60% OF SVALBARD COVERED BY GLACIERS? NOT ANY MORE: It’s 55% due to climate change since 2003. And ice and snow levels are dropping 25 and 43 percent per decade, respectively


Time for another nugget of “common knowledge” about Svalbard to be liquidated, so to speak:  60 percent of the archipelago isn’t covered by ice, it’s about 55 percent.

While the updated figure might not seem massive to some casual observers, the reduction has occurred in less than 20 years due to climate change, according to an update of a major collaborative research publication released this week.


A graph shows the ice mass loss of glaciers throughout Svalbard since 1960. Graph by the Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing System.

The oft-quoted 60 percent figure is based on 2003 research that found 36,502 of Svalbard’s 61,022 square kilometers of land mass was covered by glaciers. But a State of Environmental Science in Svalbard report, updated for 2019 after its initial release a year ago, states total glacier coverage is now 34,000 square kilometers.

More importantly in terms of assessing impacts, the report notes that while Svalbard represents only about 10 percent of the Arctic’s glaciers the archipelago has a broad range of types that simplifies studying the effects of climate change across all regions.

“All reported pan-Svalbard estimates show a decrease in glacier mass balance, likely as a result of atmospheric and oceanic warming,” the report states.

Put in a larger context, similar research in Greenland shows the country lost 3.8 trillion tons of ice between 1992 and 2018 – enough to push global sea levels up to 10.6 millimeters – and the rate of loss increased seven-fold from 33 billion tons per year 1990s to 254 billion tons per year during the past decade.

“Cumulative ice losses from Greenland as a whole have been close to the IPCC’s predicted rates for their high-end climate warming scenario, which forecast an additional 50 to 120 millimetres of global sea-level rise by 2100 when compared to their central estimate,” the study published in the journal Nature notes.

The Svalbard report continues a series of studies showing escalating impacts in every natural aspect from sea beds to the upper atmosphere, including noting “during the 2017/18 hydrological year were markedly warmer than the previous year. Despite a longer freezing season, mean air temperatures were higher at all measurement locations in Svalbard.”

This continued warming has had repercussions on the terrestrial system through a decrease in the depth and duration of snow cover, as well as an increased frequency of rain-on-snow events,” the report added. “These changes have led to increases in plant productivity.”

The substantial loss of thick multi-year sea ice has received plenty of high-profile coverage during the past decade, with the updated report noting ice thickness has been declining about 25 percent per decade since 1997 and snow thickness about 42 percent per decade.

In addition to updating last year’s report about findings from atmospheric, oceanographic, seismological, black carbon and other fields of research, the report emphasizes a large number of recommendations in all fields to address deficiencies in knowledge and techniques.

It recommends, for example, “increased monitoring of permafrost at different locations and greater depths, as well as enhanced use of remote sensing techniques to monitor both ground instability and vegetation growth are necessary for better quantification on of the observed changes.” Among the recommendations for glacier research are “collaborative research programmes across (and outside) the glaciological community…to better assess the future evolution of glacier cover.”

The report by the Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing System (SIOS), an international partnership of research institutions studying the environment and climate in and around Svalbard, was released during the SIOS Polar Night Week 2020 that started Monday in Longyearbyen.