- Title: A climate-change frontier in the world's northernmost town
- Date: 2nd September 2019
- Summary: (SOUNDBITE) (Polish) FATHER OF POLISH GEOLOGIST WHO DIED, WIESLAW SAWICKI, SAYING: "My son fell in love in this place (Spitsbergen). He came here on a mission at Polish polar station with Polish Academy of Sciences. He was here five times. First time in 2001, then four times more, and the last time he came here was June last year."
- Embargoed: 16th September 2019 21:58
- Keywords: Longyearbyen Most Northern Town Crisis Svalbard Sea Ice Climate Summit Spitsbergen Climate change 10C Husky
- Location: WAHLENBERGBREEN AND LONGYEARBYEN, SVALBARD
- City: WAHLENBERGBREEN AND LONGYEARBYEN, SVALBARD
- Country: Svalbard
- Topics: Environment,Editors' Choice,Climate Politics
- Reuters ID: LVA005AUZVCJR
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: EDITORS PLEASE NOTE: EDIT 0846-CLIMATE-CHANGE/SVALBARD-GRAVEYARD CONTAINS MORE VIDEO ON THE GRAVEYARD STORY WHICH CAN ACCOMPANY THIS EDIT
Icebergs float like doomed islands, as a small boat makes its way through a fjord filled with the slush of a melting glacier.
Occasionally, the bottom of one of the icebergs is dissolved by warming waters, leaving it top-heavy and plunging into a somersault. One of the last playful acts before its eventual death.
For the Wahlenberg glacier above the fjord, calving is a natural process, sheering off chunks from the main ice shelf into the water.
But it is now happening at an increasing rate because of the rising temperatures in ocean waters, says Kim Holmen, the international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute.
Holmen, wearing a woollen hat with a hot-pink pom-pom against the chill of an Arctic summer day, has lived in the northern Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard for three decades. He describes the changes he's seen as "profound, large and rapid."
"We are losing the Svalbard we know. We are losing the arctic as we know it because of climate change," he says amid the constant crackle and trickle of the ice dissolving. "This is a forewarning of all the hardship and problems that will spread around the planet."
Since 1970, average annual temperatures have risen by 4 degrees Celsius in Svalbard, with winter temperatures rising more than 7 degrees, according to a report released by the Norwegian Centre for Climate Services in February.
The "Climate in Svalbard 2100" report also warns that the annual mean air temperature in Svalbard is projected to increase by 7 to 10 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.
Furthermore, since 1979, the Arctic sea ice extent has declined by nearly 12% per decade, with the most pronounced winter reduction in the Svalbard and Barents Sea area.
That is not good news for Svalbard's main town, Longyearbyen. With a population of just over 2,000 people, it is the northernmost town in the world.
It is also the fastest-warming place on the planet.
Rows of simple white wooden crosses cling to a hillside over Longyearbyen, a sparse cemetery that appears vulnerable even under the warm cloak of August sunshine.
Ivar Smedsroed is the summer vicar at Svalbard Church, a red wooden building with white trim and a weathervane-topped bell tower. Inside the Lutheran house of worship, which claims to be the world's northernmost church, stained glass windows add a touch of pastel hue to the snow-topped mountains nearby.
The pastor has only been here for the summer, but in that short time he has already learned of people's fears about the effects of a rapidly changing climate.
One such effect is taking place beneath his feet at the graveyard, which he calls "a place of memories, a place of remembrance."
"As the permafrost thaws, things that are in the ground tend to be pulled up," Smedsroed says matter-of-factly as he sits on the ground near the graves.
"That is happening more or less all of the time, so we might see that the graves literally come up, the coffins."
There has been talk of relocating the graveyard after a landslide missed wiping it out by mere meters in October 2016. Nearly three years later, slabs of rock have formed a slash in the landscape just beyond the graves.
"Because of climate change and the difference that makes to the soil and the ground, some of the graves that we see behind us might end up actually sliding into the road," says Smedsroed, whose gray hair matches the woolen sweater beneath his white collar.
"Or the next thing that we could see is that they might all be covered in the next big landslide coming down the hill."
Thawing permafrost isn't just a problem for the dead: It has also caused problems for those living in Longyearbyen.
Houses in the valley are built on small wooden stilts instead of deep foundations, and are no match for the softening of the ground which can lead to collapses, landslides and avalanches.
On December 19, 2015, an avalanche killed a man and a child in their homes.
"It was the middle of the night, and nobody knew what was coming," Longyearbyen resident Anna Boegh says near the site where the houses once stood.
"This was thought to be an incredibly uncommon event, but two years after, in 2017, there was another avalanche," says her partner, Erik Holmund.
No one died in that avalanche, but several houses were swept away.
Erosion also threatens homes here. Three years ago, as winter approached, 13 meters of coastline fell away overnight, leaving Christiane Huebner's cabin perilously close to the fjord.
Huebner, her family of three and their husky dogs, abandoned the home.
"It was a wake-up call since it happened very quickly," she says. They returned the following spring and had to relocate the cabin 80 meters from the shore.
Many have fallen in love with Svalbard's stunning natural wonders, but the grounds beneath it have proven deadly for some who tried to get too close.
Wieslaw Sawicki's son Michal worked as a geophysicist at the Polish Polar Research Station in Hornsund on the southern side of Svalbard. The Polish scientist, along with meteorologist Anna GÃ³rska, died when they fell from a mountain in May.
Michal, 44, was an experienced mountaineer, scientist and explorer on his fifth stint for the institute in the Arctic. Founded in 1957, it conducts year-round research and is the northernmost permanent Polish scientific institution.
"Unfortunately, there was a huge snow cornice which looked like it was part of the peak of the mountain," says the elder Sawicki, who is visiting Longyearbyen to meet with the governor of the archipelago.
"It collapsed with them; they both fell into the abyss."
In his letters to home, Michal would talk about the "untouched" beauty of Svalbard.
"He would interestingly describe the changes that were happening here, how the glaciers were melting, how during each stay you could see the temperature rising and how the natural environment was changing," Sawicki said, holding back tears.
The spectre of climate change looms large over Audun Salte's dog farm. The Norwegian owns Svalbard Husky with his wife, Mia.
During the summer, with no snow on the ground, the dogs pull sleds along the bumpy gravel road on wheels, rattling past the few cars on the island.
But Salte worries that as temperatures rise, climate change could lead to the extinction of all life on earth. As someone who likes kissing and dancing with his dogs - he has 110 of them - he's most concerned about the nonhumans on the planet.
"If climate change should be the end of humanity, I really don't care, but if climate change is the end of any animal species who hasn't contributed anything towards the speeding up of this process, that's why I am reacting," he says. "It's just unfair to anyone that doesn't have a say in what is happening."
Salte compares climate change to a car crash that we can't help staring at, feeling lucky that we are not the victim.
"On the highway, when people slow down to look at a car crash, climate change is like that because everyone is slowing down to look at the accident but not realizing that we are actually the car crash."
(Production: Alex Fraser)
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