In the Arctic, the cruel climate backlash for a mining town – 06/22/2022 at 23:27

In the Arctic, the cruel climate backlash for a mining town – 06/22/2022 at 23:27

Tor Selnes, survivor of an avalanche in 2015, at the new avalanche wall in Longyearbyen, in the Svalbard archipelago, northern Norway, May 9, 2022 (AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

Tor Selnes, survivor of an avalanche in 2015, at the new avalanche wall in Longyearbyen, in the Svalbard archipelago, northern Norway, May 9, 2022 (AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

His life, he owes it to a lamp: Tor Selnes is a miracle of an avalanche which tragically brought to light the vulnerability of Svalbard to climate change, in an arctic region which is warming the fastest in the world.

On this Saturday, December 19, 2015, less than a week before Christmas, the 54-year-old educational assistant is dozing at his home in Longyearbyen, the capital of this Norwegian archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

Suddenly masses of snow tumbled down the side of Sukkertoppen, the mountain overlooking the city, and swept away two rows of houses.

That of Tor Selnes is moved 80 meters and the room where he sleeps completely crushed.

To avoid being caught in the snowfall, he grabs a lamp from the ceiling for a few seconds.

“It was as if I was in a washing machine, surrounded by boards, glass, sharp objects, everything you can imagine,” he says.

He escaped with cuts and bruises. In another wing of the house, her three children are unharmed.

But two neighbours, Atle, with whom he played poker the day before, and Nikoline, a two-year-old girl, died there.

Tor Selnes shows a photo of the lamp that saved his life during the avalanche on December 19, 2015, in Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway (AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

Tor Selnes shows a photo of the lamp that saved his life during the avalanche on December 19, 2015, in Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway (AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

The drama, which until then had been considered unthinkable, had the effect of an electric shock in this community of less than 2,500 souls.

“There has been a lot of talk about climate change since I arrived (…) but it was hard to see or absorb,” says author and journalist Line Nagell Ylvisåker, based in Longyearbyen since 2005.

“When you live here, it’s like watching a child grow up: you don’t see the glaciers retreating” day by day, she says.

– Mining past –

In Svalbard, climate change means shorter winters, yo-yoing temperatures, stronger and more intense rainfall and melting permafrost.

The avalanche barrier in Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago, on May 6, 2022 ( AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND )

The avalanche barrier in Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago, on May 6, 2022 ( AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND )

So many conditions conducive to avalanches and landslides…

In the days following the tragedy, rains, incongruous in the Christmas period, fell on the city.

Then came record showers the following fall, and another avalanche that swept away another house, without causing any casualties, in 2017.

“Before, we talked a lot about polar bears, new species, what was going to happen in nature,” continues Line Nagell Ylvisåker.

Maps showing the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard and locating the localities of Barentsburg, Longyearbyen and Ny-Alesund (AFP/)

Maps showing the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard and locating the localities of Barentsburg, Longyearbyen and Ny-Alesund (AFP/)

“The polar bear floating on a piece of ice symbolized that, but (the chain of meteorological accidents, editor’s note) made me open my eyes to how it affects us humans too,” she adds. .

After the two avalanches, the authorities condemned 144 dwellings considered vulnerable. That is about 10% of the city’s building stock, which has now been replaced by a gigantic anti-avalanche barrier made of large blocks of granite.

A cruel backlash for Longyearbyen, whose history is closely linked to fossil fuels.

Merry jumble of colorful wooden houses, the city was founded in 1906 by the American businessman John Munro Longyear, who came there to extract coal.

The avalanche barrier in Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago, on May 6, 2022 ( AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND )

The avalanche barrier in Longyearbyen, on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago, on May 6, 2022 ( AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND )

If almost all the mines are closed today – the last should, normally, be next year -, a huge shed for mine trucks stands on the heights of the city, witness to this mining past.

Coal (almost) stored in the museum, it is climate change that is now shaping the urban landscape.

– Hotspot –

According to Ketil Isaksen, a researcher at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, the Svalbard region is “the place on Earth with the highest temperature rise”.

In the northern part of the Barents Sea which bathes the archipelago, warming is up to seven times faster than on the planet, shows a study he co-signed in Nature .

A sign warning of the presence of polar bears at the side of a road near Longyearbyen, in the Svalbard archipelago, on May 2, 2022 (AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

A sign warning of the presence of polar bears at the side of a road near Longyearbyen, in the Svalbard archipelago, on May 2, 2022 (AFP / Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

Blame it on the receding sea ice which, scientists explain, normally acts as an insulating blanket preventing the ocean from warming the atmosphere in winter and protecting the ocean from the sun in summer.

In Longyearbyen, the melting of the permafrost weakens the soil, makes the lampposts flicker and obliges to redo the foundations of the houses. Until then superfluous for this cold and dry climate, gutters appear on the roofs…

On the edge of the city, the now misnamed Isfjorden (“ice fjord”), which you could previously cross by snowmobile in winter, has not seen any real ice form on its surface since 2004.

Even the famous World Seed Reserve, supposed to protect plant biodiversity from the inadequacies of men and natural disasters, had to undergo major work after unexpected water infiltration in the tunnel which controls its entry into the bowels of a mountain. .

In the offices of the newspaper Svalbardposten, the editor-in-chief Børre Haugli summarizes the situation with a shock formula. Climate change? Today, “we don’t discuss it, we see it”.

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