Ice People | Meltdown in Spitsbergen
by renée michels & teun voets
It’s a Thursday in February 2016 when Mark Sabbatini, one of the residents of Gamle Sykehuset in Spitsbergen (the largest and only populated island of the Svalbard archipelago in Norway) is forced to evacuate his apartment. The building, an old hospital in Spitsbergen, has been rapidly disintegrating due to the extreme weather since last fall. Today, the city council of Spitsbergen’s largest city Longyearbyen finally declared it unsafe, and Sabbatini and his neighbors were forced to relocate on a two-hour notice. Perhaps crises are to be expected when you live in an icy location like Svalbard, but Mark assures us that what’s been happening is highly unusual. Due to the thawing permafrost, the building suffered such extensive foundational damage that it could collapse at any time.
“It was a very crazy and stressful evening”, Mark says as he remembers that night in February. “But this was just the first disaster that personally affected me. In December 2015, for instance, the Svalbardian community suffered from two major avalanches; we had an absolutely amazing amount of rain in October and November. This all causes a lot of uncertainty to the people who live here, especially to those who live very close to the mountains. Residents are worried, officials are worried and there are still many empty homes that are going to stay empty for a while.”
The people of Svalbard are some of the first in Europe to be directly confronted with the consequences of climate change, and these island-dwellers make up an interesting community. Discovered in 1596 by Dutchman Willem Barentsz, the islands have no indigenous inhabitants. Its main city of Longyearbyen was built around coal mining, but nowadays the island's main industries are tourism and scientific research. Mark is an independent journalist, writing for Svalbard’s only alternative newspaper, Icepeople. According to him, the Svalbardians more and more scared of climate change.
“Our previous knowledge just isn’t that useful anymore, because things have changed so much. Many factors, especially the climate, are now so volatile that we have to be dealing with the weather differently. Such fears are just a new reality among the community."
Ice is an integral part of Svalbard’s ecosystem, but this winter the Arctic Sea ice stopped advancing a few hundred kilometres north of the archipelago. Famous for its polar bears, Svalbardian residents worry that tourism to the islands might take a hit now that many of the species native to Svalbard might be threatened by climate change.
In Mark's words: “The ice has been so thin in recent years. There has been a notable lack of freezing up here, and that has changed the patterns of tourism and wildlife. Tourists are now starting to avoid us, and they are a main source of income.”
However serious these ecological worries may be, in February this year it became apparent that the people of Svalbard face more immediate dangers. Disaster struck once again as an avalanche crashed through the town of Longyearbyen, leaving two buildings demolished in its wake and forcing 256 people to evacuate their homes. Mark was among them, yet again. This time, he was given only 20 minutes notice.
Mark hopes the devastating events on Svalbard, such as avalanches and the increasingly unpredictable weather, might give others in the world an idea of what to expect if climate change continues unchecked. While Norway's climate sceptics will most likely dismiss the significance of the events on Svalbard, Mark remains hopeful that city officials won't. Because he is sure that it won’t be the last time a disaster like this happens:
“This is a preview of what other folks further south will start experiencing in the near future; we are just experiencing it at an accelerating rate. Extreme droughts, extreme storms; all of it is already happening. The effects are just going to get increasingly severe.”
When asked whether these experiences have ever made him consider leaving Svalbard, he firmly states: “Never. I am a journalist here, and this town is going through so much, climate change is just one of its worries. Somebody has to document these issues. And I mean, the idea of having a sunrise and sunset everyday is kind of boring to me now.”