Climate Change in the Svalbard Archipelago in Norway


The Arctic region is experiencing the effects on Climate Change more than most regions on Earth and as such, Climate Change in Svalbard, which lies in the Arctic region deserves special attention. The Svalbard archipelago is located in the Arctic Ocean, about halfway between Norway and the North Pole, and is under the jurisdiction of the Norwegian Government.

Fig: Norway in Northern Europe including the Svalbard Archipelago

Source: Maps Of World, 2017

Climatic Conditions in Svalbard

The Svalbard archipelago is dotted with old mining towns and is surprisingly rich in wildlife with a large population of polar bears living on the islands. The human population however, is refreshingly low in the archipelago, with less than 3,000 inhabitants. The landscape is eerily mostly desolate and is picturesque, and the bulk of the inhabitants live in the Longyearbyen settlement, which serves as the archipelago’s administrative centre.

The climate in the Svalbard archipelago in its current condition is relatively mild compared to other regions at similar latitudes, and mean temperatures range between -14oC in winters to 6oC in summers. About two thirds of the archipelago is sanctioned as protected areas and there are several national parks, nature reserves, bird sanctuaries and even a geo-tropical protected area. The means of travel is usually by plane (Innovation Norway, 2017).

In the Arctic region, among the most dramatic effects of Climate Change has been the reduction in sea ice that has most directly affected Arctic marine mammals such as seals. Climate simulations suggest that there is a possibility that the Arctic could be seasonally ice-free before the end of the 21st Century. This can impact ocean circulation and global climate, other than impacting Arctic food webs severely. Other than the seas, in terrestrial Arctic environments the major effects of Climate Change have been the melting of permafrost, declines in glacier ice and in snow, shrub encroachment and increases in the productivity of vegetation. The implications for frozen material are likely to be severe if mean mid-winter temperatures go above 0oC.

Projections for Climate Change in Svalbard

The prospects for Climate Change in Svalbard are above normal when compared to the rest of Europe, air temperatures have risen very quickly in the Svalbard archipelago in recent decades (Nordli et al., 2014). Descamps et al. (2017) from the Norwegian Polar Institute expect to witness a continuing warming trend by the end of the 21st Century in their observations and projections of Climate Change in Svalbard. The mean mid-winter air temperature at Longyearbyen by the end of the 21st Century is expected to be 10oC higher than it is at present (Hansen et al., 2014). A similar rate of warming is noted for other weather stations in Svalbard.

Even in terms of precipitation, a continued increase is expected up till the year 2100. However, not much is reliable about data on precipitation as measuring solid forms of precipitation presents difficulties. A decrease has been observed in the depth of snowfall equivalent to the maximum winter snow water as well as in the duration of snow cover remaining on surfaces (Liston & Hiemstra, 2011). Although the duration of snow cover and the depth of snow in springtime have significantly decreased, many factors might influence measurements of snow (Cooper, 2014) which can also exhibit variance across spatial scales. For example, measurements of snow depth at the areas around Longyearbyen might vary from measurements at other areas in Svalbard.

Winter rain in Svalbard leads to the covering of vegetation in ice. Although winter now exhibits less extreme temperatures because of less extremely cold days, increased winter warming combined with strong oceanic influence on the archipelago is causing more frequent rain on snow events in winter. Excess winter rain can block access to food for herbivores such as for the reindeer in Svalbard. This can have domino effects on the food web in Svalbard, including affecting the populations of herbivores and so on in the Svalbard archipelago.

Habitats in Svalbard

Precipitation in the summer months in Svalbard have shown no clear trend, although air temperatures have noted significant increases since the 1990s (Ims et al., 2014). The extent of the growth season however, as the period with mean temperatures above 5oC, has significantly increased since 1975, although no significant trends have been observed in terms that can be statistically represented through remote-sensing data in the case of the productivity growth of vegetation (Karlsen et al., 2013). With these abrupt changes in an extremely sensitive environment, habitats for certain species are projected to respond favourably while for others such as for polar bears, the prospects are dim.

There have been massive increases in the populations of pink-footed geese for example, assisted by conservation efforts (less hunting) and changes in agricultural practices in Europe but also due to warming (Jensen et al., 2014). Their populations rose from 15,000 in 1965 to 76,000 in 2014 (Johnson et al., 2014). This rise in populations of pink-footed geese could be attributed to breeding success that led to a doubling of their populations in Svalbard between 2003 and 2014 (Anderson et al., 2015). Breeding habits in ecosystems in Svalbard are increasingly shifting from density-dependent breeding to density-independent breeding with the withdrawal of snow covered areas (Jensen et al. 2014).

Out of the two principal currents in the marine region around Svalbard – the warm West Spitsbergen Current comprising of Atlantic water and the cold East Spitsbergen Current comprising of Arctic water, an increase is observed in the influence of warm Atlantic water (Pavlov et al., 2013). This is one of the principal causes for the decline in the extent of sea ice around Svalbard (Pavlov et al., 2014).

Sea ice forms habitats for many marine mammals and species of invertebrates and certain fish species. Also many marine species populations are shifting to the seas near Svalbard and some species have reappeared in these waters after a long hiatus. Dietary shifts have been observed for many species of marine life as well as predator-prey relations. Disproportionate population distributions could also occur, with habitats changing for certain species, such as changes in the habitats of harbour seals, whose distribution and population could increase at the western coast of Svalbard, while populations of those forming habitats on sea ice decrease (Descamps et al., 2017).

Polar bears in Svalbard live mostly on areas with sea ice, and most of them form habitats on the eastern coast and northwards towards the fjords. The IUCN placed polar bears in its Red List of endangered species in 2006 for its being specialized to hunt primarily using sea ice. A low rate of reproduction and long growth period means that the species is not the best adapted to the rapid changes that Climate Change might entail.

With polar bears forming their principal habitats on Arctic sea ice, its loss is the greatest concern, particularly in the summer season, when a substantial reduction in sea ice can make productive parts of the ocean as sources of food inaccessible for polar bears. This could make polar bears move to the mainland or towards relatively unproductive waters which in the short term could reduce the chances for the survival of individuals and over the long term could severely affect polar bear populations in Svalbard. Polar bears however, have been known to live in the coldest and in benign environments. The most conservative estimate derived however, points towards the fact that about two thirds of the polar bear population in the Arctic could become extinct by 2050 (WWF, 2012).

Norwegian Solutions for Climate Change

Norway has a long coastline and mountainous terrain that receives a great amount of wind and precipitation and shares a number of concerns as regards combating Climate Change. Changes to ecosystems, storm water management, landslides and avalanches, sea level rise, and increased snow cover due to more intense precipitation are some of the principal concerns that Norway might encounter as regards prospective Climate Change. To add to this are the largely aberrant conditions in Svalbard and its receptive nature to changes in climate, like much of the Arctic. Given the precarious nature of the Indian Himalayas, called the ‘Third Pole’, Norway’s solutions in combating Climate Change impacts already underway is something to learn from and partner with for India.

The Norwegian government plans to integrate solutions for Climate Change in its governance infrastructure beginning with local government. This involves evolving climate-resilient municipalities whereby municipalities and counties integrate adaptation to Climate Change to their general planning processes, principally land use policies. These local level processes are to be incorporated into the existing guidelines concerning mitigation policies for Climate Change and in energy planning. India can learn a great deal from co-operation with Norway in providing integrated solutions to Climate Change. Another European example is the integrated model for mitigating cloudbursts initiated by administrators in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The Norwegian government is signatory to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and has set targets to evolve into a low emission economy by the middle of the 21st Century. A number of economic policy plans also form part of its agenda in combating Climate Change, such as the proposed Climate and Energy Fund to manage finances in energy usage as per emissions targets. A financial energy roadmap would be the first step in designing climate resilient policies for the future. Norway’s most important policy instruments in combating Climate Change are its taxation regime, emissions trading and the Pollution Control Act in Norway. Strong policies in consort with an economic energy road map for combating Climate Change is something India would find beneficial to partner with as part of a learning process.

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