SEVEN DEGREES OF SEPARATION: Longyearbyen’s climate change may be the fastest in the world, but the wide-ranging impacts tell the real tale (part one of a seven-part series)

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It’s a catchy, but useless headline: “‘Doomsday vault’ town warming faster than any other on Earth.” It’s only six months old, yet now is just another cliché such as “the town where it’s illegal to die” (wrong) and “more polar bears than people” (also wrong).

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Part one of a seven-part series about the drastic effects of climate change on virtually all aspects of life in Longyearbyen and prospects for the future.

It says nothing about the sizable percentage of residents thrown out of their homes, collapse of the traditional workforce, mass arrival of foreigners and class warfare, and hostile military forces practicing a full-scale invasion just across the border. It’s used as a soundbite by policymakers to explain hardships, justify controversies and pursue policies that may or may not substantially address the issue.

So while such drastic blurbs may captivate the world’s attention (or not), they’re largely mundane for locals in the world’s northernmost town of Longyearbyen. They have far more important, but less sensational, things to worry about than a magazine cover declaring in fist-size letters they’re living in an apocalyptic preview of “The Uninhabitible Earth.”

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Many homes close to the base Sukkurtoppen, where two avalanches have destroyed residences since December of 2015, are empty and awaiting demolition after being declared unsafe by experts. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Such as whether they have sufficient and safe shelter as the four-month polar night begins this weekend, since even with all that warming -10C temperatures and plenty of snow have arrived.

A major housing crisis is among the biggest of a multitude of urgent issues facing this rapidly changing town – but ironically it’s not due to an actual shortage of housing. Rather, about 140 of the homes some of the 2,200 locals used to live in are now standing empty and awaiting demolition after being declared permanently unsafe due to a newly discovered avalanche risk. Many more have already been destroyed or are in danger of being similarly classified.

It’s one of the polar paradoxes that makes this town on an island halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole a frequent object of curiosity in ways that are inspiring, mythical, comical and/or morbid. It’s touted as “the pristine crown jewel of Norway,” yet the only place in the country where coal is still mined and burned for electricity. New laws increasingly restrict polluting ships and new volunteer policies are doing away with things like drinking straws, yet the town still discharges untreated sewage into a sea so full of trash the most remote beaches of Svalbard can resemble urban landfills. The famous Svalbard Global Seed Vault was supposed to be the ultimate safeguard for the planet’s crops, but didn’t even make it through its first decade before climate impacts forced repairs costing nearly three times the vault’s original price tag.

The area’s remoteness and unique “open border” rules allowing foreigners to easily live/work here have long resulted in eclectic incidents offering fleeting fame. But increasingly global headlines are (with varying degrees of accuracy) about how the rapidly changing climate is threatening residents with everything from homelessness to being the staging area for the next world war.

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A video of polar bears mating from a video shot on the sea ice between Longyearbyen and Pyramiden in the spring of 2018 got global media attention. Screenshot from video by Yann Rashid.

Among the recent “normal” extreme incidents, the world went gleefully bonkers after the first bank robbery in the town’s 113-year history last December, since area’s isolation meant the bumbling bandit essentially had no getaway options  (“Arctic bank robbery goes south” and “Cold Case” were typical headlines). Misadventures involving polar bears doing everything from threatening humans to having sex in front of them are certain “go virtual.” And anything with the magic words “Doomsday Vault,” which for some reason inspires narratives involving zombies and evil corporations fixated on ruling the world, is surefire clickbait for media who make that their main mission.

But an entirely different wave of publicity followed a study released earlier this year declaring climate change is happening most rapidly in Svalbard. While skeptics offered the expected “the climate is always changing regardless of humans” dismissals, the baseline numbers were unprecedented and stark: temperatures in Longyearbyen now are five degrees Celsius warmer and there are two fewer months of winter than 50 years ago – and it’s expected to be another five degrees warmer and another two months of winter lost 50 years from now.

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A helicopter lowers parts for an avalanche barrier onto the hillside above homes in downtown Longyearbyen this summer. Construction on the barriers began this spring. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

That meant plenty of media stories and projects about starving wildlife, the elimination or new appearance of species, vanishing sea ice, massive land and sea pollution, extreme weather and other climate-related topics. But the first thing on the minds of many visiting enquirers was the effects being felt by ordinary inhabitants. That led many to focus on the housing crisis that has resulted in the first-ever “homeless” community – a staggering development in a town where self-sufficiency is literally the law and those who can’t support themselves are exiled by the governor.

The hardship was inflicted in two ways: with the sudden and shocking pain of a car accident, and the lingering (and quite potentially more serious) longevity of a cancer infection.

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Rows of homes are shown before and after the Dec. 19, 2015, avalanche that hit 11 structures. The addresses of the homes are noted in yellow. Before photo by the Norwegian Polar Institute. After photo by Geir Barstein / Svalbardposten.

Two avalanches in 2015 and 2017 that destroyed nearly 20 residences led to new assessments resulting in those 140 still-standing residences and 100 student dorms being declared uninhabitable. Hundreds of occupants were ousted – sometimes with months of notice, sometimes with only minutes –  and stories of people living in boat storage shacks, condemned spaces, camping out and being forced to move to the mainland despite gainful employment are plentiful. While Norway’s government has approved funding for scores of new homes now being built quickly, it will be years before space catches up to demand – and meanwhile homeowners who’ve been displaced are generally being denied compensation due to Svalbard being exempt from many of Norway’s generous social-support laws.

But plenty of locals under safe and secure roofs are hardly assured of a good night’s sleep due to the multitude of other changes affecting their daily and long-term existence. This series examines how virtually every aspect of how their lives (and by association pretty much every lifeform elsewhere) is being affected by climate-related factors including their jobs, leisure activities, health, politics, and exposure to catastrophic events caused by nature and man.

It also examines the media coverage (or lack thereof) of those impacts, and its accuracy and impact (or lack thereof). A reluctant and inevitable part of that is the author’s reporting and real-life experiences, despite being a firm believer in the mantra of journalists not being a part of their own story. Events such as the loss of two homes to climate change-related issues during the past decade have affected the author to the extent of receiving widespread global coverage. As such, sharing that narrative and the perceptions of how others portrayed it offers both a unique detailed personal insight as well as allowing readers to weight those experiences when evaluating the credibility of the coverage in this series.

In addition to the housing crisis, upcoming stories in the series include:

Economic meltdown

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A chart showing the changes in the number of man hours by industry between 2008 and 2017. The first is mining-related jobs, the second is tourism and cultural activities, and the third is education and research. The decade of sudden shifts follows nearly a century where coal mining consistently dominated the town’s workforce. Chart by Statistics Norway.

The working history of Longyearbyen looks a lot like a graph of the world’s temperature history – a long and relatively consistent line for nearly its entire existence, followed by a sudden and nearly off-the-charts spike right at the end.

The discovery of coal was the basis for founding the town in 1906 and, aside from World War II when Germans took over Svalbard, remained dominant for almost exactly a century. But mining has plummeted to nearly nothing the past few years in the wake of a global market collapse, while tourism has spiked upward at a similar rate – and other large-scale industries including oil drilling, fishing and shipping are looming on the horizon.

Factors beyond climate change helped trigger the collapse of mining – indeed, Norway’s government showed a stubborn willingness at first to prop up money-losing operations here at great expense, even while ridding itself of investments in coal-related companies at the global level. But the shock and uncertainty about what – if anything – might replace all those lost jobs opened the way for industries that could benefit from, be vulnerable to and be a cause of climate change.

Shifting society

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Longyearbyen residents parade through the streets during the Syttende Mai celebration this year. While sharing many of the same traditional celebrations as communities on the mainland, Longyearbyen’s celebration of the May 17 national day is also filled with plenty of unique aspects including polar-themed banners and accessories. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

As with temperature and economic figures, a few numbers illustrate the huge changes in Longyearbyen’s residents and society: the number of foreigners has increased from 14 percent in 2009 to 36 percent in 2019. That helps account for tourism increasing from about 15 percent of the town’s jobs a decade ago to more than 40 percent today, while the mining jobs worked by Norwegians has shrunk from about 40 percent then to well under 10 percent now.

So while Longyearbyen’s population has remained fairly steady during the past decade – indeed, even grown the past few years despite fears massive mining layoffs might result in a loss of a quarter of the population – the society is changing in ways that are alienating long-timers and newcomers alike.

Longyearbyen’s population has always fluctuated (residents stay an average of less than six years) and everyone in the modern era is from “somewhere else” since the oft-repeated “illegal to be born here” legend is accurate…barring an emergency delivery. But the recent changes are resulting in a culture shock felt more by longtime locals than new arrivals trying to get acclimated. Longstanding traditions from weekend parties to holidays to annual festivals are vanishing, fading and/or being replaced by new happenings that are altering the social landscape as much as the physical one.

Meanwhile, a high percentage of new arrivals are working in tourism and other jobs that offer lower pay, fewer or no benefits such as insurance, and seasonal contracts that complicate hopes of establishing a full-time and/or family life in Longyearbyen. Those complaints about a growing class division are found in the housing haves/have-nots, as well as those facing health and other issues.

Polarizing politics

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Politicians from the local Conservative (blue) and Labor (red) parties campaign the day before the Longyearbyen Community Council election this fall. But while on opposite sides of the street literally as well as figuratively before the campaign, they joined to form a new council majority after the election. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Conservative Party politicians promoted new environmental protections and Green Party members spoke favorably of continuing coal mining in the just-completed local council election. Such is the nature of things in Svalbard.

The contradictions are also seen among national politicians who are pushing oil drilling up to its border while claiming a leading role in fighting climate change. Meanwhile, at the global level “Arctic nations” – with China and India among those seeking inclusion despite their contrary geography – are rushing to stake claims in the archipelago while speaking of protection and peace, but taking actions intended to boost their power and profit.

The people of Longyearbyen cast their vote for change in the election after a heated campaign in these troubled times…and got more of the same. The same Labor Party that’s been in power the past 16 years will remain there for the next four years despite getting 31 percent of the vote, due to their willingness to form a majority with the two most conservative parties who were the harshest critics of the incumbents. Which means common priorities such as more housing and infrastructure for businesses may continue to be slowed by questions about allowing private industry a bigger role in traditionally government-controlled policy areas.

But the limited authority of local politicians, already at the mercy of natural forces as well as manmade obstacles in recent years, is also feeling the heat from national and global politicians who have more say in many major areas. Norway’s government, for instance, ignored the pleas of local politicians and businesses by ordering the area’s main coal mines to not just shut down, but be dismantled entirely at great expense – dashing hopes they might someday reopen or be alternatively used for tourism/research. Global fights are being waged about everything from Europeans catching crabs to the boundaries of the continental shelf, all with implications that may last decades.

Military maneuvers

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Russian Special Forces participate in a simulated invasion of Svalbard on islands to the east of the archipelago earlier this fall. Photo by Russian Armed Forces.

The law’s absolutely clear: no war-related activities in Svalbard. Except maybe some Norway is doing openly or covertly. And whatever provocations countries like Russia and China can get away with without any substantial repercussions.

The ban on such military activity is a key provision of the nearly century-old Svalbard Treaty, which allows signature nations open access (more or less) for other purposes. But in recent years the archipelago has been declared one of Norway’s most vulnerable targets for foreign invasion and espionage – because of that access and how it might offer advantages when fighting for over the vast wealth of resources climate change is opening up in the Arctic.

So when Russia conducted a large-scale simulated invasion of Svalbard earlier this fall it was just another in a series of such simulations by both Norway and Russia (all of which agree Russia will dominate any such campaign). When one of two large tracts of private land came on the market a few years ago, China (which was accused of hacking a top-secret satellite facility here a decade ago) immediately emerged as the rumored purchaser so it could establish a proverbial beachhead here until Norway invoked an ancient law to thwart such an attempt and then bought the property for what some called a vastly overpriced amount.

Norway, meanwhile, has been accused of its own provocations in recent years by allowing activities such as a NATO-related summit here, extended expeditions by military ships under the guise of training/research and suspicion about activities by those top-secret satellites beyond merely collecting climate/weather data. It’s also accused of a rather closed-minded interpretation of the Svalbard Treaty that gives a “home” advantage to activities such as development, research and commercial industry, potentially adding fuel to those who eventually may take their fire from courtrooms to actual battlefields.

Environmental extremes

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Longyearbyen students of all ages gather in the town center to hear speech during a global climate strike this fall. In the background is a gap between homes where an avalanche in December of 2015 destroyed 11 residences and killed two people, and snow barriers built during the past year to protect homes still standing. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

The North Pole is about to be ice-free (or perhaps not). The polar bears are starving (or maybe that’s bogus). Temperatures have been above-average for 105 months (if those can really be called average). The Doomsday Vault is flooding (that’s definitely Fake News).

The range of climate change impacts in Svalbard and data supporting them aren’t in question to anyone who accepts mainstream science. It’s that there’s so many researchers can find their efforts obscured in the avalanche of overlapping projects or misrepresented in ways that prove ultimately harmful.

Also, “climate crisis” replaces “climate change” (which replaced “global warming”) in the mainstream media lexicon, it seems there are new studies daily involving Svalbard about about how the land, sea, wildlife and humanity are near or surpassing tipping points of no return. But while “crisis” assumes negative impacts – and there are plenty of them – to overlook exaggerations and the benefactors is to give ammunition to those who would cast cold water on those inflammatory findings.

The loss of traditional species often involves the arrival of new ones (such as Arctic cod being replaced by Atlantic cod, which is seen as a boon by the fishing industry). A starvation year for one species may be a year of feasting for another (reindeer that forage and Arctic foxes that feed on carcasses typically find themselves on opposite and exchanging sides of plentitude). Freakish winter warmth and rain that wrecks snowmobile and dogsledding tourism can mean riches for tour boat operators able to extend operations by a few months during the year.

Adding to the question of studies that are (mostly) credible vs. (occasionally) dubious vs. (too-common) flat-out nonsense is the sheer volume of them. Projects may involve amateurs taking measurements during a weeklong ski or boat trip, a team of internationally researchers spending months at a time aboard a ship frozen in the sea ice, or take place in a single location over many years or decades. Findings might make bold declarations about mass extinctions or make minute adjustments to a highly specialized field such as the reflective qualities of the upper atmosphere. And the latter may be more important than the former, which can easily get overlooked by the media when trying to determine what might have some chance of catching the attention of policymakers and/or the public.

Media madness (including the author’s)

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Congregants receiving Communion during an outdoor Mass in March of 2016 on Hiorthfjellet are filmed by a camera as part of the 10-episode BBC “docu-soap” “Ice Town – Life on the Edge.” Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

Hundreds of small and large media entities now arrive annually hoping to capture the “real story” about climate change, whether through dramatic scenic footage of nature or dark emotions of local residents suffering the consequences. Invariably a dismayingly high percentage seek out a certain group of local “reliable sources,” of which the author seems to be one.

I’ve lost my home and possessions rather abruptly once to thawing permafrost, a second time to climate change-related avalanche danger and a third time to the seemingly impossible economics of publishing the world’s northernmost alternative newspaper (and/or northernmost newspaper in English) at time when such publications are vanishing as rapidly as the nearby glaciers.

Invoking the journalist’s mantra “I’m not the story” in my case requires a level of denial akin to those who would proclaim a Chinese hoax is responsible for my hardships. Local media seem to report every paradise lost/paradise found development in my personal Svalbard soap opera, while international publications, TV reports and documentaries have featured me in everything from coffee table photo books to a 10-episode TV “docudrama” that followed eight of my most dramatic months here.

Evaluating the accuracy and quality of such projects is difficult due to my tendency to cringe when seeing my image, hearing my voice or reading my quotes. But there are definite examples of excellence along with plenty of erroneous results (inadvertent and not). But first-hand knowledge of those helps provide clarity about who deserves credibility about reporting the bigger picture and allows me to offer other media organizations seeking advice or interviews how to avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors.

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This is part of an ongoing series about the future of Longyearbyen as climate change drastically reshapes the society, economy, politics and many other fundamentals in addition to the environment. It is in collaboration with Tamara Worzewski, a German freelance science researcher/writer, with funding assistance provided by the Network for Reporting on Eastern Europe (n-ost). Reporters in the Field is a program by the Robert Bosch Stiftung hosted together with the Berlin-based media network n-ost.

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