When you live at 78ºN you become an expert in everything

Christin Kristoffersen, former mayor of Longyearbyen, talks about the challenges and adventures of daily life in the Arctic Circle, and the growing impact of climate change.

By Zairon (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

“In the arctic we see the changes first,” Kristoffersen said at the first Smart Island World Congress in Majorca last month. Climate change is already impacting the polar ocean and the lives of all its residents, humans and animals alike, she says. “We have a population of 2,300 people and 3,000 polar bears.”

The islands of Svalbard, the northernmost permanently populated location in the world, is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920, which established full Norwegian sovereignty over the archipelago, grants permission to any nation to conduct research on the archipelago, where most international scientific Arctic exploration is based. The treaty also forbids any military use of the islands.

Christin Kristoffersen in Svalbard

Kristoffersen shared her alarm about the increasing pollution in the Arctic: “We have incredible worries when we see suddenly the rise of DDT, and no one is using that anymore” she said, adding that they first wondered if the banned pesticide was being used again.

What they discovered was that the DDT being released into the atmosphere was coming from the melting ice. It had been trapped in the ice many years earlier, and was now being released back into the atmosphere. “So we kind of wonder what other kinds of hidden wonders we have in the ice as it is melting,” she said.

It illustrated her point perfectly that climate change is a global issue.

“Ninety percent of the pollution we see [in Longyearbyen] is from the rest of the world,”

Ironically, however, Svalbard’s own source of power is coal. The archipelago has large deposits which have been mined since 1899 and now runs the last coal-based power station in Norway. The residents would love to ditch coal for renewable energy, Kristoffersen said, but the extreme low temperatures make large batteries useless and thus impossible to balance the grid and maintain a steady supply of clean energy.

While coal and motor vehicles generate air pollution on the islands, most of it comes from outside, as pollution is global. The prevailing winds in the northern hemisphere carry that pollution up into the Arctic where the cold temperatures create precipitation, and the ground soaks up the pollutants.

“In the arctic we see the changes first, and the changes [in climate] we are experiencing now are scary.”

Svalbard’s unique climate conditions have made it the ideal location for the Global Seed Vault, the world’s largest depository of seeds. Opened by the Norwegian Government in February 2008, it provides a safety net against accidental loss of diversity in traditional gene-banks. The vault is cut into rock near Longyearbyen, keeping it at a natural −6 °C, and refrigerates the seeds to −18 °C. As global temperatures continue to rise, however, the energy needed to keep the vault at those temperatures also rises.

[Editor’s note: The Guardian reported today (May 19) that the Global Seed Vault was recently flooded because of rising temperatures. See the article below:]

The warming temperatures have created cultural challenges too: “Because of climate change we are losing our preserved memories”, Kristoffersen said, referring to the thawing of old reminiscences from the first settlers that had been preserved in ice for decades. That, she argued, affects people’s identity. Self-esteem is very important to maintaining an active community, she said, since many people leave to the mainland for study or work and need a sense of identity to return to.

Kristoffersen now lives in Oslo, working to raise awareness about the challenges of Svalbard and sharing the wisdom and solutions the Arctic community can provide.

“We have become people to talk with,” not just “people to talk to, as we can provide real answers to many of the world’s questions on many issues.”

And Kristoffersen is optimistic: “If we can use the opportunities to create a world where the future of our inhabitants and the future of the climate are in focus, where technology creates less borders between small and larger states, and where circular economy creates more sustainable local society, we actually have incredible potential to communication and living for sustainability that can be achievable and livable for everyone.”

When you live at 78ºN you become an expert in everything”, she proudly concluded.

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