Nestled on an Arctic island halfway between Norway and the North Pole, Longyearbyen is not only the most northerly town in the world, but the fastest warming one as well. In the past half century, year-round temperatures here have risen some four degrees Celsius, five times faster than the global average, and winter temps have jumped a full seven degrees.
When I first interviewed its newly elected mayor, Arild Olsen, in late January 2016, jobs were an urgent issue. Having thrived as Norway’s principal source of coal for over a century, Longyearbyen’s mines were closing and unemployment loomed. A tragic avalanche a month earlier in the center of town had just claimed the lives of a schoolteacher and two-year-old toddler. Gloom hung in the air.
Seven years later, with Olsen still mayor, jobs are no longer a concern —Longyearbyen has since prospered from increased tourism and a flourishing Arctic research institution (University Centre in Svalbard)— but climate change has taken center stage. Earlier this year, I met with him again when passing through Longyearbyen to join a ship and report on a team of marine biologists for Nature magazine. Olsen shared with me his recent view from the top of the world.
Randall Hyman: How have things changed in the past seven years?
Arild Olsen: It turns out that it went really well, and in some ways, too well, because Longyearbyen has been growing ever since. Today we are 2,600. Back then we were 2,200. It’s to the point that we can’t cope with the growth because we can’t build schools, housing, and infrastructure fast enough. The last thing Longyearbyen needs is new jobs. What we need now is to make things more sustainable and move from the fossil world to the renewable world.
As a former coal miner, how do you view climate change and its connection to fossil fuels, the melting permafrost, and increased precipitation in the Arctic?
The biggest issue is not permafrost, it’s the water. We have more rain now than we used to, and when you add water, things start to move — electric poles, buildings, and even our one road, which is of course built on permafrost. Some infrastructure needs to be built up, and some has to be moved. Some buildings need foundations reset. It’s a challenge, but it can be done.
How else are you coping with warming five times faster than the global average?
I’m used to saying four times, but it’s happening really fast. So, of course this is a huge issue, and that is why we are building the avalanche fences, because we have more precipitation, both as rain and snow. We are having landslides as well as avalanches, and had some big ones outside of town, but luckily, nothing like Christmas 2015 [when an avalanche smashed into a row of homes, killing two persons and injuring nine others]. We predict that it’s just a matter of time before something happens here in Longyearbyen again.
With the closure of nearly all the coal mines, your government has considered everything from geothermal to bringing power from the mainland. What is your energy source now?
We are still running on coal, but it’s just a 10-megawatt power plant and we have a huge project that plans to move us from coal to renewables. Wind and solar will be our main sources, and we’ve got plenty of solar in the summer [when the sun doesn’t set].
Power outages are already a problem with the aging coal plant. How long will it take to fully switch over to renewables, and how will you make the transition?
It’s scheduled to take seven years, but we’re closing the coal power plant this September. We’re moving to diesel first because it’s more flexible than coal, and we are also looking into a multi-fuel engine that can run on hydrogen like the ones on big ships. The power plant needs to have a constant base load since it produces heating for housing as well as electricity. Eventually we can start feeding solar energy and wind energy into the system, and meanwhile we are building a big battery station. It’s northern Europe’s biggest.
Has being mayor in the midst of rapid change been a challenge?
Well, I’m the kind of person who feeds on change, but a lot of people here have trouble with things changing too fast. I respect those who say that enough is enough. They think the town is already too big and growth should have been stopped many years ago.
What sectors have seen the most growth?
Well, of course, tourism, and local businesses are always looking at growing it year-round so that it’s not only high tourism in winter, but also in summer, with hiking, museums, boat trips, and what not. There’s also been growth across the archipelago, especially by international and American companies, using Longyearbyen as a harbor to go explore the islands from.
Are you talking about cruise line companies?
Cruise lines, yeah. We have a term in Norwegian, we call it snuhavn. It means “turn-around harbor,” where a ship gets up here and waits for guests who come by plane. They fly from mainland Norway, then go on a cruise. When they’re done, they fly home and new cruise passengers arrive by plane. The boats just stay here, and that has turned Longyearbyen into Norway’s biggest snuhavn.
Russian and Norwegian trawlers have been fishing cod near Svalbard as sea ice diminishes in the Arctic Ocean, and Latvia recently appealed the Norwegian Supreme Court for the right to harvest snow crabs here. You had high hopes for fisheries when we last met in 2016. How has that worked out?
Fisheries didn’t go as planned. We backed off because of international lawsuits over access to Svalbard waters, but we opened up for selling on the local market. That means fishing and selling locally, but no exports.
Regarding other international issues, how have relations changed with Barentsburg (population 455), the only other large town in Svalbard, since the Ukraine war started? When we last spoke in 2016, most of the miners were from the disputed Donetsk region and Russia was operating Barentsburg as a coal mine with unfettered access to Norwegian soil under the terms of the Svalbard Treaty of 1920.
So, I will say there is a relationship. Whether it is good or bad, someone else can speak to that, but there are less and fewer contact points. We also have Russians from Barentsburg who are now living here in Longyearbyen, so we have to think about that, too.
Sitting at the top of the world, with Longyearbyen at the epicenter of the fastest warming on Earth, what is your view of climate change?
What I see now is that what we are doing with this green shift is just a middle phase. We need to do better. We are exploiting nature, using too many minerals, and opening too many new copper mines. That is the back side of the green shift. I support it, I think it needs to be done, but I think we are also moving into a phase where we need to take it a step further.
What steps are those?
We have to move from a growth economy to a circular economy. That is the only way. That is how I see it. If you use one ton of copper, and don’t put one ton of copper back in the system, it will be empty. There are no copper seeds. It’s a non-renewable resource. That is why I say this green shift is just a middle phase. Climate change is happening fast here, but for now we can cope with it. It’s quite curious to say this, but it seems like we are actually climate winners here.
When I look at some of the big cities in the USA or on the continent, with flooding, cyclones, forest fires, and crops going bad, in some strange way—although things are happening very fast here — I feel really sorry for people living in areas that have, perhaps in mathematical terms, less climate change, but it affects them harder. Because we are not standing up to our knees in flooding here. But as I always say, when you’re up to your ears in mud, you can’t hang your head. You just have to push forward.
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