The Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard is likely to be the only place in the world where road signs exist warning of the dangers of polar bears. The island is home to 3,000 bears and just 2,300 people who between them share a space twice the size of Belgium. That means it’s usually big enough for them to stay apart. People tend to live on the milder west coast warmed by the Gulf Stream while the bears roam the colder east coast. But meeting between the species are a common enough hazard. There are two “beware of the bear” signs in Norwegian posted on roads that lead from the main settlement of Longyearbyen. The signs are there to remind people to carry a rifle when heading out bush. Meanwhile bears are drawn into populated areas drawn by the smell of seal meat used to feed dogs. Longyearbyen’s kindergarten is protected by a high-wire fence, just in case there’s a bear in there.
But while bears have accounted for just four humans on Svalbard since 1970, the ledger has not been so positive on the other side. Between 1998 and 2005 alone, 24 overly curious or hungry bears were killed. And the very existence of polar bears in the archipelago is being seriously threatened by climate change. The ice is receding on Svalbard at a rapid rate. In the wake of the opening of the North West Passage last Summer, the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) is predicting that this year could see a completely ice free North Pole. And what ice there is dangerously thin, young ice that has only been around since last autumn.
Svalbard’s islands are among the closest land masses to the North Pole and they are bearing the brunt of climate change. A 2007 study found the spectacular glaciers on the three main islands of Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet, and Edgeøya are melting faster than researchers believed. As well, the rate of melting has accelerated over the last five years with the glaciers now losing over 16 cubic kms of ice each year. Meanwhile Longyearbyen receives record summer temperatures and snowfall has declined. Some peninsulas have become islands as the ice retreats. As a consequence Svalbard has become a significant contributor to the world’s rising sea levels.
One thing that climate change in Longyearbyen won’t affect is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This is the recently created frozen "doomsday" vault buried inside mountain. The vault will become the world’s seed bank where millions of seeds will be stored to safeguard against wars or natural disasters wiping out food crops around the globe. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called it “a frozen Garden of Eden” (though he may have been getting his Genesis references mixed up with Noah’s Ark). It will contain 4.5 million crop seeds from all over the world housed in silvery foil containers artificially chilled to 0.4.degrees below zero which should keep them fresh for a thousand years.
What future Svalbard itself will have in a thousand years remains debatable. It will require international co-operation to keep its current pristine state. Under a 1920 treaty, Svalbard is an international zone under Norwegian sovereignty that requires no tourist or resident visas. The treaty allows Russia and a number of other countries to establish settlements and impose local laws. For instance the town of Barentsburg is a Russian town with 500 mostly Russian citizens and a Russian owned coalmine. The Norwegian government is nervous about uncontrolled development on the archipelago and has clashed with Russia over fishing rights. However it has also admitted it cannot stop other countries from continuing to develop industries on the islands.
This is likely to be grim news for the island’s polar bears. The bears have been a protected species (apart from self defence) since 1972 which as caused bear numbers to triple. However scientists now say PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) levels in the polar bears of Norway and western Russia are two-and-a-half to seventeen times higher than those in North American populations. PCBs are damaging their immune and endocrine systems and making over one per cent of them hermaphrodite. The news is also not good for those who survive PCB with their sex organs undamaged.
According to a report issued in November 2004 by the Arctic Council and the International Arctic Science Committee, polar bears could become extinct by the end of the 21st century if present warming trends continue in the Arctic. The Longyearbyen signs may need to be changed to read “beware of the lack of bears”.