Thawing permafrost melts ground under homes and around Global Seed Vault in Svalbard

The permafrost is melting under Longyearbyen, a settlement of about 2,200 people on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. (Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)
Houses are sagging in Longyearbyen and the unstable ground around the famous seed vault is now frozen artificially while the entrance to the tunnel is being re-built.

Climate change is literally destabilizing homes on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. Traditionally, buildings in Longyearbyen are built on wooden stacks resting on what used to be frozen permafrost.

Now, about 250 homes will have to be torn down, Aftenposten reports. For a town of 2,200 people, that is a lot. Melting permafrost is causing trouble for buildings and infrastructure and speeds coastal erosion throughout the circumpolar north. But the speed of the problem so far north as Longyearbyen, 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle has surprised everyone.

Infrastructure is also affected by melting permafrost. (Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)
Arctic warming fast

Temperatures in the Arctic continue to soar. For 2017, average temperatures in Longyearbyen were 4,5°C above normal. While the UN Climate Panel this week issued a report urging world leaders to take action to limit global average warming to 1.5°C, the same scientists conclude that the Arctic is already warming two to three times faster.

Over the last 94 months, temperatures measured at Longyearbyen airport have been above average since measurements started in 1936. This year, spring came abnormally early, with a mean temperature of 1,8°C in May. That is 6°C above normal in a month where the frost should still remain.

It’s no surprise that the ground is melting underneath people’s houses.

Permafrost is defined as ground where the temperature is below zero degrees Celsius for a minimum of two years in a row. In summer at Svalbard, the upper meter of soil thaws and plants can grow. It is this one-meter that now melts deeper, making the traditional wooden pillars houses in Longyearbyen are build on unstable.

Two avalanches and landslides, in 2015 and 2017, are another reason some houses nearest to the steep mountain have to be moved. The avalanches are also linked to climate change as the snow piles and warmer weather cause higher risk for avalanches.

Building on shaky ground
New buildings are erected in steel pillars to cope with thawing permafrost. (Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)

Three new apartment blocks are currently being built under supervision by Statsbygg, the Norwegian government’s building commissioner. The government has granted 220 million kroner (€23 million) for new houses in Longyearbyen.

“We are using this project to gain new knowledge for building houses,” says head of communication with Statsbygg, Hege Njaa Aschim to Svalbardposten, the local newspaper.

Sensors are placed in the ground to measure how the steel constructions impact the permafrost. This knowledge will be used when more houses will be built. The three blocks currently under construction will house 60 apartments for a total of 8,000 square meters.

Adapting the Global Seed Vault
The Svalbard Seed Vault. (Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)

In the mountain above Longyearbyen airport lies another reconstruction project, a clear sign of the dramatic effects of thawing permafrost. The entrance to the Global Seed Vault, where some 45,000 international varieties are stored deep into the mountain, is being rebuilt.

Climate change has caused more snow and rain, and the entrance has been flooded several times. Though it was built only 10 years ago, nobody at that time anticipated the water troubles could be so severe.

During reconstruction, the ground around the new waterproof entrance is artificially frozen to avoid further erosion. Big white-frozen pipes are visible at a long distance from the vault, stabilizing a five-meter-thick and 20-meter-high ice-wall. The tunnel from the entrance into the mountain will be made much smaller than the original one, only three meters in diameter.

A 20-meter-high frozen wall is created around the seed vault’s entrance to stabilise the permafrost. (Thomas Nilsen/The Independent Barents Observer)

All heat sources in the vault have been moved out and will be placed in a separate service building to be built next to the vault, while extra cooling capacities will be installed inside the mountain.

The freezing elements will be removed when stones and rocks again cover the entrance area. Reconstruction will be completed in May 2019.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Thawing permafrost in Canada’s Northwest Territories releasing acid that’s breaking down minerals: study, CBC News

Finland: Cities in Finland and Sweden among Europe’s fastest-warming, data shows, YLE News

Norway: Barents Sea ecosystem undergoing dramatic change, study shows, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Arctic coastal town of Dikson is fastest-warming place in Russia, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Warm temperatures lasting into autumn across Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States: ‘The permafrost is dying’: Alaska city sees increased shifting of roads and buildings, Alaska Dispatch News

Thomas Nilsen, The Independent Barents Observer

For more news from the Barents region visit The Independent Barents Observer.

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