‘YOUR PLANE TRAVEL DESTROYS POLAR BEAR HABITAT’: Flying to/from Svalbard melts about 3 sq. m. of ice, study suggests


Folks who criticize as hypocritical all those scientists and tourists flying to Svalbard to see the pristine environment and effects of climate change have a new scientific number of their own to cite – each round-trip flight emits enough CO2 to melt about three square meters of the sea ice that is vital for polar bears and other Arctic wildlife.


Bjørn Munro Jenssen conducts field research during a climate change project in Svalbard. Photo courtesy of NTNU.

“We’re supposed to be the ones contributing to saving the world, but we’re flying all over the place,” said Bjørn Munro Jenssen, senior author among a group of polar bear researchers whose findings about the carbon impact were published in the journal Environmental International.

Sometimes flights are inevitable, he added in comments published by phys.org and others, since researchers can’t study polar bears and many other climate-related issues in Svalbard without flying there. But a researcher based in Copenhagen making the 603-kilometer round-trip flight to and from Oslo will cause nearly one square meter of sea ice to melt, making the 2,042 kilometer flight between Oslo and Longyearbyen an easy qualifier for the three-square-meter mark.

The ice the letter refers to is summer sea ice, meaning the thin year-old cover rather than the much thicker multi-year ice – but since the Arctic has lost more than 95 percent of its multi-year ice since 1985 it’s the younger ice most commonly referred to now in reports tracking the advance/retreat of the ice sheet.


A graph show the relationship between flight length (km), CO2 emission (broken line, tons) and melted Arctic sea-ice (solid line, m2). Calculations are based on Myclimate, 2019, Notz and Stroeve, 2016.

“Flight-shaming” has become a trendy thing for both hardcore advocates and skeptics of climate change, showing up increasingly on media coverage of ongoing topics like the annual barrage of Svalbard travelogues and novels events such as the supporters taking flights to meet up with activist Greta Thunberg after one of her “zero-impact” trips to speak at gatherings.

Airline traffic has been called the “new coal” by The European Federation for Transport and Environment, although it currently accounts for about two percent of the global carbon footprint, according to phys.org.


The findings are based on a 2016 study of 30 years of sea ice data showing a metric ton of CO2 results in a loss of three square meters of September sea ice. That was multiplied by the 4.3 billion passengers who flew in 2019, with as assumption each traveled 2,000 kilometers, meaning the total of 1.83 billion tons of emissions during the year resulted in each passenger’s carbon footprint being 0.42 tons.

While method to calculate the per-passenger impact is certainly open to variability and debate, the bottom line is current air travel is resulting in the loss of more than 5,000 square kilometers of sea ice a year, the letter states.

“Much of this travel could be avoided with better planning and employing internet linkages for remote participation,” the letter adds. “When air travel, such as for necessary fieldwork, cannot be easily substituted by web linkage, we all should search for routes and carriers allowing the lowest CO2 emissions…As scientists, if we are serious about preserving polar bears and their Arctic sea ice habitat, we need to walk the talk and show an example for the rest of society by significantly reducing our air travel.”

Sofia E. Kjellman, a Ph.D. candidate at UIT—The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø, who published an article about the dilemma in Nature in mid-2019, told phys.org she is working on climate-related issues in Svalbard in remote areas accessible only by helicopter. But she agrees researchers need to challenge the travel culture that pervades academia.

“I don’t think our research or careers have to suffer just because we choose to fly less,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I’ve been talking to my colleagues about the purpose of our trips—do we really need to go, or do we go mostly because we want to and have the funding to do so? Or maybe because of expectations from supervisors or collaborators? It seems like talking about it helps people evaluate their decisions and look for other solutions.”