Svalbard, Norway, is home to the world’s doomsday seed vault because it’s so cold. But the climate crisis is changing that calculation.
In the latest sign that the transformation of the Arctic continues full speed ahead, Svalbard hit a record high temperature for November on Wednesday. A station set on the mountain pass of Reindalspasset recorded a high of 9.4 degrees Celsius. That is, to put it lightly, extremely not normal and very bad.
Ketil Isaksen, a researcher with Norway’s meteorological agency, tweeted the ignominious milestone along with a photo of the station on a normally snow-caked, barren Arctic landscape. The temperature is a November record for the entire archipelago that sits well above the Arctic Circle. While the station was installed just last October, Svalbard weather data extends back to the start of the 20th century. Other weather stations scattered across the islands all recorded temperatures well into the 40s as well, underscoring just how widespread the heat was. For perspective, the average November temperature at Svalbard’s airport, home to the longest-running temperature record on the island, is -8.8 degrees Celsius.
More alarming, though, is the intensity of heat across a large swath of the Arctic and areas adjacent. As the map at the top of this article shows, Svalbard (the sweep of islands northeast of Greenland) is only one part basking in freaky November warmth. Areas below the Arctic Circle are also looking more springlike than entering the dark of winter. Last week, Gladhammar, Sweden, hit 18.4 degrees Celsius, setting a November record for the entire country. The Arctic as a whole is 4.3 degrees Celsius hotter than normal, and the blob of warmth will intensify over the next week. By Tuesday, the entire region is forecast to be 6 degrees Celsius above normal, with large areas much more freakishly warm than that.
If it were an isolated event, it wouldn’t be cause for alarm. But this year, it’s adding to a cacophony of warnings. Bizarre heat turned large swaths of the Siberian Arctic into a blazing tinderbox that sent a record glug of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Sea ice shrunk to its second-lowest level on record while its volume bottomed at its lowest levels turns up the volume just a tiny bit. The tundra literally exploded because it was too damn hot.
Put simply, this is what a climate emergency looks like. The Arctic is the fastest-changing place on the planet. As Dana Nuccitelli put it in Yale Climate Connections, we’re watching a “veritable suicide pact” play out in real-time.
Rising temperatures mean sea ice dwindles faster, which allows darker ocean waters to absorb more heat, making it harder for sea ice to reform. That in turn locks in more heat. On land, rising heat dries out forests and leads to more wildfires, and even allows for zombie fires to smolder underground all winter. That, along with thawing permafrost, releases more carbon dioxide, which again warms the region (and the planet) even further. And so the cycle goes until the Arctic as we know it is gone as entire ecosystems and the species that contribute to them are wiped out. We can stop the climate from spinning further out of control by drawing down carbon pollution. But even then, loss is inevitable. Svalbard’s record warmth is just another casualty.