Tor Selnes owes his life to a lamp. He miraculously survived a fatal avalanche that shed light on the vulnerability of Svalbard, a region that is warming faster than elsewhere, to man-made climate change.
On the morning of December 19, 2015, the 54-year-old school head was taking a nap at home in Longyearbyen, the main town in the Norwegian archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
Suddenly, a mass of snow fell from Sukkertoppen, the mountain that overlooks the city, taking with it two rows of houses.
Selnes’s house was wiped out at 80 meters (263 feet). The room she slept in was completely demolished in the midst of “a scraping sound like metal against a road”.
To avoid being buried in the snow, he clung to a ceiling lamp.
“It’s like you’re in a washing machine, surrounded by boards, glass, sharp objects, anything you can imagine,” recalls Selnes.
He survived, suffering only from scratches and bruises. His three children, who were in another part of the house, were unharmed.
But two neighbors – Atle, who he had played poker with the night before, and Nikoline, a two-year-old – lost their lives.
The incident, unthinkable in the eyes of the locals, caused shock waves in the small community of less than 2,500 people.
“There has been a lot of talk about climate change since I arrived … but it was pretty hard to understand or 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 watching a child grow up – you don’t see glaciers retreating,” he says.
– open your eyes –
In Svalbard, climate change has meant shorter winters; temperatures that yo-yo; more frequent precipitation, increasing in the form of rain; and permafrost thaw: all conditions that increase the risk of avalanches and landslides.
In the days following the tragedy, unseasonal rains soaked the city. The following fall, the region experienced record rainfall, then a new avalanche swept away another home in 2017, this time with no casualties.
“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, explains Ylvisaker, adding: “The polar bear floating on an ice cap is a kind of great symbol. “.
The string of extreme weather incidents “was truly a revelation of how this will affect us humans as well.”
After the two avalanches, the authorities condemned 144 houses which they considered to be at risk, or about 10 percent of the houses in the city, and installed a massive granite avalanche barrier at the foot of Sukkertoppen.
It’s an ironic twist for Longyearbyen, which owes its existence to fossil fuels.
The city was founded in 1906 by US businessman John Munro Longyear, who came to mine coal. He grew up around the mines in a hodgepodge of brightly colored wooden houses.
Most of the mines are now closed, the latest to close next year. A huge sci-fi-style cart hangar overlooks the city, bearing witness to its past as a mining town.
Now it is human-caused climate change that is making its mark on the landscape here.
– access point –
According to Ketil Isaksen, a researcher at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, the Svalbard region is “the place on Earth where temperatures are rising the most.”
In the northernmost part of the Barents Sea, where the archipelago is located, temperatures are rising five to seven times faster than on the planet as a whole, according to a study he co-authored and recently published in the scientific journal Nature.
How come? Sea ice shrinkage, scientists explain. It normally acts as an insulating layer preventing the sea from heating the atmosphere in winter and protecting the sea from the sun in summer.
In Longyearbyen, thawing of the permafrost means that the ground is collapsing. Lampposts tilt and building foundations need to be propped up because the ground is shifting. Gutters, once useless in this cold, dry climate, have begun to appear on the roofs.
On the edge of town, people snowmobiled through the now not-so-appropriate name Isfjorden (Icefjord), which hasn’t stopped since 2004.
The famed Global Seed Vault, designed to protect the planet’s biodiversity from natural and man-made disasters, also had to undergo major renovations after the entrance tunnel is dug into an unexpectedly flooded mountain.
In the offices of the local newspaper Svalbardposten, editor-in-chief Borre Haugli summarizes the climate change in the region: “We are not discussing it. We see it “.