Thor Selness owes his life to a lamp. He miraculously survived a fatal avalanche that shed light on the vulnerability of Svalbard, a region warming faster than anywhere else to man-made climate change.
On the morning of December 19, 2015, the 54-year-old schoolteacher was napping at home in Longyearbyen, the capital of the Norwegian archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
Suddenly a mass of snow rushed from Sukertopen, the mountain overlooking the city, taking with it two rows of houses.
Selnes’ home was swept away 80 meters (263 feet). The room in which he slept was completely destroyed amid a “scraping sound like metal on the road.”
In order not to be buried under the snow, he grabbed a ceiling lamp.
“It was as if I was in laundrysurrounded by boards, glass, sharp objects, everything you can imagine, “recalls Selnes.
He survived, receiving only abrasions and bruises. His three children, who were in another part of the house, are unharmed.
But two neighbors – Atle, with whom he played poker the night before, and Nicoline, a two-year-old girl – lost their lives.
The incident, which was unthinkable in the eyes of locals, shocked the small community of less than 2,500 people.
“There has been a lot of talk about climate change since I came here … but it was a little difficult to perceive or see,” Lena Nagel Ilvisaker, a 2005 author and journalist, told AFP.
“When we live here every day, it’s like seeing a child grow – you don’t see the glaciers retreating,” she said.
In Svalbard, climate change has led to shorter winters; temperatures that yo-yo; more frequent precipitation, more and more often in the form of rain; and thawing of permafrost – all conditions that increase the risk of avalanches and landslides.
In the days after the tragedy, off-season rains flooded the city. The following autumn, the region experienced record rainfall, and then a new avalanche swept away another house in 2017, this time without casualties.
“There was a lot of talk before polar bearsabout new species, about what will happen to nature around us “with climate change,” Ylvisaker explains, adding: ” polar bear floating on an ice sheet is something like the big symbol. “
The series of extreme weather events “really opened our eyes to how this will affect us humans.”
After the two avalanches, authorities condemned 144 homes they considered endangered, or about 10 percent of the city’s homes, and installed a massive granite avalanche barrier at the foot of Sukertopen.
This is an ironic twist for Longyearbyen, which owes its existence to fossil fuels.
The city was founded in 1906 by American businessman John Munro Longier, who came to mine coal. It grew up around the mines in a mixture of brightly colored wooden houses.
Almost all mines are already closed, the last one due to closing next year. A huge science fiction hangar of carts towers over the city, testifying to its past as a mining town.
Now man-made climate change is leaving its mark on the landscape here.
According to Ketil Isaksen, a researcher at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, the Svalbard region is “the place on Earth where temperatures rise the most.”
In the northernmost Barents Sea, where the archipelago is located, temperatures are rising five to seven times faster than the planet as a whole, according to a study he co-authored and recently published in the scientific journal Nature.
Why? The shrinking sea ice, scientists explain. It usually acts as an insulating layer that prevents the sea atmosphere from warming in winter and protects the sea from the sun in summer.
In Longyearbyen, the thawing of permafrost means that the soil is slipping. The lighted pillars are tilted and the foundations of the buildings need to be strengthened because the ground is shifting. Gutters, once unnecessary in this cold and dry climate, began to appear on the roofs.
At the end of the city, people traveled by snowmobile through the now less appropriate name Isfjorden (Ice Fjord), which has not been frozen since 2004.
Even the famous Global Seed Vault, designed to protect the planet’s biodiversity from man-made and natural disasters, had to undergo major repairs after the tunnel entrance sampled a mountain slope unexpectedly flooded.
In the offices of the local newspaper Svalbardposten, editor-in-chief Bore Hougli summarizes regional climate change“We don’t discuss it. We see it.”
© 2022 AFP
Quote: Climate warming destroys the Arctic mining city (2022, June 22), extracted on June 22, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-climate-upends-arctic-town.html
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