In the Arctic, the cruel climate backlash for a mining town

On this Saturday, December 19, 2015, less than a week before Christmas, the 54-year-old educational assistant is dozing at his home in Longyearbyen, capital of this Norwegian archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

Suddenly, masses of snow descended the side of Sukkertoppen, the mountain which overlooks the city, and carried away two rows of houses.

That of Tor Selnes is moved 80 meters and the room where he sleeps completely crushed.

To avoid being caught in the snowfall, he grabs a lamp from the ceiling for a few seconds. “It was like I was in a washing machine, surrounded by boards, glass, sharp objects, everything you can imagine.“, he testifies.

He escaped with cuts and bruises. In another wing of the house, her three children are unharmed.

But two neighbours, Atle, with whom he played poker the day before, and Nikoline, a two-year-old girl, died there.

The tragedy, which until then had been considered unthinkable, had the effect of an electric shock in this community of less than 2,500 souls.

We talk a lot about climate change since I arrived (…) but it was hard to see or absorb“says author and journalist Line Nagell Ylvisåker, who has lived in Longyearbyen since 2005.

Living here is like watching a child grow up: you don’t see the glaciers retreating“Day to day,” she said.

– Mining past –

In Svalbard, climate change means shorter winters, yoyo temperatures, stronger and more intense rainfall and melting permafrost. So many conditions conducive to avalanches and landslides…

In the days following the tragedy, rains, incongruous in the Christmas period, fell on the city. Then came record showers the following fall, and another avalanche that swept away another house, without causing any casualties, in 2017.

Before, there was a lot of talk about polar bears, new species, what was going to happen in the wild“, continues Line Nagell Ylvisåker.

The polar bear floating on a piece of ice symbolized that, but (the chain of weather accidents, editor’s note) made me open my eyes to how it affects us humans too“, she adds.

After the two avalanches, the authorities condemned 144 dwellings considered vulnerable. That is about 10% of the city’s building stock, which has now been replaced by a gigantic anti-avalanche barrier made of large blocks of granite.

A cruel backlash for Longyearbyen, whose history is closely linked to fossil fuels.

Merry jumble of colorful wooden houses, the city was founded in 1906 by the American businessman John Munro Longyear, who came to extract coal there.

If almost all the mines are closed today – the last should, normally, be next year -, a huge shed for mine trucks stands on the heights of the city, witness to this mining past.

Coal (almost) stored in the museum, it is climate change that is now shaping the urban landscape.

According to Ketil Isaksen, a researcher at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, the Svalbard region is “the place on Earth with the highest temperature rise“.

In the northern part of the Barents Sea which bathes the archipelago, warming is up to seven times faster than on the planet, shows a study he co-signed in .

Blame it on the receding sea ice which, scientists say, normally acts as an insulating blanket preventing the ocean from warming the atmosphere in winter and protecting the ocean from the sun in summer.

In Longyearbyen, the melting of the permafrost weakens the soil, makes the streetlights flicker and forces the foundations of the houses to be redone. Until then superfluous for this cold and dry climate, gutters appear on the roofs…

On the edge of the city, the now misnamed Isfjorden (“ice fjord“), which you could previously cross by snowmobile in winter, has not seen any real ice form on its surface since 2004.

Even the famous World Seed Reserve, supposed to protect plant biodiversity from the inadequacies of men and natural disasters, had to undergo major work after unexpected water infiltration in the tunnel which controls its entry into the bowels of a mountain. .

In the offices of the newspaper Svalbardposten, the editor-in-chief Børre Haugli summarizes the situation with a shock formula. Climate change? Today, “we don’t discuss it, we see it“.


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