Warming climate upends Arctic mining town

Tor Selnes owes his life to a lamp. He miraculously survived a fatal avalanche that shed light on the vulnerability of Svalbard, a region warming faster than anywhere else, to human-caused climate change.

On the morning of December 19, 2015, the 54-year-old school monitor was napping at home in Longyearbyen, the main town in the Norwegian archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

Suddenly, a mass of snow hurtled down from Sukkertoppen, the mountain overlooking the town, taking with it two rows of houses.

Selnes’ home was swept away 80 metres (263 feet). The room where he was sleeping was completely demolished amid “a scraping sound like metal against a road”.

To avoid being buried under the snow, he grabbed onto a ceiling lamp.

“It’s like I was in a washing machine, surrounded by planks, glass, sharp objects, everything you can imagine”, recalls Selnes.

He survived, suffering just scrapes and bruises. His three children, who were in another part of the house, were unhurt.

But two neighbours — Atle, with whom he played poker the night before, and Nikoline, a two-year-old girl — lost their lives.

“There’s been a lot of talk of climate change ever since I came… but it was kind of difficult to take in or to see,” author and journalist Line Nagell Ylvisaker, who has lived in Longyearbyen since 2005, tells AFP.

“When we live here every day, it’s like seeing a child grow — you don’t see the glaciers retreat,” she says.

In Svalbard, climate change has meant shorter winters; temperatures that yo-yo; more frequent precipitation, increasingly in the form of rain; and thawing permafrost — all conditions that increase the risk of avalanches and landslides.

In the days after the tragedy, unseasonal rains drenched the town. The following autumn, the region saw record rainfalls, and then a new avalanche swept away another house in 2017, this time with no victims.

“Before there was a lot of talk about polar bears, about new species, about what would happen to the nature around us” with climate change, Ylvisaker explains, adding: “The polar bear floating on an ice sheet is kind of the big symbol”.

The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

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