Climate change hurts Svalbard

The warming Arctic is a serious threat to the Norwegian city of Longyearbyen


Photo: Arve Henriksen,
Norwegian Polar Institute
Above: Climate change has already necessitated a refrigeration pipe complex to be retrofitted into the terrain around Global Seed Vault.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Longyearbyen, the largest community and the administrative center of Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, is now seriously endangered by climate change. As reported on Sept. 17, in a front-page feature in Aftenposten, over the past few winters, increasingly mild and unstable weather has escalated the danger of snow avalanches, earth avalanches, and erosion. The permafrost under many of the community’s buildings is thawing, with disastrous consequences.


Image: Norwegian Polar Institute
Map of Svalbard archipelago.

Some 250 buildings must now be demolished and new ones built on steel pilings driven down to bedrock. Most alarming is that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is threatened. Opened in 2008, it was built to ensure against the loss of seeds held in other genebanks around the world, in case of large-scale crises. Its location, just 810 miles from the North Pole, was chosen because the permafrost surrounding it will help maintain the low vault temperature of -18°C (-0.4°F) should electricity supply fail. Climate change has now canceled that assurance. So at an overall cost of NOK 100 million ($12.3 million), the access tunnel to the vault has been rebuilt, and a giant refrigeration facility has been built to keep the permafrost frozen around the vault.

Further reading:

• “Klimaendringene tvinger Longyearbyen på flyttefot” (Climate change compels Longyearbyen to be on the move.) by Arve Henriksen, Aftenposten, Sept. 17, 2018: (in Norwegian).

• “More than a coffee table book: Seeds on Ice,” by Christine Foster Meloni, review of a book by scientist Cary Fowler, who is credited with the idea of creating the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to maintain worldwide crop diversity, The Norwegian American, Dec. 13, 2017:

This article originally appeared in the October 5, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.