A few days ago the BBC published a report about the threat of climate change to the Svalbard archipelago. The tone was hysterical. It was missing any sign of critical thinking and utterly lacking context. To be honest I would have expected a better analysis from Just Stup Id activists. Naturally, after reading it, I resorted to banging my head on the keyboard. After that I thought I had better answer some of the more obviously asinine commentary at some point. At some point had to wait until now. So here we are.
Let’s begin with the title, shall we?
“Svalbard: The race to save the fastest-warming place on Earth”
Let us accept the premise that Svalbard is the fastest-warming place on Earth for a split second. From what do we save it, and what is it that we save? If global warming does its apocalyptic worse, Svalbard will still be there. Humans are there under the proviso that they modify their immediate environment to enable them to survive conditions that would rapidly be lethal otherwise. If the temperature gets warmer, life for humans will get easier. I hope that’s obvious. That leaves the wildlife. Can the wildlife survive a few degrees of warming? A subject we will return to.
Svalbard’s church is a blood-red wooden building with bright white trim – the most northerly place of worship in the world.
Its priest, Siv Limstrand, has been here for only three years but is shocked by the impact of climate change she has witnessed in that time.
Siv has not witnessed climate change in three years. I’m sorry to have to doubt her, I mean gainsay her, but the notion is ludicrous. There is sufficient variability year-to-year in a “stable” climate that three years of observation tell you nothing. Meanwhile Siv and her flock pray for rain, or in this case, snow.
Diminishing ice has reduced [bears’] hunting ground which means it is harder for them to find seals. So more bears are exploring built-up areas in search of food and are now eating reindeer – not their usual prey.
Here we have the assertion that because polar bears are running out of ice, they cannot hunt seals as easily, and so prowl the settlement looking for easy prey. Or else they are preying on reindeer. Casual bystanders know enough about bears to know that they will happily scavenge in “built-up areas” – not that I count Longyearbyen as a “built-up area.” I have in my hand, or on my screen at least, a two-hundred-year-old book* which says of the polar bear,
The food of the Polar bears consists chiefly of fish, of seals which they seize when sleeping, and the carcasses of whales, walruses, &c. so often found floating in the northern seas. On land they prey on the rein-deers, young birds, and eggs; and sometimes lay hold of the Arctic fox notwithstanding all his stratagems in trying to escape.
[I doubt both reports, since reindeer are pretty fleet beasts.]
Next we are told that thanks to climate change, the risk of avalanche is greater. And in summer, mudslides. So far, the cemetery has had a near miss.
To the left and to the right of the cemetery are tunnel-like ditches in the ground, which curve up into the steep mountain behind. These ditches are the remnants of a landslide that could have washed the entire cemetery into the river below. It missed by a matter of metres.
“When I look at it, it’s like a wound,” sighs Limstrand, “and it reminds me somehow of our wounded planet.”
As Limstrand tells us: “This is no longer a safe place for the living or the dead.”
Portentous words, but it was never a safe place for the living, until the living modified the environment. As for the dead, they don’t care. Quite a few men died on Spitzbergen before it was partly tamed. An example:
Near to the house is a cross raised with the following inscription : Her hviler Stövet af 15 Maend, som ȧöde her i Foraaret 1873. Fred med deres Stöv. This is the epitaph to the Norwegian fishermen who sadly perished here ten years ago.
From the report of the 1882-3 Swedish overwintering expedition, featured in Nature in 1884. The author was not given.^ [“Here lie the bodies of fifteen men, who died here in Spring 1873. May they rest in peace.”]
White hell, I think they call it.
“Wildlife and human life are now in a struggle to survive.”
As someone who has studied ecology and thinks it basically boils down to common sense, I would much prefer it if people said nothing rather than make inane comments like that. That goes double when they have been specially selected to be paid by members of the public to undertake trips to interesting places and send back informative reports.
What is wrong with this statement? The first mistake is to join wildlife and human life together. Never do that. Then there is the operator “now.” Wildlife has always been in a struggle to survive and it always will be until the end of all life, a period which just so happens to include “now.” This fact was noticed by someone called Darwin. Humans on Spitzbergen, on the other hand, are not in a struggle to survive. They can leave and go back to the comparative safety of a city whenever they like. They were in a struggle to survive there two hundred years ago.
Fålun Strøm has taken us out on an overnight expedition aboard her boat to show us the impact climate change is having on nature in Svalbard.
Fålun spots three polar bears. But the seals are fewer, and the ice that both bears and seals depend on is shrinking.
Since the 1980s, the amount of summer sea ice has halved and some scientists fear it will be gone altogether by 2035.
An interesting choice of verb there, huh? Fear. Is it scientific?
This – combined with an avalanche that hit Longyearbyen in 2015 – focused her mind.
The avalanche claimed the lives of two people. They were Svalbard’s first deaths from climate change,” she says.
I don’t wish to diminish the loss of the two good folk who got killed in the avalanche. But it is a monumental stretch, a mad one in fact, to reach from an avalanche to climate change. To say, “With 420 ppm CO2, avalanche; with 280 ppm CO2, no avalanche.” People seem to have this sense that the Earth is solid, stable and dependable. Well, in some places it is. In others, it ain’t. A fool knows one from t’other.
“I had this climate anxiety and I just wanted to become actively engaged in the solutions,” says Fålun Strøm. “I still think there’s time to save something.”
I applaud Strøm’s sentiment. But my advice is very simple: protect what you can see. Fight like hell for that by all means. But do not try to protect Svalbard by legislating against a trace gas. It won’t work.
Next we go for a walk with Kim Holmén, an old guy from the Norwegian Polar Institute.
Holmén points to the top of the hillside which he says marks the level of the glacier 100 years ago.
In that time, he estimates 100m (328ft) of elevation has been lost. The melted ice has raised sea levels across the world.
Probably true, but very deceptive. The contribution of this glacier to sea level rise is too small to be measured.
The lack of co-operation between Russian and Western scientists thanks to the Ukraine invasion “has weakened the fight against climate change, Holmén believes.” Utter tosh. There is no “fight,” and anyway it’s not so complicated that a bit of communication in the Arctic could save the day. The solution always comes down to the same thing, innit? Net Zero Now.
Next we go to the coal mine, which is the only reason there is any human life on Spitzbergen at all.
[Jakobsen’s] company, the Norwegian state-owned Stoke [sic] Norske, has said it will soon shut the mine as part of its switch to renewable forms of energy.
It’s not Stoke, it’s Store, but Stoke seems somehow appropriate. This seems like a good time for a major digression. As I mentioned, the only reason there are settlements on Spitzbergen at all is because there is coal there. The only reason that humans can survive there in sizeable numbers… is thanks to fossil fuel. You think you can survive by burning driftwood and hunting reindeer? Good luck. Don’t forget to collect some scurvy grass from the muddy shore. Don’t cook it tho’, for God’s sake.
But it wasn’t always about the coal, was it?
We have the guano. Men came for that. [We don’t need guano as fertiliser thanks to the Haber process, invented by some guy whose name I can’t remember, that makes ammonia out of methane.] They came for the walruses, and killed them in “prodigious” numbers [a phrase relating to Stephen Bennet and Bear Island from 1604 on, but no doubt applicable everywhere else on Svalbard*]. We had the whales – the less said about those poor blighters, the better. Or should we mention that they were saved by the discovery of that fossil fuel product known as kerosene? Perhaps we should. Either way, the slaughter was immense. Then there were the bears, which were killed indiscriminately for their fur. [Top tip for adventurers stranded without fossil fuels: don’t eat the liver.] And the birds, the slaughter of which [Brünnich’s guillemot] goes on to this day in Greenland. Oh, the reindeer. Don’t forget the endemic subspecies of reindeer that was all but wiped out by our old friends, um, ourselves. We can’t forget the reindeer, can we, because they suffered a recent catastrophe at the hands of climate change:
“More Than 200 Reindeer Found Dead in Norway, Starved by Climate Change”
You may remember this story. It was caused by rain that froze. The resulting ice made it hard for the reindeer to forage. Shamelessly labelling this as them being “starved by climate change” is to fall victim to the mindworm that tells you that every adverse weather event is due to the present concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, and would not have occurred otherwise. We have already noted that the (sub)species was almost wiped out by hunting. Next we must sadly report that every reindeer alive today in the wild will, sooner or later, die horribly. For herbivores eking out a living on an island in the high Arctic, this typically takes the form of them starving to death. Or else getting lamed and then falling prey to (ahem) a polar bear after atypical prey. The story begins:
Researchers recently found more than 200 dead reindeer on the island of Svalbard in Norway; the animals starved to death due to climate change, which is disrupting their access to the plants that they typically eat.Live Science
The island of Svalbard in Norway? Come on, try harder at the start if you want me to believe anything about the rest of the article.
Let me pose you a counterfactual: what if there were no humans, and had never been humans, but instead, an intergalactic species of sentient plant had come and begun to terraform Earth – terraform is not the right word here of course – by ratcheting up the global concentration of CO2 to the present 420 ppm? Nothing else. No hunting, no pollution, no PCBs, no introduced species, no fences, no wind turbines. Just the CO2. My answer is that plants and animals would still be struggling to survive, just as they always have and always will. But large animals – “megafauna” – would be utterly indifferent to the change, and far better off in that version of Earth than they are in ours. At what level would the, um, zoggiforming of Earth began to worry the disinterested observer? 600 ppm? 1000? The idea that the archipelago of Svalbard is in danger of becoming too warm for its wildlife is a nonsense. Most of the wildlife there would be happy further south but has been driven to the ends of the Earth by historical persecution. [An example: walruses were happy on Sable Island at 44° North until hunted to extinction. Yes, it is much warmer there than at Svalbard. No, the walruses on Svalbard are not imperilled by a bit of warming.]
The following lengthy quotes are from the already-mentioned report of the Swedish overwintering expedition in 1882-3, and serve to illustrate what life on Spitzbergen was like for those pioneers:
From October 23 until February 18 the sun remained below the horizon; thus for a period of 118 days and nights. At first it was not quite dark at noon, but from November 11 it was a night throughout. On November 12 a thin layer of ice appeared on the Ice Fjord, which gradually increased in thickness, but it was afterwards broken up and again formed several times during the dark winter. It was only when the light came back that the ice formed in a bridge across the fjord.
Now the island was in darkness and perfectly deserted. The terrible winter storms had commenced, and it was 16° C. below freezing-point. And the snow ! Snow on the mountains, snow on the plain, snow on the huts, snow covers the little windows, snow comes in through the chimney, and even the thermometer cage cannot exclude the tiny, pointed crystals which penetrate even a keyhole.- In such an hour it was a delightful sensation to seek the hearth in the library !
Permanent darkness took its toll.
Already in October the remarkable depressing influence which darkness exercises on the human mind, with which every one who has wintered in the Arctic regions is familiar, began to be manifest. In that month it was, however, felt only slightly, but with November it rapidly increased, and at the end of December it had reached “the first stage of insanity.” This influence caused a remarkable dislike to conversation, accompanied by great lassitude. When lying down, phantoms of the scurvy crept over one’s mind, and the thought uppermost was that here, next to us, the bodies of fifteen brave men [referred to above] were found in a horrible condition ten years ago.
Was life for humans easier then, or now, after 4 °C of warming?
A final cogent point that our intrepid BBC reporters might have noted is that Svalbard lies in a place where warmth from the North Atlantic Drift meets the icy air descending from the Arctic. As we know, according to reports, Svalbard has warmed by 4 °C in recent years. But rationally, if this has occurred because of a shift in where warmth and cold meet and do battle, there seems little scope for further increase. The temperature increase is not due to the radiative effect of carbon dioxide alone, or else there wouldn’t be the noted excess here. Almost all the increase seems to have taken place during the winter, which I would be grateful about, if I was a resident there:
The final lines in the article are about coal, and Svalbard’s [actually Spitzbergen’s] “dizzyingly” high carbon footprint. Well, I have a little advice for the residents on that score. Abandon ship, or rather island. Close the coal mine down, nail the shutters on the houses, and go home. That will certainly reduce your “dizzyingly” high carbon footprint. No-one needs to live on Spitzbergen once the coal mine is closed. Live in a flat in a city. Walk to work and save the world.
*John Laing’s “A Voyage to Spitzbergen”, 1822 edition:
^Winter Life at Spitzbergen. Nature, Jan 17, 1884:
The Isbjörnen under Captain Kjeldsen, moored off Spitzbergen on her way to lay down stores for the famous Payer-Weyprecht expedition (which, as was so often the case in those days, resulted in near disaster). Full res version at Wiki.