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The World’s Northernmost Town Is Changing Dramatically

Scientific American – Climate change is bringing tourism and tension to Longyearbyen on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. “…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…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…

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…”

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