Having lived here for more than twenty and ten years as citizens, we care very much about how the local society is functioning, and how it can best handle the effects of the recent large warming that has occurred. For this work, we won the Frederik Paulsen Arctic Academic Action Award in 2022 with our PermaMeteoCommunity project.

Svalbard is a hot spot of climatic warming. This is particularly evident in autumn and winter: the air temperature has increased by up to seven times compared to the global average over the last few decades, and the amount of precipitation has also increased. Both air temperature and precipitation are projected to continue to increase in the future, as will the number of extreme weather events.

In 2016 we experienced a warm summer followed by a warm autumn. When a 20-millimetre rainstorm hit Longyearbyen in mid-October, we woke up to several landslides, some of which reached the infrastructure in and around Longyearbyen. The unfrozen active layer above the permafrost had become water-saturated and slid down the lower hillsides. Roads had to be closed. In early November of the same year, we measured 75 millimetres of rain in Longyearbyen. A large part of the population was evacuated due to the risk of landsliding, but only little sliding happened this time. Our investigations revealed that this was due to the active layer being partly refrozen - luckily. However, there was no data directly available to show this during the event.  

Clearly, we had identified a need for tools to assist the community when deciding how to best protect the settlement and its inhabitants during such rainstorms. Working at the University Centre in Svalbard, UNIS, we have now started to gather key real-time data such as air and ground temperature from the slopes of Longyearbyen. This happens in collaboration with our geotechnical colleagues at UNIS in the PermaMeteoCommunity strategic project and together with local and national partners.  

With Longyearbyen local authorities, a partner in the PermaMeteoCommunity project, we are integrating their existing observations of air and ground temperatures measured in different parts of Longyearbyen into the response system we are currently developing. The local telecom company Telenor is responsible for data transfer and further development of data storage and presentation together with all project partners. 

“We are experiencing a rapidly changing climate that produces a lot of uncertainties. The live data collected in the project will help us in the decision-making towards natural hazards such as landslides. It will also enable us to better predict the future conditions and help us to better manage our infrastructure so we can build a sustainable society today for the future,” says Kjersti Olsen-Ingerø, leader of the technical department at Longyearbyen local authorities.

The response system will also include ground temperature observations below the infrastructure in town. This will enable us to quickly observe any changes that might require immediate action. So far, temperature sensors have been installed under the Longyearbyen Culture House by Longyearbyen local authorities and our UNIS colleague Aleksey Shestov. 

An important part of developing the best possible response system is getting more information about how much ice the permafrost and active layer contains, and how much sediment is filled into the Longyearbyen valley. This is being investigated by our project PhD student Knut Tveit. “I chose to do this PhD, because I want to use my skills and my knowledge, and at the same time learn more, to increase resilience in our community against permafrost geohazards. Active layer slides and landslides are becoming more and more frequent here due to climate change. My data will go into the background information for the response system that we are building.”

In PermaMeteoCommunity, we also involve UNIS students of different levels to obtain more data based on which we can build the response system. For instance, a group from the course on geohazards and geotechnics in high Arctic permafrost regions drilled an additional borehole for taking measurements and provided analyses that we now use in our project. We also have students doing their Bachelor’s theses, Master’s theses, and internships with us. This is a very important part of the PermaMeteoCommunity project: providing opportunities for students that have a real-life impact.

The Frederik Paulsen Arctic Academic Action Award provides high-level recognition for innovative ideas that transform knowledge into action to help address the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. It comes with a 100,000 euro unrestricted prize, intended to help develop the idea through outreach, engagement and communication. The award is a joint activity of UArctic and the Arctic Circle.

Read more at: www.uarctic.org/actionaward

By Hanne H. Christiansen, UArctic Chair in Permafrost Physical Processes, Professor of Physical Geography and Marius O. Jonassen, Associate Professor of Meteorology, University Centre in Svalbard

[Originally published in the UArctic Shared Voices Magazine 2023. Read all articles here]