Laura Tobin reports on the devastating impact of climate change
We visited Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between Norway and the North Pole.
It’s a landscape of jagged mountains, fjords, glaciers….and polar bears but it is changing fast.
The Norwegian Polar Institute says that because of rapidly rising temperatures, within 20 - 40 YEARS years, the Arctic ocean could be ice-free in the summer, meaning you could travel by boat all the way to the North Pole. The ice will melt much earlier in the spring and freezing will take place later in the autumn.
This will have devastating consequences for the people of Svalbard; the animals here including polar bear, reindeer and marine life and will impact the rest of the world too.
I’m really passionate about the weather, nature and our climate and it’s important for me to share what I know with as many people as possible. That’s why I wanted to visit Svalbard, to witness firsthand the impacts of climate change. Before I went I felt like I knew so much about the science and what it means for the World and for us in the UK but nothing could prepare me for the actual reality, it was eye opening, enlightening and alarming. I’ve learnt (from the amazing Kim Holmén from the Norwegian Polar institute-more on him later) that we can live happy and fulfilled lives when adapting to climate change, we shouldn’t see it as a sacrifice. What is being sacrificed at the moment is our planet and that has to change.
Earth is overheating. Last year was one of the warmest ever recorded, last decade was the warmest decade on record and 19 of the top 20 warmest years ever recorded globally have happened since 2000.
The Arctic is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the world but in Svalbard, in the high arctic, it is warming at least 5 times faster.
New figures given exclusively to us at Good Morning Britain from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute show that in the last 50 years the average winter temperature has increased by 7.7 degrees from -15.9C to -8.2C and the average summer temperature has increased by 2.5 degrees from around +3.8 to around +6.3.
In the last 50 years, Earth has warmed by 0.88C. The UK has warmed by 1.24C but Svalbard has warmed by 4.9C.
Nowhere on Earth is heating up this fast.
The Arctic is one of the main drivers for the weather in the UK, meaning warming here will change our weather.
We were hosted in Svalbard by the Norwegian Polar Institute with Dr Kim Holmén sharing his amazing knowledge and personal experiences of the changing climate he has witnessed over the last 30 years. He was very calming, and when he spoke we wanted to listen to every word. I thought I knew so much but he opened my eyes and mind to so much more, not just the science but the impacts and consequences.
Dr Kim Holmén took us to the Breinosa glacier and he showed us the dramatic changes over the last 100 years.
As the Earth warms, glaciers melt, there has been a sustained long-term decline and glaciers are at their lowest extent in 2000 years. The last decade lost more mass than any other in observed history. Since 1980's glaciers have lost more than they have accumulated, it’s the equivalent of slicing off 24 metres off the top of an average glacier.
The Arctic lost 6000 gigga tones of ice from 1993-2019 which caused a global average sea level rise of 17mm.
Glacier melt has been one of the biggest contributors to sea level rise-40% of sea level rise in the last 100 years
More warming means the retreat will only get worse. Current projections are that we could lose 50% of glaciers by 2100. This will really impact us in the UK. If all the glaciers on Earth melted, the average global sea level would be half a metre. That might not sound like much but it’s enough to put parts of the Humber, large swathes of Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, parts of Kent, parts of the Bristol Channel underwater.
The first glacier we visited (and also broadcast from live on day one-I still can’t believe we broadcast live from a glacier in the high Arctic) was the Longyear Glacier with guide Arne Kristoffersen. He arrived in 1980 as a coal miner, the year before I was born and showed me just how much it has changed. It had retreated by around half a kilometre, but it wasn’t just how far back it was, the vertical extent that had been lost up to 40 meters in places. Think about it a huge volume of ice, half a kilometre long and 40 meters high, gone, into the Sea causing it to rise, all in just 40 years.
The third glacier we visited, where we broadcast from live on day 2, was the Borebreen glacier. A huge wall of ice as high as a 10 story building, the colours were beautiful, white initially, but sometimes yellow and pink when the sun shone on it, then areas of blue being revealed from new calvings (because the ice absorbs the red wavelength of light and reveals the blue) While we were there we witnessed an "ice calving" - huge chunks of ice breaking off into the fjord. It’s a natural process, but it’s happening more due to climate change.
The retreat we witnessed first-hand isn’t just happening across Svalbard, it’s across the whole World.
Sea Ice melting is also a problem for many reasons. The Norwegian Polar Institute says that because of rapidly rising temperatures, within 20 - 40 years, the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in the summer, the ice will melt much earlier in the spring and freezing will take place later in the autumn, meaning you’d be able to travel by boat all the way to the North Pole!
Ice is important because it helps to cool our planet, not because it’s cold because it’s reflective, ice reflects back the suns rays back into space. Think back to school it’s called the Albedo. As the Earth warms the ice melts more, less heat is reflected back to space and it also exposes more dark sea or dark land which then absorbs the suns rays (rather than reflecting it) causing warming which leads to more melting-it’s called a positive feedback vicious cycle.
The trend is important there has been 40 year decline in Arctic Sea ice and it’s declined in all months, most recent decade of the last 40 years, the sea ice is 25% smaller than the first decade. The 14 lowest extent of Arctic Summer Sea ice on record have been in last 14 years
We came to the Isfjorden, which means Ice-Fjord but due to warming it hasn’t frozen over in the winter for the past 11 YEARS. Svalbard is literally melting. The Sea ice is important for the wildlife and ecosystems of the Arctic.
Sea ice, Glacier and Ice sheets melting have different consequences on Sea level rise. Sea ice is like a floating ice cube in a full glass. It occupies the same area when it melts, meaning melting Sea ice doesn’t lead to sea level rise. Glaciers are large bodies of ice whose movement is influenced by gravity, as it melts it goes into the sea and this leads to sea level rise (half a metre if all the glaciers melted) But ice sheets are a huge mass of ice on land. If Greenland's ice sheet melted it would cause the global sea level to rise by 7.2metres. If the Antarctic ice sheet melts it would cause 70 metres of global sea level rise, mostly in the N hemisphere. These are high impact low likelihood events but irreversible in our lifetime.
Even if we cut all emissions tomorrow, the melt will continue, sea levels will still rise and the environment will suffer. If we can limit warming we are still committed to 2-3 metres of sea level rise over the next 2000 years. BUT if we warmed 5C that would lead to 19-22 metres of sea level rise.
Another cause of Sea level rise is just that the sea is warmer and warm water and this causes sea levels to rise, the emissions we have put in mean we have already committed to future warming and more thermal expansion. We can’t stop it but we can change how catastrophic the result might be.
Another issues in the Arctic and Antarctic-Permafrost, ground which is permanently frozen is now thawing, is contains dead animals, plants and organic matter which hasn’t rotted and has been frozen for 1000’s of years, when it melts it starts to decompose and then release methane into the atmosphere & carbon dioxide, this causes the temperature to rise. Scientists have no way of knowing how much methane and CO2 are trapped in the permafrost but it’s very worrying as it’s self-propelling warming. The other impacts are more coastal erosion, permafrost ground is hard, when it thaws it softens and this leads to more coastal erosion. It also impacts local infrastructure like buildings and pipelines, as the ground becomes marshy it moves and can cause gas and oil pipelines and houses to collapse
The impact we have witnessed here is a glimpse into our future, but this doesn’t have to be our reality.
Why does the Arctic matter to us in the UK so much? It is the main driver of the weather in the UK. It controls the atmospheric circulation for the northern hemisphere and the Jet stream, the conveyor belt high up in the atmosphere which brings us our weather, the wet and windy, the hot and cold. The difference in temperatures between the cold arctic and the warm equator makes the -jet stream, the strong temperature gradient makes a strong jet stream. As the Arctic warms the temperature gradient decreases. This then impacts te Jet stream. There is research which shows that this could make the Jet stream weaken and also become more meandering, or blocked as we call it meaning the weather is more likely to get ‘stuck’. This can lead to more extremes, wetter wet (think Germany floods), hotter hots (think Greece wildfires).
I wanted to come and tell the story but it’s not a story, it’s reality.
What was impossible is not possible and becoming more probable.