Saturday, June 5, 2021
Friday, June 4, 2021
From BBC by Jonathan Amos
Scientists say we now have the most precise information yet on the deepest points in each of Earth's five oceans.
The key locations where the seafloor bottoms out in the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Southern oceans were mapped by the Five Deeps Expedition.
Some of these places, such as the 10,924m-deep (6.8 miles) Mariana Trench in the western Pacific, had already been surveyed several times.
But the Five Deeps project removed a number of remaining uncertainties.
For example, in the Indian Ocean, there were two competing claims for the deepest point - a section of the Java Trench just off the coast of Indonesia; and a fracture zone to the southwest of Australia.
The rigorous measurement techniques employed by the Five Deeps team confirmed Java to be the winner, but this lowest section in the trench - at a depth of 7,187m - is actually 387km from where previous data had suggested the deepest point might be.
Likewise, in the Southern Ocean, there is now a new place we must consider that region's deepest point. It's a depression called Factorian Deep at the far southern end of the South Sandwich Trench. It lies 7,432m down.
There is a location in the same trench, just to the north, that's deeper still (Meteor Deep at 8,265m) but it's technically in the Atlantic Ocean.
All of the new bathymetry (depth data) is contained in a paper published in the Geoscience Data Journal.
Its lead author is Cassie Bongiovanni from Caladan Oceanic LLC, the company that helped organise the Five Deeps Expedition, which had as its figurehead the Texan financier and adventurer Victor Vescovo.
The former US Navy reservist wanted to become the first person in history to dive to the lowest points in all five oceans and achieved this goal when he reached a spot known as the Molloy Hole (5,551m) in the Arctic on 24 August, 2019.
But in parallel to Mr Vescovo setting dive records in his submarine, the Limiting Factor, his science team were taking an unprecedented number of measurements of the temperature and salinity (saltiness) of the seawater at all levels down to the ocean floor.
This information was crucial in correcting the echo-sounder depth readings made from the hull of the sub's support ship, the Pressure Drop.
In this context, refining the observations any further will be extremely hard.
The wider context here is the quest to get better mapping data of the seabed in general. Current knowledge is woeful.
"Over the course of 10 months, as we visited these five locations, we mapped an area the size of continental France. But within that was an area the size of Finland that was totally new, where the seafloor had never been seen before," explained team-member Dr Heather Stewart from the British Geological Survey.
"It just shows what can be done, what still needs to be done. And the Pressure Drop continues to work, so we are gathering more and more data," she told BBC News.
All of this information is being handed over to the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project, which aims to compile, from various data sources, a full-ocean depth map by the end of the decade.
It would be a critical resource.
They are essential for navigation, of course, and for laying underwater cables and pipelines.
They are also important for fisheries management and conservation, because it is around the underwater mountains that wildlife tends to congregate.
In addition, the rugged seafloor influences the behaviour of ocean currents and the vertical mixing of water.
And if you want to understand precisely how sea-levels will rise in different parts of the world, good ocean-floor maps are a must.
The BBC made contact at the weekend with the Pressure Drop, which is currently sailing west of Australia in the Indian Ocean.
Team-member and co-author on the new paper, Prof Alan Jamieson, is still aboard.
"For example, there are some major animal groups in the world for which we just don't know how deep they go. Just last month, we recorded a jellyfish 1,000m deeper than 9,000m, which was the previous record by us. So we've now got jellyfish down to 10,000m.
"Three weeks ago, we saw a squid at 6,500m. A squid at that depth! How did we not know this? And during the Five Deeps Expedition, we added 2,000m on the depth range for an octopus.
"These are not obscure animals; it's not like they're some sort of rare species. These are big animal groups that are clearly occupying much larger parts of the world than we thought," Prof Jamieson said.
The deepest place in the Atlantic is in the Puerto Rico Trench, a place called Brownson Deep at 8,378m. The expedition also confirmed the second deepest location in the Pacific, behind the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench.
Thursday, June 3, 2021
As is the case with so much of the Mediterranean, to sail in Croatia is to take a journey through time.
Centuries before the birth of Christ, Greeks traded amphoras of oil, wine and grain across these waters.
During the first millennium, the Romans built lavish palaces and fortresses here.
More recently, the islands of the Adriatic have been home to secret WWII airbases and Cold War military installations.
Before heading out, we did our homework, especially with regard to the variable winds in this part of the world, each of which has its own name—Bura, Jugo, Maestral, Levant, Tramontana, Oštro, Lebić and Pulenat.
We needed to be particularly aware of the northeast Bura and the southeast Jugo, both of which can be especially strong in fall and winter.
The Bura has been clocked at 150 knots, equal to a Category 5 hurricane, and even the less-intense Jugo can sometimes dish out 50-knot winds and 15ft seas.
If ever one of these winds is forecast, seek shelter, preferably in a marina.
Luckily, Sail Croatia provided us with a very thorough briefing and free Wi-Fi onboard, allowing us to get up-to-date weather reports around the clock.
Coastal Croatia can get pretty busy, and with the steep shorelines you encounter there, we knew we wouldn’t find even half as many places to drop a hook as in the Caribbean.
Luckily, there are quite a few mooring balls scattered, and given we would be chartering during the off-season, we figured we’d be alright, as long as we didn’t arrive at any of our destinations too late.
Our first destination, Vis, is roughly 30 miles from Split, which is doable, but a long sail.
So we decided to break it up and stop in at a wonderful little bay on the eastern end of Solta island called Uvala Sesula.
It’s an easy 11 miles from the base and provides good shelter in most weather conditions.
There are also two great restaurants there that have mooring balls we could reserve in advance for free with a dinner reservation, a common routine in Croatia.
As we made our approach, we radioed in and one of the staff at Konoba Sesula came out to help us secure our boat.
(“Konoba” is the local term for a restaurant that serves traditional food.) Afterward, we took a narrow foot path over to the quaint fishing village of Maslinica, which has a lovely little harbor, more restaurants and cafés, and a number of grocery stores for last-minute provisioning.
The following morning the wind clocked a little south and then steadily increased throughout the day, providing a rather spirited close-reach and getting us into the lovely main port of Vis by early afternoon.
The town of Vis, which borrows its name from the island, is on the northern side of the island.
There is a large mooring field and a number of marinas that were all pretty empty when we arrived, but filled up considerably by sundown.
Due to its strategic position, Vis played a key role during both WWII and the Cold War.
In the 1940s, it was the site of a crucial emergency airbase for crippled Allied bombers.
In the 1980s, Yugoslav leader Josip “Tito” Broz built a pair of clandestine military bases both here and in neighboring island of Lastovo.
On our first full day on Vis we planned to explore the remains of a few of these military sites.
But while shopping for a scooter rental, we learned that many of them are poorly marked and therefore hard to find.
We were then directed to the local tour company Alternatura, run by Pino Vojkovic, who apparently was the “go-to guy” for military tours of the island.
The following morning we climbed aboard one of Pino’s signature blue Land Rovers and drove to a high vantage point where our guide, Goran, pointed out the ghost-like remnants of the now completely overgrown airstrip Allied bombers once made their emergency landings.
We also toured a small shop that now serves as a kind of de facto museum of ancient bomber wings, propellers, parachutes and other odd parts left behind by the Allies.
From there we drove to Cape Stupišće, where Goran took us down an impossibly rutted dirt road leading to a large clearing hidden by rotted camouflage netting.
Goran explained that this is where Tito hid the enormous trucks that served as both transport vehicles and launching platforms for his country’s Soviet-made, surface-to-air missiles.
He then handed us helmets and headlamps, and we entered the eerie darkness of one of the tunnels used to store these kinds of missiles.
Inside we found bunkers with foot-thick steel doors on greased hinges and explored narrow escape routes that terminated in small rock shelters disguised to look like shepherd outposts.
It was all like something out of a James Bond movie.
After that came ARK Vela Glava the headquarters for Tito’s operations in Vis and the island’s largest network of tunnels.
These tunnels were much darker and deeper and led to a network of side tunnels and rooms that once housed troop barracks and ammunition stores.
At the end of one of these tunnels we exited into the blinding sun only to find a decrepit gun battery aimed directly across the Adriatic in the direction of Italy.
Of course, the rich history of Vis is not only found on land, and our next stop was the local dive company, Nautica Vis Diving Center.
On one of our dives we got up close and personal with a U.S.
bomber that had sunk during the war.
Apparently, the now coral-encrusted B-24 had been circling the island trying to get its landing gear down when it ran out of fuel.
As the story goes, the captain first let his crew bail out before attempting a crash landing, a heroic maneuver he tragically didn’t survive.
Another dive took us to the wreck of an ancient trading vessel that pre-dates Christ.
Nothing was left of the actual ship.
But a large assortment of amphoras remains, many of them intact and presumably still full of their ancient cargo.
On our last day on the island, we took a relaxed scooter ride along Vis’s rock-strewn landscape dotted with wild rosemary bushes and chicory, thistle and rockrose flowers.
One of our stops, Komiža, the island’s other port town on the opposite side, has a wonderful selection of outdoor cafes along its historic harbor front.
We also explored a site called the Queen's Cave, near the abandoned village of Okijunca.
The trail there is poorly marked, so if you don’t like getting lost, you might want to hire a guide to take you there.
Okijunca itself makes for fantastic exploring with its small Capella and empty stone houses overlooking dark-green olive groves and the expansive sapphire waters of the Adriatic.
Before moving on, we spent a night in Blue Lagoon, a sheltered harbor on the western shore of Budikovac Island just off the southeast corner of Vis.
This beautiful little anchorage provided a wonderful respite before the long sail to our next port-of-call, Lastovo.
There are plenty of mooring balls here, a nice beach and a friendly family-run restaurant.
Although the bay is popular with day cruises, it largely empties out at night.
Lastovo is about 40 mile southeast of Vis, and the scattering of beautiful islands off its eastern end creates a spectacular entryway.
One of Lastovo’s larger Cold War military bases is located in Jurjeva Bay—a well-sheltered anchorage on the nearby island of Prezxba.
Jurjeva Bay has a nice little beach and is surrounded by an assortment of abandoned buildings and guard towers.
Exploring on the southern side of the bay, we stumbled upon a small entrance in a rock face that led to another one of Tito’s extensive tunnel systems.
Carefully watching our step and avoiding the ghostly camel crickets (that looked even more monstrous by the light of our headlamps), we picked our way down a long dark corridor and eventually came to a large munitions area similar to what we’d seen at Cape Stupi.
We also found evidence of troop quarters—barracks, ventilation equipment, old generator stands and bathrooms.
It wasn’t until we exited that we saw the small sign prohibiting entrance, so explore at your own risk.
Having had our fill of damp, dark tunnels, we re-energized our bodies in the warm Croatian sun by scrambling up an unmarked trail leading south to yet another bay called Uvala Kremena.
Here we found one of the sea tunnels carved out of the mountain that Tito used for hiding his gunboats.
There are a number of these on Lastovo and Vis that yachties now like to use for overnight stays, although it was not clear to us whether doing so was 100 percent legal.
Satisfied with our rather extensive military tour, our next stop was the lively port of Zaklopatica, a wonderfully sheltered bay on Lastovo’s northern shore and the site of an equally wonderful marina and restaurant called the Konoba Triton, a popular sailors’ hangout.
In Zaklopatica I also had a chance to practice my docking skills in front of a good-sized crowd, an experience that was not for the faint of heart.
The process was essentially “Med mooring,” except instead of dropping an anchor before reversing, there was a set of permanent bow lines you retrieved via a messenger line.
Located roughly 30 miles northwest of Lastovo on the western end Hvar, Fisherman’s House is run by the Matijević family and is the quintessential relaxed, bucolic Croatian island retreat, complete with its own vineyard and vegetable gardens.
In fact, we loved Fisherman’s House so much, we originally decided to spend our last couple of nights there, sunbathing and soaking in the relaxed life of the Adriatic.
However, nasty weather was approaching, which our host said would likely turn into a Bura, in which case our wonderful little bay on Sveti Klement would provide limited shelter at best.
He recommended we shift to a marina in Milna and the much better protected harbor on Brac.
Without hesitation, we called to book a slip.
The weather was relatively calm when we arrived there, but it was amazing how quickly the storm hit.
After securing our boat, I was ashore taking a leisurely stroll along the waterfront when a few paper bags and paper trash started spinning in circles around me.
I didn’t think much of it until a patrons in a nearby restaurant told me to take cover—fast—prompting me to make a bee-line back to our boat.
The storm hit minutes later with torrential rain and such violent winds some of the crews taking shelter in the harbor had to adjust lines to prevent their sterns quarters from hitting the pier.
Afterward, when the storm had passed, Milna’s many quaint restaurants, bars and clubs quickly came back to life.
Milna is a picture-postcard, classic Croatia seaside town, with its classic stone architecture and baroque church with a characteristic Dalmatian bell tower.
The surrounding countryside is equally enchanting, consisting of a patchwork of old stone farms and picturesque orchards.
Sadly, Milna represented the end of our charter.
It was also time to top up our fuel tanks, something we wanted to do while still out among the islands to avoid the long lines and general mayhem we’d seen at the fuel dock in Split.
Unfortunately, we ended up facing the same problem in Milna—boats drifting into each other, no real system or queue, plenty of screaming and short tempers.
I’m guessing the only way to avoid this kind of chaos is to fill up out on the islands late Thursday night or super early Friday morning.
Anyway, we survived.
Once safely back in the harbor of Split, we spent a few days exploring the city with its old Roman Palace and narrow alleys.
We stayed at Divota, a wonderful hotel that included some of the magnificently restored century-old stone houses in the ancient neighborhood.
If you prefer staying in the heart of the palace “compound,” as it’s called, the Marmot is nice as well.
For dinner, there are plenty of choices, but we particularly liked Articok, as the chef there is amazing.
Trattoria Tavulin is also located inside the palace “compound” and the outside seating there is nothing less than magical.
A place called Dujkin Dvor, along the waterfront, is an especially friendly local eatery where the owners regularly circulate among the guests, making it a great place to end your visit to this charming corner of the world.
Just be mindful of the weather and plan ahead.
You want to enjoy the history here, not become part of it!
Cruising Tips: Croatia
May through June and late September to October are the best times to sail in Croatia.
The weather is great, you avoid the crazy summer crowds, and you’ll find great deals and availability of boats.
The winds in Croatia blow for all directions, at all times of the day and year, and can change quickly, both in direction and intensity.
Be prepared to find safe harbor, preferably a marina, during rough weather.
Mooring balls are the norm, as most of the bays have steep shorelines and rocky bottoms.
Overnight wind shifts are also common.
Most of the smaller coves and bays offer free moorings to those who book a dinner at one of the restaurants ashore.
Wednesday, June 2, 2021
The Allen Coral Atlas project, an international research collaboration featuring University of Queensland scientists, are using unprecedented detailed habitat maps of all global coral reefs – over 230,000 of them – to detect reef bleaching anywhere in the world.
“The current prognosis for the world’s coral reefs is bleak,” Dr Roelfsema said.
Previously, only disparate data sets and maps that were available to scientists and policymakers.
Satellites detect variations in reef brightness by using high-resolution satellite imagery powered by an advanced algorithm indicating whether reefs are under stress or resilient to marine heatwaves.
“This monitoring capability will help us to see, where and to what extent coral bleaching is likely to be occurring as well as where it isn’t bleaching so we can identify resilient reefs,” Dr Roelfsema said.
“The platform can observe where corals are bleaching throughout the world, ranging from no bleaching to severe.
“Once we know where this is happening, governments and NGOs on the ground can swoop in to take action sooner, rather than later.”
Satellite data was then cleaned up via the Carnegie Institution - Asner Lab, before UQ scientists used the data to create the first global map that represent coral and algae, seagrass, sand, rubble and rock.
“This is just the first global version of our monitoring system, with the partnership intending to improve and expand it to include a broader range of impacts on reefs such as land-sea pollutants and sediments,” Dr Roelfsema said.
“This first, truly global reef monitoring system is simply a drop in the bucket for what is to come.”
The Allen Coral Atlas, named for the late Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, is funded by Vulcan Inc. and directed by Arizona State University, and was developed through a unique partnership between UQ, Arizona State University, National Geographic Society, Planet, and Vulcan.
- The Guardian : Scientists launch tool to detect bleaching of coral reefs in near real time
- Discover : How Volunteers Are Helping Keep Coral Reefs Alive
- Paul Allen Foundation : Helping corals survive the climate crisis
Tuesday, June 1, 2021
From Nature by Quirin Schiermeier
The number of ships using a ‘flag of convenience’ loophole that allows them to be scrapped in a place with lax environmental regulations is skyrocketing.
Ships transport 90% of the world’s traded cargo, so are crucial to the global economy.
Research now shows1 that the number of vessels misleadingly registered to nations other than their true country of origin — called flags of convenience — has skyrocketed since 2002.
Business owners in wealthy nations, including members of the European Union as well as the United States, South Korea and Japan, control the large majority of the world cargo and tanker fleet.
Poor environmental regulation
The study reveals that the use of flags of convenience has become the default among business owners in the EU over the past few decades.
Countries are responsible for enforcing international and regional safety and environmental rules on ships registered under their flags — but some flag-of-convenience nations are known not to do so. Between 2002 and 2019, the proportion of EU-nation-owned ships registered in low-income countries rose from 46% to 96%, the study finds.
By registering ships abroad, owners can also escape taxes and operate substandard vessels.
Failure of maritime rules
International treaties — including the 1992 Basel Convention to prevent transfer of hazardous waste from developed to less developed countries, and the 2009 Hong Kong Convention for the safe and environmentally sound recycling of ships — are woefully ineffective with regard to preventing environmental injustice, says study author Zheng Wan, a transport researcher at Shanghai Maritime University in China who led the analysis.
Ship-scrapping in low-income countries comes with fatal health risks and severe environmental pollution, including releases of mercury, lead, asbestos, ozone-depleting substances and pesticides into the soil and sea.
“Business practices are rendering many international treaties and regional regulations unenforceable because ‘flags of convenience’ nations tend to have little interest in regulation,” says Wan.
“It is immoral if ship owners in wealthy developed countries are circumventing international conventions and potentially exposing workers in low-income countries to serious harm,” adds John Cheerie, a workplace-health researcher at the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Edinburgh, UK.
Monday, May 31, 2021
Climate change is bringing tourism and tension to Longyearbyen on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard
Mark Sabbatini first noticed the cracks in his apartment's concrete walls in 2014.
It had been six years since he moved to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago far out in the Barents Sea, about halfway between Norway's northern tip and the North Pole.
He was an itinerant American writer drawn by promises of an open, international society—and jazz music.
Every winter the community of Longyearbyen, the world's northernmost town at 78 degrees North latitude, holds a jazz festival to liven up the perpetual darkness.
Residents, university students, tourists and visiting scientists mingle in music halls, clinking champagne glasses to melodious tones as winds howl through the surrounding mountains.
On his first visit Sabbatini had arrived just in time for the festivities.
Svalbard, he says, instantly felt like home.
“It was like when you look across the room and spot somebody and fall in love.”
But fissures were now appearing in the relationship.
Sabbatini worried the apartment cracks were caused by a leaky roof; it had been raining more than usual.
Then he realized the building's concrete foundation was buckling.
Fractures slithered up the stairwells and defaced the building's beige exterior.
The next year tenants discovered that part of a cooling system underneath the building, meant to help keep the permafrost ground frozen and stable during warm spells, was faltering.
“And we were getting a lot of warm spells,” Sabbatini says.
Suddenly, on a February afternoon in 2016, town officials ordered the occupants to evacuate, afraid the building could collapse.
Sabbatini and 29 others had only a few hours to pack and get out.
Today he is one of about 2,400 residents who call the place home—the fastest-warming town in the world.
Since 1971 temperatures on Svalbard have risen by roughly four degrees Celsius, five times faster than the global average.
In winter it is more than seven degrees C warmer than it was 50 years ago.
Last summer Svalbard recorded its hottest temperature ever—21.7 degrees C—following 111 months of above-average heat.
True to Sabbatini's observations, annual precipitation on Svalbard has increased by 30 to 45 percent over the past 50 years, largely in the form of winter rain, according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute.
And the archipelago's permafrost—ground that should remain largely frozen—is now warmer here than anywhere else at this latitude.
Even by Arctic standards, Svalbard is heating up fast.
The consequences are extensive.
The thawing permafrost, which can heave or slump, has ruptured roads and exposed the macabre contents of old graves.
Extremely windy, heavy snowstorms—once rare—have triggered deadly avalanches on the mountain slopes looming above Longyearbyen.
Yet the snow season is shorter.
The sea ice is retreating.
Glaciers that reach down from the mountains are among the most rapidly melting on earth, according to a 2020 Nature Communications study.
Svalbard's polar bears and reindeer are struggling to find food.
As climate change distorts the Arctic ecosystem, it is also unlocking economic potential.
After explorer Willem Barents discovered the archipelago in 1596, Dutch, British and Danish sailors established Svalbard as a whaling outpost and slaughtered the plentiful cetaceans to meet European demand for lamp oil.
When the marine mammals were depleted in the early 1900s, rough-handed entrepreneurs from Norway, Russia, and elsewhere pivoted to mining coal.
Fruene cafe on the central square is a local hotspot (middle).
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, repaired after damage in 2017 from heavy rains and weakened permafrost, is several kilometers west of town (bottom).
Credit: Marzena Skubatz
Change is happening across the High North.
In Alaska, crumbling permafrost cliffs are falling into the Bering Sea, forcing coastal residents to move inland.
Greenland's melting ice sheet is exposing rare-earth minerals, drawing outside investment from nations such as China.
Danish container ships have begun transiting the ice-free Northern Sea Route that parallels Siberia's coast.
The Norwegian archipelago is unique among its Arctic peers, however, because of its governance and strategic location.
The Svalbard Treaty signed after World War I granted Norway sovereignty over the islands.
The Soviets had their settlements—Barentsburg and Pyramiden—and Norway had Longyearbyen.
No Indigenous group has ever occupied the land.
Norway was chosen as steward because of its proximity and its historical activity in the area—and because it was in good standing with the Allied powers.
The treaty charged Norway with protecting the archipelago, but it also contained a “nondiscrimination principle” allowing any citizen of the now 46 signatory countries, including North Korea, to live on Svalbard, no visa needed.
Non-Norwegians can open businesses, mine and fish like a Norwegian.
No other place in the world is as open to outsiders.
Fishers are following the fish, oil and gas prospectors are testing the waters and young workers in the tourist trade are heading to Svalbard seeking adventure.
The islands—with a land area similar to that of West Virginia—are also receiving attention because they are midway between Russia and the Western Hemisphere, offering a critical military vantage point.
Russia's military ships and nuclear submarines traveling to the Atlantic Ocean routinely pass nearby.
What was once an isolated, stable society cloaked in semipermanent darkness has been thrust to the forefront of Arctic change by rapid warming and the interests that warming precipitates.
Whether Norway can preserve Longyearbyen's character and peaceable community will be a test that many Arctic communities will soon have to face.
In 2008 it was typical to see snow every month.
Seas would freeze every year.
Neither of those is true any more.
Longyearbyen lies near the inland end of Adventfjord, a U-shaped bay off the Arctic Ocean.
Barren mountains rise to the east and west, walling in the three-kilometer-long town with rock and ice.
There is not a tree or bush in sight.
I first experienced this landscape on a visit in 2018.
On a late January morning I stepped out of my hostel at the southern end of Longyearbyen into the “civil twilight,” a period of blue gloom at the end of the polar night before the sun begins to break the horizon again.
I walked up the main street to the central plaza, watched over by a dark metal statue of a bearded miner.
The town's heated, aboveground water and sewer pipes ran along my left side, as did the narrow Longyear River, which flows down from two glaciers to meet Adventfjord's cobalt waters at the town's northern end.
The twilight revealed fractured and abandoned buildings sinking into the ground, including Sabbatini's old apartment.
In past winters Svalbard's smaller fjords froze over, providing refuge for the blubbery ringed seals that lived in the harbor, but the dark blue water in Adventfjord, visible up ahead of me, had not frozen firmly since late 2014.
Cold, white light from the moon glinted off steel snow fencing strung along ridgelines above, a reminder of the rising risk of avalanches.
In December 2015 an avalanche had stampeded down onto the town's eastern neighborhood, burying 11 homes.
A man and toddler died.
Fourteen months later another avalanche crashed onto two apartment buildings.
When scientists surveyed the mountain, they surmised that storms were bringing short, intense bouts of snow.
Strong winds packed the snow into slabs vulnerable to sudden collapse.
The risk of landslides and mudslides has increased, too.
When I reached the square, I ducked inside Fruene, the cafe where I was to meet Sabbatini.
He spent much of his time there working on his hyperlocal newspaper Ice People.
The cafe was filled with residents and tourists sipping cappuccinos and nibbling chocolates shaped like polar bears.
“Everyone loves the dark season here,” Sabbatini told me as we sat down, his head covered in a wool toque.
“There's just so much going on.” His beloved Polarjazz festival was due to return in two days, and he eagerly recited the list of performances.
He ended up missing all of them.
The day after we met, Sabbatini slipped on the ice outside his new residence and broke his hip.
He had to be flown to the mainland for treatment.
A few weeks earlier the mercury had reached six degrees C—once unheard of in January.
The clouds chucked down 44 millimeters of rain, not snow.
When the wet ground froze, it formed a treacherous sheet of ice that had persisted since.
“When I came here [in 2008], it was typical that you would see snow every month of the year,” Sabbatini told me when I reconnected with him on the phone more than 12 months later.
“It was typical that the seas here in the western part of Svalbard would freeze over every year.
Neither of those is true anymore.”
His apartment evacuation, he continued, “was just a preview of what was to come.” After the avalanches, the town found that nearly 140 residences were in an avalanche danger zone, as were university dorms and tourist hostels.
“Suddenly, you're talking about housing for about 20 percent of the population wiped out,” Sabbatini said.
“All due to climate.
That's just staggering.”
When permafrost thaws, concrete structures can crack.
A blizzard this past April shut down roads (middle).
Mark Sabbatini's first apartment was one victim (bottom).
Credit: Marzena Skubatz
Scientists expect the land to become less secure.
More rain and more meltwater will raise river levels, leading to more flooding and erosion, says Hege Hisdal, director of hydrology at the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate.
Since 2009 deep permafrost temperatures have increased at rates between 0.06 and 0.15 degree C per year.
When permafrost warms, its active layer—the top layer of soil that thaws during the summer and freezes in autumn—grows deeper.
Around Longyearbyen the thaw is deepening by 0.5 to two centimeters annually, and the town's structural instability deepens with it.
Across the Arctic, scientists estimate that with two degrees C of warming, 2.5 million square kilometers of permafrost could thaw and disappear.
In Newtok, Alaska, more than a kilometer of eroding permafrost cliffs along the town's edge have crumbled into the sea, forcing the Indigenous Yup'ik residents to move inland.
There environmental challenges are compounded by political ambivalence; as early as 2003, the U.S.
government acknowledged that Newtok needed to be relocated, but only three years ago did the Yup'ik finally receive $15 million in aid, only a fraction of what will be required to relocate the entire village to safer ground.
In contrast, the Norwegian government has increased spending on the archipelago by 80 percent over the past five years.
In 2018 it allotted a separate $25.9 million for protective measures such as fencing to prevent snow from accumulating in avalanche-prone areas above Longyearbyen and to build new residential and student housing.
The government also earmarked almost $12 million for upgrades to the famous Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which flooded in 2017 from thawing permafrost and heavy rains.
When I drove by it one morning on the way out of town, bulldozers cluttered the entrance to the vault.
Norway is investing in the territory so its citizens will continue to live there despite the changing environment.
Longyearbyen can engineer defenses against climate-related threats to the land, to an extent.
The community is relatively contained, compared with other parts of the Arctic, where permafrost underlies hundreds of kilometers of roads and pipelines.
But the local government has to plan carefully.
“There's not a lot of space,” says Graham Gilbert, a geologist at the University Center in Svalbard, who studies geohazards and permafrost.
Work can also be done to mitigate floods, landslides and avalanches, “but it's very expensive,” Hisdal says.
Longyearbyen's population has grown somewhat slowly in the past decade, in part because of a housing squeeze, but its demographics have changed.
Since 2008 the non-Norwegian population there has increased from 14 to 37 percent.
Most transplants are from Europe and Asia and are looking for jobs in the burgeoning tourism industry, made more accessible because of climate change.
Flights now arrive daily from Oslo.
Angie Magnaong, from the Philippines, had never heard of Svalbard and its visa-free access until her Norwegian boyfriend proposed they move there; she would have needed a visa to live on the mainland.
The 24-year-old soon found a receptionist job at Gjestehuset 102—a former miners' quarters converted into a guesthouse in the avalanche risk “red” zone in a little neighborhood called Nybyen.
She and two local Filipino friends chronicle their experiences on social media, she says, to show people back home their activities in “a place at the top of the world which is livable.”
Svalbard has no visa requirement, and she came from the Philippines seeking adventure.
Credit: Marzena Skubatz
Magnaong and others are moving there despite the permafrost and avalanche hazards because the economy is no longer geared toward men in the mining trade.
During the coal era, workers and their families lived on the archipelago for years.
But Norway's government has been shutting down Norwegian coal mining, and this year it announced that the last coal-fired power plant would be closed in 2028 and replaced by one expected to burn natural gas or wood pellets.
As miners have left, short-term residents have arrived.
Today about 30 percent of full-time jobs are in tourism, buoyed by visitors' desire to see the Arctic before it is irrevocably changed, a trend called “Last Chance Tourism.” Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, local officials were becoming concerned with overtourism; in the summer, ice-free seas lured a cruise ship to the docks every few days.
In 2019 Longyearbyen logged more than 150,000 “guest nights,” up from around 80,000 a decade ago.
Between 2008 and 2015 hotels and restaurants grew from 11 to 18.
The other big employer now is the state-run University Center, focused on Arctic sciences.
Every year hundreds of students from a variety of countries arrive, but then they often leave within six months; visiting scientists do not stay very long, either.
The turnover has created what Norway's government calls a “revolving door society.” Longyearbyen today “is not a place where people stay,” says Rachel Tiller, a political scientist and researcher at SINTEF Ocean, who studies sovereignty issues on Svalbard.
Most young newcomers leave within seven years—far greater turnover than in any municipality on the mainland.
The growing lack of generational memory makes the community less cohesive and therefore less resilient to the environmental changes unfolding, Tiller thinks.
Without such deep social ties, it can be hard for the community to band together in the face of adversity presented by avalanches and runaway warming.
Leaving is the easier option.
FOLLOW THE FISH
More change might come from an unexpectedly growing industry.
On a balmy day at the end of a July 2020 heat wave, Haakon Hop, a senior marine biologist at the Norwegian Polar Institute, boarded the RV Kronprins Haakon, a research icebreaker, and headed out into the protected waters of Kongsfjorden along Svalbard's western coast.
Two glaciers were calving, sending bits of icebergs past the vessel.
Hop had studied these waters for decades, watching walrus, bearded seals and belugas.
The crew deployed their net to sample the fjord's fish, and when they hoisted it up, they found the biggest Atlantic cod Hop had ever seen—more than a meter long.
The crew passed their catch around by the tail, posing for photographs like champion fishers.
The Atlantic cod is one of the most valuable fish species in the world, and “a greater proportion of the population is now situated around Svalbard than it used to be,” Hop says.
The fish are coming from the south to warming waters in the High North, and they are growing larger because the warmer water promotes growth spurts in larval and juvenile cod.
Northeast Atlantic mackerel are arriving more frequently, too.
For decades fishers from various countries along the old migration route negotiated shares of the mackerel take, but those talks broke down when the migration pattern changed.
The Svalbard Treaty gave signatory nations fishing rights in 12 nautical miles of territorial waters around the archipelago's shores.
Because Svalbard was under its control, in 1976 Norway considered extending its own marine claim to 200 nautical miles, creating a so-called exclusive economic zone, which is commonly used by countries worldwide.
This zone includes all rights to resources in the water and on and under the seafloor—the continental shelf.
Today Norway values its Svalbard fishing trade at about $94 million annually.
Steel fences (seen on mountainside) have been installed to thwart avalanches.
Credit: Marzena Skubatz
Some countries took issue with Norway's idea, including the Soviet Union, whose officials believed the treaty made Svalbard's waters communal.
To appease them, Norway decided to create a fisheries protection zone (FPZ) that reached out to 200 nautical miles.
The FPZ gave environmental responsibility to Norway, and Norway allotted small fishing quotas only to certain countries that had historically fished the waters.
“The FPZ solved the immediate problem,” says Andreas Østhagen, a senior research fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute.
Everything seemed to be working fine until, as Østhagen puts it, “the stupid snow crab wandered in.”
The snow crab, a commercially valuable crustacean, has been scuttling northward along the seafloor toward Svalbard as its native habitat warms.
Because the crab lives on the bottom—not considered part of the water column—Norway banned the catch of snow crabs by foreign boats in 2014, not contradicting the FPZ, which applied only to the water column.
protested, but Russia did not seem concerned, because it still had plenty of crabs on its own seafloor.
Russia, however, is eyeing oil and gas deposits under Svalbard's continental shelf.
Surveyors estimate that the equivalent of 1.4 billion cubic meters of oil could lie in the vicinity of Svalbard.
“If Norway accepted the E.U.
position [on crabs], it would create a precedent” for seafloor access to oil and gas by other countries, Østhagen says.
Russia hopes to gain a greater foothold in Svalbard's tourism economy as well.
Nine years ago Grete K.
Hovelsrud, an environmental sociologist at Nord University in Bodø and at the Nordland Research Institute, traveled with a small group of climate scientists to Barentsburg, the Russian mining settlement 60 kilometers southwest of Longyearbyen along the ocean's edge.
When they pulled up in a boat, a young Russian man was waiting on the dock to greet them.
“It was like a ghost town,” Hovelsrud says.
The man led the group past the wood Russian Orthodox church and into a hotel that housed the town's lone cafe and restaurant.
The dining room had 20 tables but only one place setting—for the man.
“He was so upbeat,” she recalls.
He talked about how warm it had been and said he was hopeful more people would come.
Barentsburg now has two hotels and a brewery.
The Russians want to have more of a presence in Svalbard, Hovelsrud says.
With coal on the way out, being part of the tourism trade is part of Russia's larger Arctic strategy, she says.
Russia has said it also intends to build a facility in Barentsburg to process fish for export to distant markets.
Perhaps in response to a coming scramble for resources in Svalbard, Norway's government has announced it will open a Longyearbyen office of the Ministry of Trade, Fisheries and Industry—the first time a ministry has opened an office outside of Oslo.
About 30 percent of jobs are in hospitality, buoyed by visitors’ desire to see the Arctic before it is irrevocably changed, a trend called “Last Chance Tourism.”
The geopolitical posturing is unsettling for longtime residents because the Arctic has historically been a peaceable region.
Hovelsrud first visited Longyearbyen in the 1980s during the cold war to study reindeer.
Everyone knew who the KGB agent was in town, she says.
He would sit at the bar in Huset, the miners' hall, and casually snap pictures of other imbibers, who did not care.
On weekends, Russians and Norwegians met by snowmobile on one of the glaciers to exchange goods.
“I would [trade] jeans [for] boots and bearskin hats,” Hovelsrud laughs.
Despite global friction between the Soviet Union and the West, local relations were at ease.
Hovelsrud says this is still the case among residents, but in international relations, “something has shifted.
There is a general tension toward the Arctic and the resources up there.” Svalbard has become strategic real estate, too.
When NATO held a 2017 parliamentary assembly meeting in Svalbard, Russia called the maneuver “provocative.” A 2020 Norwegian Intelligence Service report warned that Russian operators were using online misinformation in attempts to sow discord between Norway's northernmost communities and the national government in Oslo.
Kaltenborn, a human geographer at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, who studies how Longyearbyen residents are coping with climate change, thinks more nations, particularly China, “will be pushing to have more access to logistics and resources.” Already China has established the Yellow River Research Station in the remote scientific enclave of Ny-Ålesund, 180 kilometers northwest of Longyearbyen.
And this past March, China confirmed its plan to construct a “polar silk road”—a network of investments in Arctic oil, gas, mining and shipping.
Because of the nondiscrimination principle, there is not much the Norwegian government can do about investment from people around the world.
This “unpredictable power game” over resources will “clearly affect the community of Longyearbyen and its economic, social and cultural development,” according to a 2019 study co-authored by Kaltenborn, Hovelsrud and Julia Olsen of the Nordland Research Institute.
People there are “starting to worry” about their way of life, Kaltenborn tells me.
Thawing permafrost, avalanches, ships filled with tourists and competition among global powers—all amplified by warming—will certainly affect the social climate.
The only question is: How?
For now any geopolitical drama does not seem to have altered daily life in Longyearbyen.
Sabbatini acknowledged the stressors when I recently talked with him, but when I asked about rising tension, he was a bit flippant.
“Svalbard has become this massive target, in large part because it's so open.
Sure, it's fun to read that we'd get [overwhelmed] by the Russians if they rolled in here,” he chuckles.
“But what are the chances that's going to happen?”
Running a local newspaper, he is not naive about change.
But maybe he prefers to focus on Svalbard's unique, natural beauty.
“The Northern Lights this year,” he says, “have just been fantastic.”