Fears for Arctic after warmest winter on record

Alok Jha

Former Science Correspondent

The Tempelfjord is around 1,000 km from the north pole, a sliver of water bounded by mountain ranges that jut out from the western edge of Svalbard like jagged fingers.

At this time of year, the sea here is normally covered in ice, the uppermost metre or so frozen solid during the dark Arctic winter months.

But things haven’t been normal this winter.

Instead of pristine white sea ice along and beyond the fjord and far out into the Arctic ocean, right now there is a rolling, dark ocean.

A few kilometres of sea ice has managed to form at the bottom end of the fjord, where the sea meets the land and Tunabreen glacier is slowly calving, but it is thin and looks insignificant.

The Arctic has undergone a dramatic heatwave this year.

On some days in the past few months, the temperatures around the island archipelago of Svalbard have been 20C higher than the long-term average for the region.

“At this time of year, we should be seeing one-metre thick ice for a hundred miles, but we’re in the bottom of the fjord with a little bit of ice,” said Dr Kim Holmen, Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, who took ITV News into the Tempelfjord in March.

“We’ve had rain in November, avalanches, a lot more snow on the mountains, open water and we are seeing a winter that is warmer than ever before.”

When ITV News visited the Tempelfjord and the Tunabreen glacier two years ago we drove hundreds of kilometres on a snowmobile across a thick covering of sea ice.

This year, however, we could only reach the edge of the ice by boat.

The ITV News crew travelled across the sea ice on snowmobiles in 2015. Credit: PA

Warm ocean water and winds from the south in the past few months have stopped much of the usual ice from forming in the Arctic.

And it’s a vicious cycle - because open water is darker than white ice it absorbs more sunlight, which means it warms even faster and is even less likely to freeze.

This winter’s lack of ice has been smashing records: it is the lowest amount at this time of the season in 38 years of satellite measurements.

The lack of ice this winter is smashing records in Svalbard. Credit: ITV News

The US National Snow and Ice Data Centre has reported that the Arctic sea ice this year reached its maximum extent on March 7, at 14.42 million square kilometres.

Compared to the average of 1981-2010 this year’s maximum ice was around 1.22 million square kilometres smaller.

All of this is a clear sign of global climate change.

Though the whole Earth’s climate is changing due to human influences, it’s in the Arctic that average temperatures are rising the fastest.

Vanishing ice here has impacts across the world.

The cold air from the north drives a system of winds known as the jet stream, which in turn steers the weather in most of northern Europe.

Svalbard has seen more open water this past winter. Credit: ITV News

Less ice and cold air in the Arctic means a weaker jet stream and more extreme weather in the UK, such as sustained rain and flooding.

Arctic wildlife, which depend on the ice, have to adapt fast or - more likely - face grave threat.

Ecologists working in Svalbard told us that they expect no new generation of polar bears this year because there simply wasn’t enough ice for the animals to hunt and breed as they normally would.

It’s difficult to imagine that such enormous, dramatic changes could happen so quickly.

But in the once-pristine Arctic environment of Svalbard the devastating impact of climate change is already inescapable.

Alok Jha took viewers questions live on Facebook from the Arctic Circle: