21 Oct

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Climate Change Ground Zero Melting Permafrost Imperils Arctic Residents

The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on the planet, and dangers lurk in its frozen soil. Nowhere are the effects of global warming more evident than in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.


A retreating glacier in Svalbard, Norway

Daniel Etter/ DER SPIEGEL

A retreating glacier in Svalbard, Norway

Kim Holmén reaches the end of the road, gets out of his car and walks the rest of the way. He trudges over rivulets of snowmelt that have turned the earth into mud that sticks to his boots.

His companion shoulders a rifle that he’s brought along in case they run into any polar bears. Climate change has deprived the creatures of food, but that’s not what Holmén is most afraid of.

He’s the director of the Norwegian Polar Institute on Svalbard, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean off Norway’s northern coast. The danger Holmén is most concerned about lies directly beneath his feet.

He’s wearing a lined jacket, a pink knitted cap and a has a long, gray beard that reaches his chest. Holmén is an eccentric scientist who is deeply concerned about the Arctic climate. “It changes first, the most and the fastest, and that affects the entire world,” he says.

Due to global warming, temperatures up here are rising twice as fast as the global average. Since 1971, the average temperature in Svalbard has jumped by 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit). In winter, it’s risen by as much as 7 degrees Celsius. For reference, if winter temperatures in Berlin were to rise that significantly, the German capital wouldn’t be 2 degrees Celsius in January, but 9. In other words, winter would suddenly feel more like spring.

Too Much Thawing

Holmén reaches a low hill. His companion lifts the lid of a narrow wooden box that sticks out of the ground. Inside are cables, batteries and a sensor that reaches 10 meters (33 feet) into the earth, measuring the ground temperature like a thermometer.

Svalbard is a group of rough, lonely islands located about halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, its landscape dominated by rugged mountains and millennia-old glaciers. Fewer than 2,500 people live here. It has a hospital, a science center and a few bars.

When Holmén first arrived here some 30 years ago, the ground thawed to a maximum depth of 1 meter in the summer. Now the measurements show thaws of up to 1.7 meters. Similar things are happening in other parts of the Arctic as well.

Holmén has studied polar climates his entire life — in Siberia, in Greenland and in far-off Antarctica and is well-versed in the problem presented by the thaw. Twenty-four percent of the land mass in the northern hemisphere has a more or less frozen soil, an area larger than all of Russia. That permafrost stores up to 1.6 billion tons of carbon in the form of dead trees, dead animals or withered grass — about twice as much carbon as is currently found in the atmosphere today.
Kim Holmén has been studying polar climates his entire life.

Kim Holmén has been studying polar climates his entire life.
Daniel Etter/ DER SPIEGEL

If this soil thaws, this matter will begin to decompose, releasing greenhouse gases. And if that happens on a large scale, climate change will take on a life of its own. The additional gases will accelerate the rise in global temperatures, which will further exacerbate thawing, which will release more gases. Scientists call such processes “feedbacks.”

Holmén knows the ground is thawing. What he doesn’t know is whether this phenomenon has already reached its tipping point. There are indications that this could, in fact, be the case.

A Climate Run Amok

The implications for humanity are already being experienced by the residents of Svalbard, with inhabitants already struggling to cope with a climate that is rapidly heating up.

Two days after the visit to the measuring station, Holmén and a handful of young scientists pile into a boat with a strong hull and an outboard motor. Clouds hang low over the fjord. Holmén had hoped to already be home by now, but the weather changed. Instead, he’s seizing the opportunity to show the researchers the effects of climate change up close.

The polar explorer doesn’t just look like an eccentric, it runs in his family. His great-grandmother was one of the first women to obtain an academic degree in Finland and was feared for her assertiveness. His father was born in a utopian community in Paraguay. Holmén himself rose through the ranks to become the international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute. His expertise has been sought out by the Norwegian queen, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and German Research Minister Anja Karliczek.

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