'This is a reality now, it's scary': Why leaders must pay attention to world's fastest warming town

ITV News Correspondent Peter Smith on why temperatures are rising four times faster than the global average in Svalbard and how it affects the rest of the world

The Arctic is the fastest warming place on Planet Earth.

10,000-year-old glaciers melt in front of your eyes. The sea ice is disappearing. The polar landscape endures more avalanches than we’ve ever known before.

The whole world is warming up but in the Polar North it is happening four times faster than the global average.

That’s why I travelled to Svalbard at the frozen edge of civilisation - it is where we can see for ourselves that climate change is not a theory; it is already happening.

'Very cold, but not cold enough' - Peter Smith explains why we should be worried about what's happening in Svalbard

In the northernmost town in the world, massive metal barriers are currently being airdropped onto mountainsides. Houses simply bulldozed to make way for a huge protective wall around the town.

The warmer air here means more chance of avalanches. In fact, the avalanche early warning system on Svalbard has already triggered.

They know that a snow-covered ridge here will soon collapse and it’s estimated they have just a few months to prepare.

Directly underneath, Svalbard’s students go to school. They are acutely aware of what it means to have the threat of climate change hanging over them - all they need to do is look up and the danger is already there.

Avalanche shields must now be airdropped into the town to protect homes. Credit: ITV News

I met Kristoffer Haugen Misund, a 19-year-old in the town who’s been told to prepare for his house being evacuated at some point this winter when the threat of avalanche becomes imminent.

“It’s not something that used to happen here,” he told me. “But now it’s happening more and more.”

There are other warnings from nature that all is not well here.

The Longyear glacier is a walk away from the the town and people here are having to watch as it melts away at speed.

It is now officially melting faster than it can recover.

Young adults living in Svalbard are worried for their future and tell world leaders "they must act". Credit: ITV News

“The glacier is slowly dying,” Steven Hudson from the Norwegian Polar Institute tells me.

Lonyear glacier has been on Svalbard since the last ice age. Predictions say it will be completely gone within decades, maybe a century, if humans keep going the way we are going.

Scientists know carbon emissions contribute to the world becoming warmer: the more carbon in the earth’s atmosphere, the warmer the planet becomes.

Despite being at the forefront of climate change, the town here actually still mines and burns coal.

That’s about to change. The power station is marked to switch to renewables within five years, but not before nature inflicted its own revenge.

The last remaining coal mine in town recently flooded excess water from melting ice. Oh, the irony.

The emissions from Svalbard are a drop in the ocean, though. It is human activity around the world that is still driving this, and that has consequences for us all.

Melting glaciers mean sea levels will rise. The world as we know it would change beyond recognition.

But it is not melting glaciers alone that are of concern. The Arctic Sea is also warming up rapidly.

The locally named ‘Ice Fjord’ no longer has any ice at all, and hasn’t frozen for years.

The water is dangerously warming up in the Arctic. Credit: ITV News

The implications of melting sea ice will hit the Arctic animals first. Polar bears rely on sea ice: it’s where they rest in between long journeys in the Arctic, and it’s where they are most effective at hunting seals. Life is harder without that sea ice.

However, scientists are now seeing other changes in the Arctic that are a cause for concern beyond this region.

Plankton is one of the most important life forms in our ocean and we need it to sustain life on Earth.

Plankton has a key role in capturing carbon from the atmosphere and producing oxygen - think of it like the Amazon of the Arctic, except the rainforest actually pales in significance, because plankton contributes far more oxygen for us humans to breathe.

This stuff is tiny but we all need it to survive.

Watch how Arctic plankton has vastly deteriorated due to warming waters:

Specific types of plankton crucial to the ecosystem, such as algae, grow inside sea ice, though.

In a finely tuned system of nature, the algae blooms in the spring when the sea ice melts. But in warmer waters, sea ice is more sparse and when it does form it is melting earlier in the season.

Some of the effects of warmer Polar waters can already be seen with the naked eye. One specific type of plankton, copepods, are the foundation of the food chain here, sustaining all life in the oceans.

As Robynne Nowicki, from the University Centre in Svalbard, told me: “Think of it like a Jenga tower. These plankton are the bottom blocks and all the way up they support the fish, the birds, the seals, the walrus, and the polar bears.”

But scientists are telling us that Arctic jenga tower is now wobbling.

The change in plankton for Arctic animals is like swapping healthy meals for a “a diet of instant noodles.” Credit: ITV News

The Arctic plankton - big, fatty, juicy, and bright pink - is already disappearing. Instead, the warmer Atlantic waters are bringing a new type of plankton that’s tiny, skinny, and far less fatty.

Robynne describes it as replacing healthy, home-cooked meals for Arctic animals with “a diet of instant noodles.”

Fundamentally, it is less nutritious and the animals relying on it to survive are already suffering.

The effects are most obvious on sea birds where researchers are now seeing the young birds more emaciated, simply unable to survive the Polar winters.

Another 19-year-old I met on Svalbard, Selma Lande Hegge, says the world needs to pay attention to what’s happening here.

“My generation has to live with this and I don’t think it’s being taken seriously,” she tells me.

We spoke about the COP26 conference which is coming to my hometown of Glasgow, and I asked what she would like those politicians to hear from a teenager living inside the Arctic circle.

Peter Smith explains how much is at stake when it comes to climate change

“I think they need to see that this is a reality now,” she says. “It’s scary. They need to see what’s happening here and we all need them to act.”

Of course, what happens in the Arctic is not contained here.

From wildlife to weather systems: our planet is connected to this place, and those animals and pressure systems depend on it staying cold around the North Pole for everything else to function.

Already the Arctic is no longer as cold as it should be, though, and it’s getting worse.

What I have learned coming here is this is just the start. But humanity does have this chance to choose how we want it to end, for better or for worse.

The Polar winter will soon arrive - a darkness lasting three months. It sets in around the same time world leaders meet for COP26 in Glasgow.

How far they are willing to go and how quickly they act, will determine what kind of spring awaits on the other side.

Read more from ITV News' Earth on the Edge series here