Global warming to hit Norway?

Icy Arctic islands north of Norway are warming faster than almost anywhere on Earth and more avalanches, rain and mud may cause "devastating" changes by 2100, a Norwegian report said.

Background 

Norway is a Nordic country in North-western Europe whose territory comprises the western and northernmost portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula. The remote island of Jan Mayen and the archipelago of Svalbard are also part of the Kingdom of Norway. The Antarctic Peter I Island and the sub-Antarctic Bouvet Island are dependent territories and thus not considered part of the kingdom. Norway also lays claim to a section of Antarctica known as Queen Maud Land.

The Norwegian state has large ownership positions in key industrial sectors, having extensive reserves of petroleum, natural gas, minerals, lumber, seafood, and fresh water. The petroleum industry accounts for around a quarter of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). On a per-capita basis, Norway is the world's largest producer of oil and natural gas outside of the Middle East.

The 2016 Environmental Performance Index from Yale University, Columbia University and the World Economic Forum put Norway in seventeenth place, immediately below Croatia and Switzerland. The index is based on environmental risks to human health, habitat loss, and changes in CO2 emissions. The index notes over-exploitation of fisheries, but not Norway's whaling or oil exports.

Analysis 

The thaw on the remote Svalbard islands, home to 2,300 people and where the main village of Longyearbyen is 1,300km from the North Pole, highlights risks in other parts of the Arctic from Alaska to Siberia. Average temperatures on Svalbard have leapt between three and five degrees Celsius since the early 1970s and could rise by a total of 10 deg C by 2100 if world greenhouse gas emissions keep climbing, the study said.

Almost 200 governments promised in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, to limit a rise in average global temperatures to"well below" 2 deg C above pre-industrial times by 2100. Worldwide, temperatures are up about 1 deg C.

On Svalbard, the envisaged rise in temperatures would thaw the frozen ground underpinning many buildings, roads and airports, cause more avalanches, "slushflows" and landslides, melt glaciers and threaten wildlife such as polar bears and seals that rely on sea ice to hunt. "A 10 degree warming, with the implications for Arctic nature, ice-dependent species, will be devastating," Climate and Environment Minister Ola Elvestuen said. 

Norway will have to increase investment to relocate buildings from avalanche paths and drill deeper infrastructure foundations as permafrost thaws, the report said. Two people died in 2015 when an avalanche destroyed 10 houses in Longyearbyen.

Many other parts of the Arctic, especially its islands, are also warming far quicker than the world average as the retreat of snow and sea ice exposes darker water and ground that soaks up ever more of the sun's heat. Temperatures on Svalbard would stay around current levels only if governments make unprecedented cuts in global emissions, the report said.

No one is doing enough" to limit greenhouse gas emissions, Elvestuen said of government actions. "We have to do more ... The use of oil and gas has to go down." Inger Hanssen-Bauer, head of the Norwegian Centre for Climate Services, which produced the report, said the findings were a warning for the rest of the Arctic. "The main message is that these changes are happening so fast," she said.

Ketil Isaksen, a lead author at the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, urged researchers to pay more attention to landslides as the permafrost melts. "There is now a lot of focus on snow avalanches, but landslides in summer should be taken more into account," he said. Norway is western Europe's biggest oil and gas exporter.

Assessment 

Our assessment is that this may be the first major incident of a country losing a part of its natural islands to global warming. We believe that Norway should aggressively pursue the large-scale implementation of renewable energy policies. We also feel that the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund could be used to finance critical technologies which will help mitigate the impact of climate change.