Through the Lens: Climate Change Thaws World’s Northernmost Research Station

NY-AALESUND, NORWAY — At the world’s northernmost year-round research station, scientists are racing to understand how the fastest-warming place on Earth is changing – and what those changes may mean for the planet’s future.

But around the tiny town of Ny-Aalesund, high above the Arctic circle on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, scientific data is getting harder to access. And sometimes it’s vanishing before scientists can collect it.

Scientists hoping to harvest ice cores are finding glaciers inundated by water. Research sites are getting harder to reach, as earlier springtime melt leaves the ground too barren for snowmobile travel.

Researchers have been studying the polar region for decades — with Ny-Aalesund’s weather records going back more than 40 years. But their work has become vitally important as climate change ramps up. That’s because what happens in the Arctic can impact global sea levels, storms in North America and Europe, and other factors far beyond the frozen region.

While the Arctic is warming about four times faster than the rest of the world, in Svalbard temperatures are climbing even faster — up to seven times the global average.

Last summer was the hottest on record. August temperatures in Ny-Aalesund were on average 5.1C degrees, about 0.5C warmer than normal for the month.

Polar bear sightings in Kongsfjord over the past four years have been higher than ever before, as the animals are left hungrier due partly to the loss of their sea ice hunting grounds and are more often prowling nearby islands in search of food as eight watchmen take turns patrolling the perimeter of Ny-Aalesund for polar bears.

Resting harbor seals alongside nesting seabird colonies are drawing the hungry carnivores closer, said Joanna Sulich, a biologist with the Norwegian Polar Institute and Polar Bears International.

“For many researchers who are studying those birds, it’s something of concern,” Sulich said.

Within the last decade, four buildings have been damaged by thawing permafrost, and last year Kings Bay SA, the state-owned company that manages the town, had to close down a laboratory where scientists processed samples from fish snow and ice due to thaw cracking its foundation.  

Bracing against wind gusts up to 15 meters per second (34 miles per hour), a team of scientists pitched camp this month on the Holtedahlfonna icefield, a 3-hour snowmobile drive from Ny-Aalesund riven with dangerous crevasses.

The team hoped to drill 125 meters into Dovrebreen glacier, hoping to collect two ice cores for studying 300 years of climate records – part of an effort by the non-profit Ice Memory Foundation to collect and preserve ice cores from melting glaciers around the world. 

The team was shocked when the drill, at only 25 meters deep, suddenly sloshed into a massive pool of water.

“We did not expect such a huge water flux coming out from the glacier, and this is a clear sign of what is happening in this region,” said expedition leader Andrea Spolaor. “The glacier is suffering.”  

On a snowfield a kilometer south of Ny-Aalesund, the chemist Francois Burgay filled plastic test tubes with snow, looking for chemical signals from marine algae blooms which travel from the ocean to the atmosphere and are deposited with the snow.

Once these signals are identified, he hopes scientists will be able to use them to understand how Arctic waters have changed in the past, and project how they might change in the future.

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