Blog note. Jesus indicated
that ‘fearful sights’ (various natural disasters) would occur leading up to the
time known as the Tribulation and Great Tribulation (a combined seven year
period of great destruction on earth). Although these types of things have
occurred in the past for centuries and thousands of years, they could be
identified as the ‘season of the times’ due to the ferociousness of these
events. They would be occurring in greater intensity, severity, frequency,
size, duration, scope … just like the pains that a woman experiences in labor
the farther along she is in the labor process. We are in the ‘season of the
times’ that comes just before the seven (7) year Tribulation/Great Tribulation
… And great earthquakes shall be in diverse places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven. (Luke 21:11).
… And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; (Luke 21:25)
… Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken; (Luke 21:26)
… This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. (2 Timothy 3:1)
Jesus is giving a series of prophecies about what to look for as the age of grace comes to a close. These verses are several of many such prophecies from throughout the Bible. 2017 was the worst year in recorded history for the intensity, frequency, severity, duration and occurrence of a large number of severe natural disasters worldwide. Earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones, torrential flooding, unprecedented wildfires in unusual places, devastating droughts, excessive/scorching heat setting records everywhere, record snowfalls in Europe and Russia. Snow in the Arabia. This list can go on. Most studied Eschatologists believe these ‘fearful sights’ and massive natural disasters are all part of the ‘CONVERGENCE’ of signs that this Biblical and prophetic age is closing. Most people who study prophecy are familiar with the routine reference(s) made that these things will be like a woman having labor pains, growing in intensity, frequency, size and duration.
Welcome to the fastest-heating place on Earth
In the world’s northernmost town, temperatures have risen by 4C, devastating homes, wildlife and even the cemetery. Will the rest of the planet heed its warning?
The Guardian, July 1 2019.
People settle in the world’s northernmost town, Longyearbyen, for many reasons. Some are captivated by the otherworldly wilderness of the Svalbard archipelago, a snowscape that exceeds even the most fantastical images of Narnia, Hoth and the lands north of the wall in Game Of Thrones. Others are drawn to the tight-knit community of 2,300 people, who must support one another, because temperatures often plunge below -30C and it is the biggest town for 500 miles. Many say they fall in love with the Arctic light, which, even in the depths of a sunless winter, surprises with pale shades, soft glimmers and celestial glints.
But there is also, in many cases, a pioneering urge. This has always been the case in this group of Arctic islands, lodged halfway between the north pole and mainland Norway. Historically, the first residents were whalers, who arrived 400 years ago and helped to hunt the bowhead close to extinction. Then came coal miners, who dug pits, fed furnaces and shipped fuel across oceans. More recently came high-end tourism workers catering for “last chance to see” cruises through the disappearing Arctic ice. Now, a growing body of academics and diplomats are here to examine how Svalbard and its people adapt to living on the frontier of climate breakdown.
Nowhere on the planet is heating faster. This was the message of a report commissioned by the Norwegian Environment Agency, unveiled in February to a stunned audience in Longyearbyen, the archipelago’s de facto capital. People knew things were bad, but it was only when they heard the forecast that they realised how bad. A local reporter described how people at the meeting fell silent when they heard the statistics, which sounded like the “gloomy horror scenario of a bad thriller”.
Since 1971, temperatures here have risen by 4C, five times faster than the global average. In the winter, when the changes are more marked, it has gone up by an astonishing 7C. These are increases that the rest of the world is not expected to experience until the 22nd century. They are far ahead of most computer simulations. Yet there is still more to come. On current trends, Svalbard will hit 10C of warming by 2100.
“It was quite shocking,” says Morten Wedege, the earnest, middle-aged head of the environment department in the Svalbard governor’s office. “My first thought was: ‘How are we going to manage the environment in that setting? We can’t handle that.’” Since then, though, he and other residents of the town have set about the business of adjusting with renewed intensity.
That process began in 2015, after the most devastating avalanche in the history of the town. Unusually heavy winter rain had fallen on Sukkertoppen (Sugar top), the mountain that flanks Longyearbyen. It froze and was then blanketed by thick snow, which could not stick to the soil. The unstable pack collapsed late at night, six days before Christmas, sliding down the mountain and into the bedrooms of sleeping residents. Eleven homes were pushed 20 metres from their foundations. Cars were overturned. Neighbours scrambled frantically to dig people out. A 42-year-old man and a two-year-old girl died. Eight others, including three children, had to be taken to hospital.
“It was terrible. There had been nothing like that before,” says the leader of the local council, Arild Olsen, a pragmatic former miner who sees the disaster as a turning point for him personally.
Svalbard is unique, but also a microcosm of what is happening in the wider world. The archipelago – which is slightly smaller than Ireland – is at the centre of a perfect climate storm. Temperature pressures come from above (the Arctic atmosphere, which is heating at twice the global average) and the nearby ocean (which brings ever warmer currents from the Gulf of Mexico). As its white, snowy surface melts, the land reflects less and absorbs more heat from the sun. As the ice around the shores disappears, the previous calm continental weather is being replaced by rough coastal storms.
Until 10 years ago, locals say, discussion of this topic was considered bad form in the coal-mining town. Now, though, they talk about it at work and in the pub. The changes cannot be ignored. It is now impossible to take a snowmobile across the fjord, because it no longer freezes in winter, something unimaginable a couple of decades ago. This used to be an Arctic desert, but now there is rain, even in winter. The glaciers that cover 60% of Svalbard are retreating, which is causing more run-off through the valleys, while the permafrost is thawing; this has caused landslides, damaged foundations and cracked the walls of some buildings.
The physical impact is evident at the Global Seed Vault – the so-called doomsday vault – which sits close to Longyearbyen airport. This store room, built into a mountainside, was designed to safeguard almost 1m varieties of seeds from around the world for future generations. But after the entrance was flooded as a result of permafrost melt in 2017, the not-quite-impregnable safe is undergoing a refit. So are other buildings. Almost 150 homes are being moved at a cost of 350m kroner (£32m). New drainage canals are being dug. Power supply lines are being fortified. But the change is coming so fast that officials wonder whether they can keep up.
“It’s difficult to maintain the safety of people. Things are happening that are not supposed to happen,” Olsen says. “We have to adapt a whole city. It’s difficult. We do a white paper and it will be obsolete the next year.”
The psychological challenges are less obvious, but arguably greater. For the most part, this seems to be a happy town. There are few places in the world where people are as affluent, healthy and friendly. But there is a new background hum of unease. Unreliable ground, unpredictable weather and unstable mountain slopes create a physically unsettling environment. People do not feel as safe as before. There is a sense of loss – of reliable seasons, familiar views and declining species. Many people are recalibrating their expectations and ambitions.
Audun Salte is a trained nature guide and student of friluftsliv, the Norwegian philosophy of open-air living that was popularised in the 1850s by the playwright Henrik Ibsen. The burly, friendly man adheres strongly to friluftsliv’s principal tenet of spending time in remote locations for spiritual and physical wellbeing. Salte owns 50 Siberian huskies, which he harnesses to take tourists on dog-sled rides across the tundra, sometimes for several days. He explains that a shift in the ski season – now 20 days shorter than in the past – means he has to switch from ice runners to grass rollers earlier each year. It is part of a bigger picture that he comes to terms with, in a spirit that is simultaneously mournful and cheery. The end of humanity might be OK, he says, as long as his dogs are fine. There are regrets. He used to dream of going to the north pole. That used to be possible from Svalbard, but the polar ice sheet is no longer frozen solidly against the island. “You can no longer go safely. Perhaps the last time that was possible was two years ago.”
A few are rethinking their lives entirely. In August, Hilde Fålun Strøm will take a nine-month break from her managerial job for a cruise ship company – and her husband – and retreat deep into nature with Sunniva Sorby, a Canada-based Antarctic explorer. They plan to live in a trapper’s cabin and survive on whatever provisions they can bring on a ski-buggy, augmented by the one reindeer that Strøm, as a resident of Svalbard, is entitled to hunt each year. They will conduct research on climate disruption, including weather-monitoring and sampling of phytoplankton – the oxygen-producing forests of the ocean – and share the results online with a “global classroom” of students. Strøm says she was inspired by the avalanche, which hit 10 metres from her home. She joined the rescue operation and it left a mark. “Those were Svalbard’s first deaths from climate change. That made it personal,” she says.
Others are dealing with a gnawing feeling of impermanence. “Each time you go to work, you get evacuation anxiety,” says Lena Berntsen, who runs the reception at one of the snug, high-end hotels in the centre of town. “We try to stay prepared. I’ve learned a lot about snow – good snow and bad snow,” she says. “You know that if there is rain followed by ice, followed by snow, then you have to pack your bags.” Avalanche warnings have forced Berntsen to leave her home at the foot of the mountain four times in the past year. Last summer, she was ordered to permanently abandon her old flat because it was designated within the high-risk “red zone”. To mark the occasion, she threw an evacuation party for more than 50 guests, who turned up to say goodbye to the condemned apartment block dressed in hi-vis jackets and helmets.
Her new apartment is only slightly more secure. It is in the “orange zone”, where buildings can be evacuated temporarily in certain weather conditions. This has happened three times since Berntsen moved in. It can happen at any time of night. “It’s brutal,” she says. “The fire department come in full gear and wait until you leave.”
New barriers were erected on the hillside last summer to hold back the snow, but they are not enough. Dozens of buildings in the danger zone will be knocked down and replaced by a 12-metre-high wall of earth. Close to 10% of the town’s population have lost their homes or been moved temporarily.
Berntsen takes me to the place she used to live. As we crunch through the snow past the brightly coloured homes of Longyearbyen, she points out the area where the disaster hit, before we enter her old building, passing through the unlocked front door, marked with an X to show that it is condemned. Inside, there are a few items that she left behind, including furniture, incense burners and other knick-knacks. “It’s sad,” she says. “This was a beautiful apartment.” She has an understandable yearning for stability in her new home. “I plan on staying a long time. I really hope I don’t have to move again.”
But not even the dead are guaranteed a secure resting place. On the opposite side of the valley, Lise Loktu, the town’s enthusiastic young archaeologist, takes us to the old town cemetery, which the municipality is planning to move. The cluster of white, wooden crosses sits at the foot of a high escarpment covered in snow and gravel. White, antlerless reindeer graze nearby. A few steps away lies the debris from two recent landslides, caused by melting permafrost. This inspired the plan to relocate the graves to a new resting place further down the valley. “In a few more years, there’ll be a lot more rain and more landslides,” Loktu says.
In the distant past, burials were permitted in Svalbard as long as the graves were very deep. If not, the active layer of the permafrost had a ghoulish tendency to push corpses out of the ground. But now there are other threats: a miner’s grave on the coast recently had to be relocated because it was in danger of falling into the sea. “The shores are being eroded more quickly, because there is less ice,” Loktu explains. “We didn’t want tourist cruisers to pass by and see bones sticking out of the ground.”
Loktu clearly loves her job and beams as she takes us around Svalbard Museum, a smart, modern, distinctively Nordic structure that looks out over the fjord. It houses an archaeological laboratory that contains some of the world’s best-preserved samples of fabric from the 18th century, taken from coffins that were naturally refrigerated for centuries. But the climate that facilitated this is changing. It has brought abnormally high temperatures for 100 months in a row.
Loktu shows us the contents of a couple of whalers’ coffins to highlight what is happening. One, dug up in the 90s when the permafrost was more stable, contains a well-preserved skeleton with some traces of skin and hair, dressed in a colourful tunic and socks. The other, disinterred more recently from warmer subsoil, is so decomposed it is almost unrecognisable. “The [natural, underground] freezer isn’t working any more,” Loktu says. To preserve what is left, the Norwegian government is funding a programme to accelerate the excavation of graves. “We need this knowledge before it is too late. If we wait 20 years, even the skeletons could be gone,” she says.
Humans can adapt to extremes. Svalbard is proof of that. For centuries, people here learned to adjust their circadian rhythms to months of winter without light and months of summer without darkness. They built homes, wove clothes and found ways of preserving food so they could survive in a temperature of -46C (the historic low), find their way through blizzards and remain healthy and nourished even when supply ships were unable to reach the community for months. Olsen, the council chief, wants to tap that talent for adaptation to make Svalbard a model of how to prepare for climate disruption. He focuses on the possible upsides: a chance to upgrade the housing stock, improve energy efficiency and make Longyearbyen one of the few carbon-neutral towns in the world.
In summer, the solar potential of Svalbard is greater than Oslo or London, because it is sunny 24 hours a day. In the winter, wind can meet a portion of the demand, but it cannot be relied on to keep homes warm. To fill the gap, the town has reached an agreement with the Norwegian government to build a hydrogen power plant, which would generate clean electricity, producing only water as a byproduct. “We can pave the way for the world and provide know-how for Norway,” Olsen says. The council leader wants Svalbard to be carbon-neutral within 10 years – an ambitious target, but one the planet needs to follow within a couple of decades if global temperature rises are to be kept within 1.5C. “It takes time. It’s not just changing power lines, it’s changing an entire system. It’d be unique in the world.”
To achieve this, he has to win over the coal-mining community. “The company”, as people refer to Svalbard’s state-owned mining group Store Norske, dominates the town and owns most of the housing. Local bars are decorated with portraits of pit workers and at least one restaurant is named after the industry. The statue that sits at the main junction of the town is a cast of a miner. Coal keeps the lights on and the pipes warm. Along with the need to fly frequently, it is one of the reasons why the carbon footprint of Svalbard residents is among the largest in Europe.
But the industry is winding down. About 15 minutes’ drive down the valley – past reindeer, ice flats, then a steep, windswept road – is Mine 7, the last working pit in Norway. “It feels a little lonesome,” says Per Nilsson, a lean, middle-aged man who has seen the decline firsthand in his 15 years as manager. Today there are only 45 workers, who produce fewer than 150,000 tonnes a year – down more than 90% from the peak.
Nilsson expects the pit to be closed in the next 10 to 15 years. It is a sad but necessary development, he says. “We have to change the way of work and the way of living. It will be a success for everyone,” he says, confidently. He hopes Longyearbyen’s experience of phasing out coal can be a lesson for others. “If you come back here in five or 10 years, there will be a lot of changes,” he says. “We have to be part of that. We’ll have to adapt. When I started, this was a mining town. Now, it’s a tourist destination.”
A demographic shift is already under way. The settlement is filling with people of different nationalities – Thais, Filipinos, Germans, Britons and Italians among them. (Under the terms of the Svalbard Treaty recognising Norway’s sovereignty, anyone can live in the archipelago without a visa.) Most work in the tourist industry as hotel staff and bartenders, or as guides on dog-sled excursions, ski-buggy tours or boat trips to glaciers. Then there is the annual influx of international students at the university, UNIS. The past two years have brought an additional wave of temporary migrants: carpenters, electricians, plumbers and other construction workers to build replacement homes.
The echoes of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet highlight the job-creation benefits of adapting to climate disruption. There are other pluses for business. Ships can now visit the harbour throughout the year, so it is easier to get provisions. Cruise liners can stop in winter, which has extended the tourist season. Entrepreneurs are exploring ways to make money from the disruption, including sales of “bottled climate history” – melted ice from ancient glaciers that contains enough prehistoric gas to be used as a fizzy mixer. In purely economic terms, the Arctic may be a short-term climate winner. There will be more freshwater, more accessible fisheries and possibly more land for agriculture. But nature is losing out, and that spells trouble for the life-support systems on which humans
Among the many larger-than-life characters in Svalbard, the largest is arguably Kim Holmén, the international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, who makes a Gandalf-like impression with his considerable height, a long beard and a penchant for pithy philosophy and humour (he uses a fluffy polar bear as a lecture aid). He has just returned from a trip trying to explain to 20 ambassadors from around the globe what is happening in the Arctic, and what it means for everyone else. Today, he is giving a speech at the university to an audience mostly from the oil industry.
“We are facing an Arctic that is warmer, wetter, wilder,” he tells them. “It’s happening under our feet.” What happens in Svalbard does not stay in Svalbard, he explains. The jet stream is weakening and weather systems are becoming lazier. Dry fronts linger, which worsens droughts. Wet weather sits longer in one place, which exacerbates floods. The changes in the Arctic are affecting monsoons in India and cold snaps in Japan.
Afterwards, he takes us on a field trip. He takes a rifle from the university arsenal – a legal requirement, because of the danger from polar bears – and we drive along the fjord shore to crags that are home to one of the highly specialised Arctic species in decline. As we get out the car and crunch through the snow, thousands of little auks tweet in waves as they soar and plunge across the landscape. “What we are hearing right now is something that fewer and fewer people will hear in the future, because of the changes taking place,” Holmén says. The small birds are struggling to find food because the Arctic plankton on which they depend are being pushed out of local waters by smaller Atlantic plankton, which thrive in the warmer conditions. More than any statistics, he says, it is these changes that count.
Swedish-born Holmén says he came to Svalbard 40 years ago because he believed in the power of science. He wanted to understand what was happening on this frontline and share that knowledge. He now accepts this approach was flawed; it is no longer enough to demonstrate a precise knowledge of the subject. “I’ve spent my whole life looking for the fourth decimal. But we don’t need another decimal. We need feelings and action. Feelings aren’t rational, but they are real.”
It may be through feelings that Svalbard has most to teach the world: first to try to avoid 4C of heating elsewhere, which still needs a huge amount of work, and then to cope with the disruption that will intensify with every increase of temperatures from now on. The experience here will not apply everywhere. The Amazon, sub-Saharan Africa and the deltas of Bangladesh and Egypt, other regions that will be badly affected by the climate crisis, will never match the resources that this Norwegian territory can throw at the challenge. But lessons about how to allay destabilising anxiety and to change mindsets quickly should be transferable – that and a recognition that, while the risks are greater than many people realise, so is the potential for action.
“Whether you like it or not, adaptation is part of the future,” says Holmén, who declares himself “an optimist, because there is no choice”. “It’s not over until it’s over. There’s always something to save.”
Categories: Extreme Heat Update