Apr 12, 2023

How Climate Change is Threatening a Remote Town in the Arctic Circle Transcript

How Climate Change is Threatening a Remote Town in the Arctic Circle Transcript
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The Arctic town of Longyearbyen, Norway, is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth. Read the transcript here.

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Geoff Bennett (00:00):

In the northernmost town on earth, average temperatures are up and sea ice is declining. The Arctic town of Longyearbyen sits in a Norwegian island chain. And because of climate change, it’s having to adapt to longer summers and shorter, warmer winters. Special correspondent John Bevir traveled there to meet some of the people living on the front line of a changing world.

John Bevir (00:23):

Nestled between glaciers just 800 miles from the North Pole, Longyearbyen is unlike anywhere else on the planet. With temperatures just a few degrees above zero in the winter, for the 2,900 people who live here, life is an adventure, but it’s an adventure that’s getting more dangerous. Two people died when an avalanche hit the town in 2015. Many say they were the first people here to be killed by climate change. Warmer weather can lead to a less stable snowpack, making avalanches more common.

Dr. Holt Hancock (00:59):

I was pretty set on working in the snow.

John Bevir (01:02):

Dr. Holt Hancock came to Svalbard while studying at Montana State University. As the fastest warming town on Earth, his contribution to work on detecting and predicting avalanches is helping keep locals safe.

Dr. Holt Hancock (01:17):

There’s now daily avalanche hazard forecasts written for town, which gives an overall picture of what the avalanche hazard may be. Then, there’s these structural mitigation measures that are put up on the slope in town. So all of these things go together to attempt to mitigate that risk.

John Bevir (01:38):

So you obviously grew up around snow in Montana. Have you managed to bring some of that Montana knowledge here to the Arctic?

Dr. Holt Hancock (01:45):

Montana’s pretty cold and pretty windy in the winters as well. So despite that its at a much lower latitude, a lot of those processes are still the same. So some of that experience that you build up at, for instance, a lower latitude or a different, what we would call, snow climate, is still applicable up here. And by the same context, hopefully some of the things that we learn up here are also going to be applicable at a lower latitude setting.

John Bevir (02:13):

Living safely with polar bears is not a problem that many other parts of the world have to deal with. The town’s museum is as close as most visitors get. Dwindling sea ice is threatening the bears’ very existence and pushing them further north to find suitable hunting grounds. It’s the weather here that’s now the biggest threat for many.

The climate here is warming and less snow is falling, but local say the weather events are getting worse. And days that start with nice mornings can end with incredibly harsh storms. Tonight’s wind chill is negative 40 degrees.

Even so, Longyearbyen has that dubious honor of warming quicker than anywhere else, but it’s powered by coal. For decades, this was a company town where coal was the only business, but the global emissions from the very material that built the town are now threatening its future. One working mine remains. Its planned closure this year has been postponed until 2025, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine drove coal prices up in Europe. Tourism is the big business now. Ice cave expeditions a one of the popular activities, but the glaciers are melting at a record rate.

Mans Gullgren (03:46):

We’re probably about 10 meters underneath the surface.

John Bevir (03:47):

Mans Gullgren guided our way through the labyrinthine structure and says he’s worried about how much longer activities like this will be possible.

Mans Gullgren (03:57):

I’ve been thinking about this for years and years. And if I were to walk around and worry, which I do, but I have to shut it off as well. Because otherwise, it would just be too hard, seeing that nothing is actually happening. And if we are basing our lives on economic growth, that’s what we’re getting. And I don’t see anything changing soon, but I hope.

John Bevir (04:29):

Decades of conservation work has gone into trying to protect the fragile ecosystem here, but there’s only so much that can be done locally to limit climate change. This part of the Arctic is warming around six times faster than the global average. Temperatures in Svalbard are up four degrees Celsius, that’s just over seven Fahrenheit, in the past 50 years. Trying to limit the impact of the 130,000 or so annual visitors is high on the agenda here.

This tour company has invested in eight electric snowmobiles. They’re recharged using a wind turbine and solar panels on the office roof. It’s a measure that’s also being used elsewhere to try and help the environment, as well as appealing to more environmentally conscious tourists.

Ronny Brunvoll (05:21):

The climate emissions in Svalbard are crazy for living here and also for tourism. It’s not good.

John Bevir (05:27):

Ronny Brunvoll runs Visits Svalbard, the official tourism board for the archipelago. He’s attempting to balance tourist income with tourist impact.

Ronny Brunvoll (05:37):

Coming to a high Arctic archipelago, they want to be part of tourists that don’t leave any footprint, for instance. So the companies has to adapt to climate change, but also to changes in the perspectives of the visitors.

John Bevir (05:54):

From early settlers whaling, to mining, and now tourism, life here has constantly had to adapt to survive. But as the sun sets on an industry that’s kept Svalbard prosperous and warm, climate change is something they can do little to prevent and is the biggest challenge yet. For the PBS NewsHour, I’m John Bevir in Longyearbyen, Svalbard.

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