Icebergs float like doomed islands past the small boat as it makes its way through a fjord filled with the slush of a melting glacier. Occasionally, as the warming waters dissolve the bottom of one of the icebergs, it becomes top-heavy and does a somersault, as if it were playing instead of dying.
The Wahlenberg glacier above the fjord naturally calves, sheering off the icebergs into the water. But here it is happening at an increasing rate because of the warming ocean waters, says Kim Holmen, the international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute.
Holmen, 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 4C 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 7-10C by the end of this century.
That’s not good news for Svalbard’s main town, Longyearbyen. With a population of slightly more than 2,000 people, it is the northernmost town on the planet. It is also the fastest-warming.
Erosion also threatens homes here. Three years ago, as winter approached, 13 meters of coastline fell away overnight.
The spectre of climate change looms large over Audun Salte’s dog farm. The Norwegian owns Svalbard Husky with his wife, Mia. Salte worries that as temperatures warm, climate change could lead to the extinction of all life on Earth. A man who likes kissing and dancing with his dogs – he has 110 of them – he’s concerned most about the non-humans 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.
He compares climate change to an accident that we can’t help staring at, feeling lucky we weren’t 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 realising that we are actually the car crash.”
Reporting by Alex Fraser, Reuters
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