Tor Selnes owes his life to a lamp. He miraculously survived a deadly avalanche that sheds light on the vulnerability of Svalbard, a region that is warming faster than elsewhere, to human-caused climate change.
On the morning of December 19, 2015, the 54-year-old school principal was taking a nap at home in Longyearbyen, the capital of the Norwegian archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
Suddenly a mass of snow fell from Sukkertoppen, the mountain above the town, taking two rows of houses with it.
Selnes’ home was swept away 80 meters (263 ft). The room he slept in was completely destroyed amid “a grating sound like metal against a road”.
In order not to be buried under the snow, he reached for an overhead lamp.
“It was like being in a washing machine surrounded by boards, glass, sharp objects, everything you can think of,” Selnes recalls.
He survived, suffering only abrasions and bruises. His three children, who were staying in another part of the house, were unharmed.
But two neighbors – Atle, with whom he had played poker the night before, and Nikoline, a two-year-old girl – lost their lives.
The accident, which locals saw as unthinkable, sent shock waves through the small community of fewer than 2,500 people.
“There’s been a lot of talk about climate change since I’ve been here… but it was kind of difficult to understand or see it,” author and journalist Line Nagell Ylvisaker, who has lived in Longyearbyen since 2005, tells AFP.
“Living here every day is like watching a child grow — you don’t see the glaciers retreating,” she says.
– eye opener –
In Svalbard, climate change has resulted in shorter winters; temperatures that yo-yo; more frequent precipitation, increasingly in the form of rain; and thawing permafrost—all conditions that increase the risk of avalanches and landslides.
In the days following the tragedy, the city was drenched in unusual rainfall. The following fall saw record rainfall in the region, and then a new avalanche swept away another home in 2017, this time without casualties.
“There used to be a lot of talk about polar bears, about new species, about what would happen to the nature around us,” explains Ylvisaker, adding, “The polar bear swimming on an ice sheet is something like the big symbol”.
The series of extreme weather events “was really an eye opener to how this will affect us humans as well.”
After the two avalanches, authorities demolished 144 homes they considered at risk, or about 10 percent of the city’s homes, and constructed a massive granite avalanche barrier at the base of Sukkertoppen.
It’s an ironic turnaround for Longyearbyen, which owes its existence to fossil fuels.
The city was founded in 1906 by US businessman John Munro Longyear, who came here to mine coal. It grew around the mines in a jumble of brightly colored wooden houses.
Almost all mines are now closed, the last one due to close next year. Towering over the city is a huge sci-fi-like hangar complete with trams, a testament to its mining town past.
Now it is man-made climate change that is leaving its mark on the landscape here.
– hotspot –
According to Ketil Isaksen, a researcher at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, the Svalbard region is “the place on earth where temperatures are rising the most”.
In the northernmost part of the 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 science journal Nature.
Why? The shrinking sea ice, scientists explain. It usually acts as an insulating layer, preventing the sea from heating the atmosphere in winter and protecting the sea from the sun in summer.
In Longyearbyen, thawing permafrost means the ground is sagging. Lamp posts tilt and building foundations need to be supported as the ground shifts. Guttering, once unnecessary in this cold and dry climate, is now appearing on roofs.
On the outskirts of town, people used to snowmobile over the now-unfortunately named Isfjorden (Icefjord), which hasn’t frozen over since 2004.
Even the famous Global Seed Vault, designed to protect the planet’s biodiversity from man-made and natural disasters, needed a major overhaul after the entrance tunnel, which was drilled into a mountainside, unexpectedly flooded.
In the offices of the local newspaper Svalbardposten, editor-in-chief Borre Haugli sums up climate change in the region: “We don’t discuss it. We see him”.
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