The worrying rise in temperatures in Svalbard

Polly Stevens analyses recent Svalbard temperatures to see whether the Arctic-wide temperature increase has affected the Norwegian archipelago

Polly Stevens
28th February 2021
Featured image: Jess McMahon on Unsplash

Recent reports of Arctic air temperatures hitting their second highest recorded levels in 2020, while troubling, are not necessarily shocking. Arctic amplification, the process that causes the Arctic to warm roughly twice as fast as elsewhere on the globe, means that temperature records in the region are broken on an almost annual basis, a phenomenon that the IPCC predict will continue into the future.

But alongside the record temperature highs came a colder-than-average year for parts of Greenland, highlighting the complex spatial nature of global warming. In fact, mean annual temperatures around Greenland have shown a slight decline in some places over the past 15 years; while scientists have agreed that this by no means disproves the idea of Arctic amplification, the importance of quantifying spatial temperature trends is widely acknowledged, because, as explained by Professor Bo Elberling, environmental geochemist and senior scientist, “infrastructure, farming, mine operations, and so on, are all affected by whether it generally becomes colder or warmer, or whether it varies from year to year”. 

Glacier melt is contributing to two-thirds of global sea level rise

Svalbard, a High-Artic Norwegian archipelago, is one of the few areas of the Arctic well-covered by meteorological stations, meaning climate data is accessible across the majority of the region. Furthermore, the islands are home to over 2,100 glaciers, covering roughly 59% of the land surface; globally, glacier melt is contributing to two-thirds of sea level rise, meaning temperature changes in the region could see impacts translated across the globe. 

Temperature trends from 2000-2020 alone in Svalbard, shown below, appear to follow the worrying patterns of those in the Arctic; the region, while experiencing significant inter-annual fluctuations, has seen an obvious warming trend, with temperatures rising by an average of 0.1°C per year. 

Graph of annual temperature changes in Svalbard between 2000-2020; data downloaded from Seklima

Polar bears could become extinct by the end of the century

And the impacts of this warming trend are already being felt. In 2015, a devastating avalanche triggered by unusually heavy winter rain led to the death of a 42-year-old man and two-year-old girl. Polar bears inhabiting the ice edges of Svalbard could become extinct by the end of the century as sea ice coverage continues to shrink. And of course, glaciers and ice caps have the capacity to raise global sea levels by approximately 70 meters, which would flood every coastal city on the planet, if they melted away entirely. 

Svalbard therefore symbolises the extreme end of global warming, acting as an ongoing analogue for the changes that other areas of the globe may not experience for years to come. A global awareness of the indisputable changes occurring within the region in the last 20 years alone is crucial to enabling predictions of likely future behaviour of other glaciated regions as they experience similar increases in temperature. Svalbard’s climate is changing now, and ignoring such changes is not only short-sighted; it is dangerous. 

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