Skip to navigation Skip to main content
All resources

Longyearbyen, the fastest warming city on Earth

Energy Observer is becoming the first vessel in the world to join the Arctic Circle, only powered by renewable energy and hydrogen. 2,400 miles to sail from St Petersburg to Spitsbergen, an iconic destination for many reasons.

This island in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard is deeply impacted by the climate change more than anywhere else on the planet. A phenomena that Energy Observer will report on during its Odyssey.

Longyearbyen, the capital of Svalbard on Spitsbergen, the main island of the archipelago, owes its existence to coal mining. And its name to the American businessman who created the city in 1906. Ironically, the one that provided more than 20 million tonnes of coal in a century is now emerging as the fastest warming city on Earth. A direct consequence of climate change.

At 78° latitude and only 1,300 km from the North Pole, the city is located in the polar climate zone. There, it is dark during almost four months a year. Negative temperatures are generally recorded from October to May. The ground is frozen all year round (we’re talking about permafrost). This is why it is forbidden to die in Longyearbyen. Bodies cannot decompose and viruses remain stored there.

But a report entitled “Climate in Svalbard 2100” published in February 2019 by the Norwegian Environment Agency reveals that temperatures in Longyearbyen have increased by 3 to 5°C since the early 1970’s! This is two to three times more than in the rest of the world. Worse, if greenhouse gas emissions were to continue at the current rate, the city – and the rest of the archipelago – could warm by 10°C before the end of this century.

A disrupted daily life

With direct consequences that the approximately 2,000 inhabitants of Longyearbyen are already experiencing. Thus the permafrost melting – up to nearly 3 metres below the surface compared to only 1 metre only 5 years ago -, avalanches and mudslides, but also landslides now threaten homes often built on mountainsides.

To save some buildings, fortification work on the foundations has been undertaken. Expensive and ultimately not very effective on a thawing permafrost. So the houses most at risk are demolished. Their inhabitants have no choice but to find accommodation somewhere else. Not easy in Spitsbergen where the rental stock is extremely limited.

A question of survival, however, in this environment that remains extremely harsh. And after the sad avalanche that killed two people here in December 2015. 5,000 tonnes of snow spread over a width of 200 metres fell on the city. The first time an avalanche ventured this far. According to the Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment, this is only the beginning of the “devastating” changes that the region must expect to undergo in the coming years.

Our Spitsbergen series

[Spitsbergen Objective] Ground zero of climate change

[Spitsbergen Objective] What are the consequences of melting ice?

[Spitsbergen Objective] In Svalbard, memory of 13,000 years of biodiversity

To go further

Welcome to the fastest-heating place on Earth – The Guardian

Five years of record warmth intensify Arctic’s transformation – Nature

Pourquoi le réchauffement climatique empire la crise du logement au Svalbard ? – Radio France Internationale

Climat. Le changement climatique envoie l’Arctique en “terrain inconnu” – Courrier International