constitutional Court, has issued a game-changing verdict in a case initiated by campaigners supported by groups including Fridays for Future and Greenpeace. The plaintiffs argued the government was failing to act on climate change. The court agreed that several provisions in the country’s Federal Climate Change Act of 2019 to reduce emissions by at least 55% by 2030 were insufficient, and violated freedoms in the Basic Law. The court also ruled that the law fails to create emissions reduction responsibilities after 2030.

According to the court, “one generation must not be allowed to consume large portions of the CO2 budget while bearing a relatively minor share of the reduction effort if this would involve leaving subsequent generations with a drastic reduction burden and expose their lives to comprehensive losses of freedom.”

The court obliges the government to “enact provisions by 31 December 2022 that specify in greater detail how the reduction targets for greenhouse gas emissions are to be adjusted for periods after 2020.” This is a major development.

The German government rushed to respond by preparing changes in the law, in the run-up to a September general election, where climate issues are high on the agenda and the country’s Green Party is challenging to become the strongest party.

The Netherlands High Court issued a similar verdict in 2019.

It’s not too late

So what does all this mean for the icy north of the planet?

In its “Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate“, published in 2019, the IPCC stresses how keeping to a lower emissions pathway would make key differences to the extent of impacts on the cryosphere:

“In a high emissions scenario, many ocean- and cryosphere-dependent communities are projected to face adaptation limits (e.g. biophysical, geographical, financial, technical, social, political and institutional) during the second half of the 21st century.

Low emission pathways, for comparison, limit the risks from ocean and cryosphere changes in this century and beyond and enable more effective responses … whilst also creating co-benefits.”

We cannot turn back the clock. But the faster we reduce our emissions and reach carbon neutrality, the less damage there will be to the icy north of the planet.

The IPCC concludes by highlighting “the urgency of prioritising timely, ambitious, coordinated and enduring action.”

Climate scientist Tamsin Edwards wrote a piece in the Guardian on May 6 2021 after the publication of research she carried out with colleagues “to provide a coherent picture of the future of the world’s land ice”.

“We can’t stop rising sea levels, but we still have a chance to slow them down”, is the headline.

The scientists conclude that limiting global warming to 1.5°C could slow down the melting of ice.

“Many of my co-authors work in the cold, often punishing environments of glaciers and ice sheets. We always had in mind the real-world implications – the irreversible loss of these unique landscapes, and the impacts on those who live at the coasts,” Edwards writes.

Ice will melt. Sea levels will rise. “How much, though, is still up to us,” Edwards concludes.

The growing interest in environmental and climate issues gives reason for hope.

We have never seen the degree of awareness around environmental matters similar to what we’re seeing now,”  was what UNEP chief Inger Andersen said to me in an interview not long after she was appointed in 2019. She also stressed “the solutions are there”.

We have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move very rapidly towards a carbon-neutral world to protect the nature we are a part of and keep the planet liveable for future generations.

Time is running short. But we still have a choice. The future of the Arctic – and the planet – will be what we make it.

Irene Quaile
Scots-born journalist Dr. Irene Quaile holds the following degrees First Class Hons MA and Ph.D from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She has been specialising on the Arctic since 2007, when she made her first visit to Svalbard as part of an international media project for the International Polar Year and found herself “hooked” on the icy north. She was environment and climate change correspondent for Germany’s international broadcaster until November 2019.

Irene has traveled to the Arctic regions of Scandinavia, Alaska and Greenland, making radio and online features on climate change and its impact on ecosystems and people, and on the inter-links between the Arctic and the global climate. Irene has received several international awards, including environment gold awards from the New York International Radio Festivals and the United Nations. During a trip to the Alaskan Arctic in 2008, she created The Ice Blog.