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The melting of the sea ice in the Far North has accelerated in recent years. The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has become the focal point of the environmental drama gripping the Arctic as well as the geopolitical tensions it is causing there, with Russia in particular.
LONGYEARBYEN — The Longyearbreen glacier, which once unfurled to the sea, is now a shadow of its former self. Only the name of Longyearbyen’s Isfjorden now conveys the idea of something frozen.
“Last January, during the polar winter, the temperature was between 0 and 5 °C. When I went for a walk by the fjord, I could hear the waves. This was not the case before at this time of year,” says Heidi Sevestre. The French glaciologist fell in love with Svalbard as a student, so much so that she now lives here for part of the year.
Compared to Siberia, Canada’s and Greenland’s High North – the Arctic archipelago, located just over a thousand kilometers from the North Pole – has historically benefited from a slightly more benign climate despite its extreme latitude. Temperatures here range between 5 °C and 15 °C in summer and usually not below -30 °C in the coldest of winter. This relatively “mild" weather has its origin in the Gulf Stream — the marine current which rises up from the Caribbean and runs along the west coast of Svalbard.
But the situation has now changed.
“There has been a lot of talk about the rise in atmospheric temperature for at least 20 years. But in the past three years, ocean temperatures have also risen significantly. This is what is causing the increasingly rapid retreat of the ice pack,” explains Jean-Charles Gallet, a glaciologist who has worked at the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI) since 2010.
“The sea ice acts like an air conditioner for the ocean, so the more it decreases, the more the ocean warms up. This causes a chain reaction which ends up accelerating the warming process,” adds Eero Rinne, a Finnish specialist on the topic and a researcher at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). Rinne is working on the CRISTAL sea ice satellite mission, slated to go live in 2028 as part of the European Space Agency’s Copernicus program.
Beyond the alarming disappearance of glaciers and ice packs and the threat to polar bears (of which there are still around 300 in the archipelago), global warming is also causing cracks in the infrastructure of the territory, which is covered by permafrost. Landslides are increasingly frequent, and all recently constructed buildings in the region are on stilts.
“It used to rain very little in Svalbard, but now it is getting wetter and wetter, which is weakening the soil,” explains Hanne Hvidtfeldt Christiansen, a Danish-Norwegian scientist and specialist on permafrost at UNIS.
Norwegians kept a low profile about Svalbard's growing crisis, until 2017. That was the year when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was flooded, less than 10 years after its foundation. The facility, dug near a mine in Longyearbyen, the capital of the archipelago, was built to preserve more than a million seeds from a possible cataclysm. The disaster didn’t affect the seeds but left a scar in people’s minds. Even this close to the pole, permafrost is thawing.
At the forefront of the fight against global warming, authorities in this piece of polar land — twice the size of Belgium — are not just struggling with its impact on the environment. They also have to contend with another conundrum linked to the accelerated melting of the ice.
This one is geopolitical, and far beyond their control.
Amazing landscape of glaciers and iceberg in the summer time in Longyearbyen, Norway
The Russian presence
Norway obtained sovereignty over Svalbard in 1920 under a one-of-a-kind international treaty signed in Paris, with one critical caveat: all signatory countries were allowed to install bases or exploit the archipelago’s resources. This explains why Svalbard is home to a Russian colony. From the 1930s, the USSR operated coal mines in Barentsburg, Pyramiden, and Grumant. Up to 3,000 Russians and Ukrainians, who had been recruited by the Russian state mining company Arktikugol, worked there.
Grumant and Pyramiden are now ghost towns. But Barentsburg — which owes its name to Willem Barentsz, the Dutch man who discovered Spitsbergen, the main island of the archipelago — still accommodates nearly 400 Russians and Ukrainians. It has a mine still in operation, a school, a swimming pool, a church, and even a consulate.
Barentsburg is struggling amid the decline in coal production and the freezing of Russia-Norway relations.
The small, faded town feels like a museum dedicated to (Soviet) Russian nostalgia. A statue of Lenin stands in front of two blocks of buildings with gaudy colors. It is there that on May 9, the day when Russia celebrates its victory over Germany in World War II, stunned observers witnessed a real miniature military parade that included about fifty 4x4s and snowmobiles displaying Russian flags. At the end of July, five small boats choreographed a naval parade in honor of the Russian Navy in front of Barentsburg's small port flanked by its long-abandoned barracks.
Over in Pyramiden, a former communist utopia deserted in 1998, pro-Putin bishop Iakov was seen planting a huge Orthodox cross in mid-August.
“Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russians have increased their provocative gestures in the Arctic, especially in this demilitarized territory which is not covered by article 5 of the NATO treaty on collective defense, unlike Norway,” says Florian Vidal, an associate researcher at (Institut français des relations internationales' (IFRI) Russia/Eurasia Center, located in Tromsø in northern Norway.
Today, Barentsburg is struggling to survive amid the decline in coal production and the freezing of Russia-Norway relations after Putin's invasion of Ukraine. “From the end of February 2022, the supply of Russian products was cut off, the airspace closed, and the residents found themselves in a critical situation,” says Dimitri Negrutsa, Arktikugol’s head of cultural affairs, sitting at the cafe of the only hotel in Barentsburg. “In the end, a deal was struck with the governor of Svalbard, Norway's representative in the archipelago, so that we could import food and medical products from Europe while continuing to bring our specific mining equipment from Russia.”
The opening of the Northeast Passage
Years of cultural, scientific and sporting cooperation between Russia and Norway came to an abrupt stop on February 24, 2022, the day Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “Visit Svalbard has removed the promotion of Barentsburg and Pyramiden from its site, the cruises no longer stop there,” a native Muscovite laments. The number of tourists to the two towns fell from 40,000 in 2019, the last normal year before the COVID-19 pandemic, to less than 5,000 last year. The situation could last at least until the end of the war.
As for scientific research in Svalbard, perhaps that is where Russia’s strongest ambitions lie. “We want to offer our local sites in this Arctic territory to countries that might be interested, such as Turkey, Brazil, India or China,” says Negrutsa. This would be direct competition for Ny-Ålesund, which hosts a dozen foreign research stations, including China’s Arctic Yellow River Station. The 20-year-old facility is easily recognizable with its two white lions at the entrance.
“We must not be naive. Russians aim to reshape their presence in Svalbard because of the geopolitical context,” says Anne Vera Skrivarhaug. The Norwegian woman, who’s responsible for Longyearbyen's energy transition and economic strategy, underlines that Russia has set up the Arctic Trefoil, a state-of-the-art military base, on the Franz Josef Land archipelago, less than 700 km from Longyearbyen. The ghost of the Cold War has resurfaced.
A major economic and military power in the Arctic, Russia will not let go of Svalbard. Especially with the ice pack melting, all eyes are on the opening of the Arctic maritime route — the famous Northeast Passage — all year round. Last December, a tanker carrying Russian oil supplies for China became the first vessel to use the route, and others have since followed. Putin hopes to increase the volume of goods transiting via this route to 200 million tons by 2030. The fate of the Northeast Passage has become one of the most spectacular manifestations of global warming.
Old power station on the mountain side in Longyearbyen
Norway’s tough policies
It isn't just the Russians. Norway is worried about the growing influx of foreigners of all ilk in the region. In 10 years, the number of foreigners in Longyearbyen has doubled to more than 800. They include Russians but also Thais, Filipinos, and Europeans from almost all corners of the bloc. Meanwhile, the Norwegian population has declined slightly (1,700).
In these conditions, Norway, which currently chairs the Arctic Council, has decided to implement tougher policies toward foreigners.
“This trend has actually been at work for a while,” says Franco-Norwegian glaciologist Jean-Charles Gallet, who adds: “Norwegians have long been influenced by American culture. Today we are witnessing a pendulum swing toward a more Nordic culture, especially with the waves of immigration in recent years. Mastery of the Norwegian language is increasingly recommended to be able to work in Svalbard.”
Home to the Store Norske mining company for decades, Longyearbyen looks like an ordinary small town. It has a town hall; a university specializing in climate studies which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year; a new hospital which mainly treats victims of snowmobile accidents, students suffering from hypothermia, and avalanche survivors; a small, very ecumenical church; a supermarket where you can find almost everything; and a few shops, restaurants and hotels.
But, in reality, nothing is really normal here. The strange vibes aren't confined to the trestles and cable cars from its mining past, the reindeer which graze in the middle of the town, and the recommendation to carry a rifle if you set foot outside the town (to defend against polar bears). Consider that nobody dies in Longyearbyen, and rarely is anyone born in the area. Unlike in Greenland, there is no indigenous population here. Most of the inhabitants come for a few years to work (for Norwegians, the draw lies in attractive wages and friendly taxation) and then leave. Only a few dozen families have stayed there long term.
Emblematic of Norway's desire to take back control over this unique terrain is its decision to limit the right to vote in municipal elections only to residents who have lived at least three years in mainland Norway, reversing the policy of letting everyone vote that had been in effect since 2002. The new, controversial rule excludes almost a third of the town's population, including teachers, students, guides, and hotel and restaurant staff, even those who have lived in the area for more than 10 years.
We are no longer really looking to build anything new here
“This accentuates the gap between Norwegians, who hold official positions, benefit from better housing and comprehensive social protection, and non-Norwegians, who are often in a more vulnerable situation,” says social scientist Dina Brode-Roger.
Even private companies are worried about Oslo’s political will. “We have seen considerable growth in public sector jobs which can be seen as displacing many opportunities offered by the private sector,” says Christian Skottun.
The president of the Svalbard Business Association, who heads telecommunications operator Telenor Svalbard, points to the lack of private housing in the archipelago. “We are no longer really looking to build anything new here,” confirms Anne Vera Skrivarhaug. She explains that the town is finding it the difficult to ensure the security of the growing foreign population.
The change in policy also affects scientists. “Mandatory authorizations are more numerous and restrictive than before,” says Dominique Fleury, who’s responsible for logistics at the Franco-German AWIPEV base in Ny-Ålesund which turned 20 this year. “To fly a drone, you have to plan six months in advance and, now, you need a license to drive a boat, which complicates expeditions. Rents for buildings are soaring as well."
Ice floating in Longyearbyen
Toward the end of coal
As global warming intensifies, Norwegians want to protect what can still be protected. A new white paper is in the works in Oslo to regulate cruise tourism in particular. During the summer, ocean liners follow one another around the island of Spitsbergen. Oslo's proposal is to allow so-called “expedition” ships with fewer than 200 passengers to ply this route instead, and limit the number of sites where tourists can disembark. The move is ruffling feathers among large cruise lines.
But most of all, the archipelago must stop producing coal, which has long been its raison d'être. After more than a century of activity, the last mine at Longyearbyen, No. 7, was due to shut down this year. But the war in Ukraine led Norway to extend its exploitation for two more years.
Svalbard coal, which has become profitable once again thanks to the increase in demand, is one of the purest” in the world (it does not contain sulfur). This explains why Europe exported nearly 80,000 tons of it in 2022, with a large share going to the German steel and chemical industries. The rest (30,000 tons) was used to supply the town's power plant — at least until last month.
The archipelago must stop producing coal, which has long been its raison d'être
Since then, coal has been replaced… by diesel. “Although diesel is imported and about 30% more expensive, it will allow the archipelago to halve its greenhouse gas emissions,” says Anne Vera Skrivarhaug. “This change is part of the Norwegian government's desire to move towards clean energy.”
But with mining operations shutting down, will scientific research and tourism be enough to justify the costs of running the world's northernmost city? Some doubt it. Unless there is another resource that could interest Norway, which remains Europe’s leading producer of fossil energy despite its image as a clean country.
The recent authorization to exploit the seabed of Svalbard to extract copper — coveted for the manufacture of electric batteries — has not gone unnoticed. This may be a statement by Norway to assert its sovereignty over the 200 nautical miles around the archipelago. But it is likely to displease a lot of people, especially those worried about the future of this fragile ecosystem.
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