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Snowmobiles in slush? Sports on thin ice in the warming Arctic

All aspects of sport and recreation on Svalbard feel the impact of a warming climate, from dogsledding to snowmobiling to skiing, fishing, hunting and glacier climbing. Snow melts two or three weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago

By Jeré Longman
Published: May 19, 2022

Snowmobiles in slush? Sports on thin ice in the warming ArcticTourists come back to Longyearbyen after a tour on snow mobiles, on May 8, 2022, on Spitsbergen island, in Svalbard Archipelago, northern Norway.​ Image: Jonathan NACKSTRAND / AFP

LONGYEARBYEN, Norway — It was early April, and while the midnight sun had not yet arrived on the remote archipelago of Svalbard, darkness had begun its annual four-month retreat from the world’s northernmost town. On a cold, pristine morning, sled dogs with their thick coats and powerful legs began a howling chorus as they set off into a snowy valley of reindeer, grouse and distressed grandeur.

Svalbard, between mainland Norway and the North Pole, offers one of the world’s most isolated and arresting wildernesses. The northern lights dance to an electromagnetic rave party. Mountains dive into fjords as if to go swimming, their bases shaped like the wide paws of polar bears. Arctic foxes skitter with the herky-jerky motion of silent movies.

“Beautiful, extreme, vulnerable,” Nico Mookhoek, 34, a guide for Green Dog Svalbard, said on a six-hour sled trip down the Bolter Valley to visit a melting glacier and an ice cave.

Wistfulness underlies beauty on Svalbard, where the coal industry is giving way to tourism and to research into climate change caused by the emission of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. Since the early 1990s, these islands near the top of the world have warmed more than twice as quickly as the rest of the Arctic and about seven times the global average, according to the Norwegian Polar Institute.

All aspects of sport and recreation on Svalbard feel the impact of a warming climate, from dogsledding to snowmobiling to skiing, fishing, hunting and glacier climbing. Snow melts two or three weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago. A ski hill planned for next year in Longyearbyen will use artificial snow to make the course more reliably available.

The tail end of the Gulf Stream reaches the west coast of Svalbard and melts sea ice, the sunglasses of the high Arctic. With the loss of this reflective protection, more of the sun’s heat is absorbed by the ocean. In turn, the ocean releases heat into the surrounding air.

Warming on Svalbard is occurring at a rate faster in winter — when for months there is little or no sunlight — than in summer. By some predictions, sea ice will disappear completely during summers before midcentury.

Melting ice sheets and glaciers in the Arctic contribute to rising sea levels and influence ocean circulation. The shrinking of sea ice affects seal hunting and birthing habits of polar bears. Some ongoing research links a warming Arctic to extreme weather events such as the intensity of summer monsoons in India and unexpected cold in North America.

“Wherever I look, I see obvious signs of climate warming, of human-induced climate change,” said Kim Holmen, a special adviser and former international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute who has worked on Svalbard for more than 30 years. “You name it, we’ve got it.”

As Mookhoek — tall, lean, bearded, funny while maintaining his authority — readied his sled team of nine Alaskan huskies and Greenland dogs, he loaded a backpack with a Mauser M98 rifle and a flare gun. Protection against polar bears is required outside the settlements on Svalbard.

“If you see a bear,” Mookhoek told the occupants of four sleds on his tour, “don’t try to run to it and take the selfie of the year.”

All around, disruption and transience were evident in what is essentially an Arctic desert.
The top of a nearby ridge bore the sooty presence of the last operating coal mine in Longyearbyen, scheduled to close next year. The riverbed in the Bolter Valley was slick with a ribbon of ice. In mid-March, typically the coldest month on Svalbard, a warm rain fell, and the temperature reached 42 degrees Fahrenheit — more than 30 degrees above average. Local rivers, which serve as frozen highways for snowmobiles and dog sleds in winter, became rivers again. Valleys became slushy swamps before refreezing.

For two or three days in the high tourist season, trips had to be canceled. A handful of snowmobile passengers stranded in slush had to be rescued by helicopter, adventure guides said, and some skiers returning to Longyearbyen forded water up to their waists.

Three weeks earlier, in late February, a dozen snowmobilers had to ditch their vehicles east of Longyearbyen and be rescued by helicopter after becoming stranded on waterlogged sea ice.

Warmer, wetter winters are growing more common on Svalbard. As rain freezes atop snow, it can lead to mass starvation of reindeer, who cannot paw through the ice to reach vegetation. But the recent, disruptive March rain was unusual in a month that tended to bring fairly stable weather, scientists and guides said.

“It happens every year with rain, but I have never experienced it that late in the season before,” said Fredric Froberg, the chief of guides for Svalbard Adventures who has been on the archipelago for 10 years.

In 2019, the course for Longyearbyen’s cross-country ski marathon — the town’s biggest yearly sporting event, which attracts as many as 1,000 participants in late April — had to be altered because of an avalanche threat and minimal snow that left sections of the trail slushy or in open water. A shortage of snow after the recent March thaw also forced another course adjustment this year.

‘One Big Painting’

Four winters ago, Mookhoek arrived on Svalbard from the Netherlands for a holiday with his fiancee. He saw the northern lights, the breathtaking lava-lamp shapes of an ice cave and the deep, cozy blue of constant twilight. Light from the moon reflected the snow-covered shapes of mountains and valleys. He was smitten. Months later, he gave up his career as a garden designer and returned to Svalbard to become a sled dog guide.

“It was one big painting I was moving into,” he said.

He wants to show Svalbard’s splendor to as many visitors as he can, but his enthusiasm is tempered by a feeling of impermanence.

“When I started,” Mookhoek said, “I already had the feeling that this is something I have to do now because it will not be there forever.”

Outside Longyearbyen, the Ice Fjord and the Advent Fjord no longer regularly freeze over in winter, robbing snowmobilers of shortcuts across the ice. Glaciers on Svalbard’s west coast melt in thickness by 2 to 3 feet per year. In Longyearbyen, snow barriers sit like giant eyebrows on Sugar Top mountain, above a stone embankment, to help protect against avalanches.

Days before Christmas in 2015, two people died in Longyearbyen, more than 20 were trapped and 11 homes were shoved off their foundations by an avalanche that was attributed by scientists to changing patterns of wind, temperature and precipitation. Another avalanche followed in 2015, pummeling more homes. Last year, some areas of town faced extended evacuations.

A project is underway to move or demolish 144 houses threatened by avalanches. New apartments, the color of butterscotch, have been built in narrow, safer areas farther from the mountain and nearer to water.

“We call it the town on the move because of climate,” Mayor Arild Olsen said.
The top layer of permafrost is also thawing, which has cracked the foundations of some homes and buildings and left the town vulnerable to landslides. In 2017, thawing led to flooding in the entrance tunnel of the Global Seed Vault. It is wedged into the side of a mountain outside Longyearbyen and stores about 1 million seed samples from around the world as a fail-safe against apocalyptic disasters, natural or man-made.

In Longyearbyen, roughly 40 plumbers and electricians are needed to help the 2,500 residents handle the harsh environment in months of ceaseless dark and endless sunlight.

Locals find some benefits of a warming climate. Open water in the fjords provides easier access for tourists on cruise ships. Extended summer grazing can mitigate winter starvation of reindeer. Tasty Atlantic cod have moved into Arctic fishing waters. Sightings of blue, humpback and fin whales seem more frequent.

“We can sit in our living room and watch whales in the fjord,” said Jens Abild, a guide who owns Arctic Adventures and has lived on Svalbard for nearly 30 years. “That was not possible 20 years ago.”

At the same time, Arctic species of birds and plankton are struggling in a changing climate. Weather is less predictable. It seems more difficult and uncertain to travel around the archipelago. As glaciers melt on Svalbard, many experience a phenomenon called surging or pulsating, advancing at least 10 times faster than a normal glacier. Crevasses develop and can make it hazardous to hike or travel by snowmobile or dog sled.

“The route you had for last year doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe for this year,” said Olsen, who besides being mayor is a sled dog musher.

For summer hiking on retreating glaciers, access is more physically challenging. Beginning a hike with crampons, ropes and ice axes can be “too technical” for inexperienced adventurers, said Erlend Kjorsvik, the CEO of Backyard Svalbard. “You want to be hiking, not climbing,” he added.

Wheeled Carts Instead of Sleds

After traveling for 6 miles, Mookhoek’s dog teams reached the rapidly thinning and retreating Scott Turner glacier, named for an American geologist. The dogs were unleashed and attached to chains anchored by wooden poles. Each winter, holes are drilled 3 feet into the ice to secure the poles. “By the end of summer, they have fallen over,” Mookhoek said, an indication of the glacier’s annual loss of thickness.

He looked over the glacier, once a plateau, now a rounded ridge, and said, “One day this will be just a hole.”

At first glance, the small, inland glacier appeared to be a winter wonderland. But the front of the glacier has retreated by 1 mile since the mid-1930s, about half of it in the past decade, according to Emily C. Geyman, a doctoral student at the California Institute of Technology who led a recent study of more than 1,500 Svalbard glaciers. It has also melted more than 300 feet in thickness, the equivalent of a football field stood on end.

From 1936 to 2010, the glacier lost enough volume to fill 71,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

By some estimates, the remaining tongue of ice that is the Turner glacier, about 2.2 miles in length, could be gone by the end of the century, if not well before. While such things are difficult to predict, Geyman said: “It’s a patch of dead ice at this point. It’s clear that it’s only going in one direction, which is to disappear.”

Mookhoek’s GPS track from 2021 across the receding glacier to an ice cave on its edges now runs through boulders and gravel. A different route was necessary this season because the old one was unsafe for the dogs.

Ice caves, or glacier caves, are carved by summer meltwater. The cave on the Turner glacier seemed like the inside of a conch shell with its spiral ceiling and shiny, slick walls of compressed snow, air bubbles, sediment layers and ribs of ice. But as the glacier shrinks — helped along by the March thaw — the cave is becoming lower and shorter and could collapse by next season.

“Depends on the summer,” Mookhoek said. “If we have another heat record, then it’s going super fast.”

Ten years ago, Green Dog Svalbard began its sledding season in late October. Now it is December, sometimes as late as Christmas. The season once ended around June 20; now it ends three weeks earlier. Then sledding companies switch to pulling tourists on wheeled carts.

“What used to be very exciting trips in the valley now have become just getting dusty along a gravel road,” Holmen of the Norwegian Polar Institute said.

Jugs of water are set out on each day’s route. Every 10 minutes, dogs are offered a chance to drink. Whatever water remains is poured on the dogs. At the first sign of distress, such as a wobbly stride, the dog is returned to the kennel and placed in water, which is also injected beneath its skin for hydration, said Martin Munck, who owns Green Dog Svalbard with his wife, Karina Bernlow.

“It’s not that it looks very critical, but we know from experience that he might die three days later” of organ failure, Munck said. “We lost some awesome dogs; it happened twice.”

Five years ago, the necessity for such precautions during summer “was not a question,” Munck said. “Just like avalanches were not a question 10 years ago.”

On her phone, Bernlow keeps a photo of the couple’s two youngest children. They are running through a valley, not in their usual two layers of summer clothing but in diapers. It was July 25, 2020, when Svalbard reached a record temperature of 71 degrees Fahrenheit.
“That shouldn’t be happening,” Bernlow said. “It’s scary.”

Lately, she said, she had been thinking of her father, now deceased, who lived on Greenland and mused that it might be possible one day to grow oranges in the Arctic.
“He said it as a joke,” Bernlow said, “but look what’s happening here.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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