The Singing Glaciers of Svalbard
Glacier calving is a natural phenomenon that has been accelerated by global heating, part of the wider collapse and run-off of melting ice in the polar regions (and beyond) whose impact, because of the resulting rise in sea levels, is likely to be catastrophic for low-lying landmasses and communities around the world in the near future; by some measures, it already is. From Patagonia to Greenland, calving is also a tourist attraction which, thanks to improvements in smartphone camera resolution, has given rise to a YouTube subcommunity. I’ve watched scores of these videos, which may come closer than anything else on the internet to evoking Romantic sensations of the sublime. But as enormous shelves of ice break off into the sea in surges of blue and white, like slow-moving comets, it’s jarring to hear their creaking tectonic bass drowned out by a shrill treble line of hoooooly shits and whoooahs and hysterical clapping. This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but applause.
To celebrate these events, knowing what we know, is only a particularly flagrant example of the cognitive dissonance we all experience in different ways. Thomas Hylland Eriksen makes a similar point in his foreword to The Paradox of Svalbard by Zdenka Sokolíčková, a new ethnographic monograph about the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, which is the site of the world’s northernmost town:
In general, climate change does not loom large in people’s everyday life, even in a volatile Arctic town with an uncertain future … Longyearbyen’s residents are no different from most people living in capitalist societies by giving priority to the here and now rather than the there and then … Most of Sokolíčková’s interlocutors are conversant with the science of climate change and are perfectly aware that their lives are not feasible in the long term … [they] have to juggle contradictory expectations and conflicting values without becoming paralysed by cognitive dissonance.
Svalbard, too, is becoming a tourist attraction. ‘The contradiction between any desire to come across as green and ecologically responsible,’ Eriksen writes, ‘and concurrent plans for expanding tourism, are glaring.’ I contributed in a small way to the turn towards tourism by visiting and writing about Longyearbyen in late 2017. The narratives peddled by the magazines I wrote for then depend on (and cynically leverage) the tension Eriksen describes: ‘Visit this place as I did, before it’s spoiled by too many of you visiting it as a result of articles like this.’ The year before I’d travelled around Myanmar; the following year I wrote about Cuba: get here quick before the new openness to tourism destroys the special character of these places. Or in the case of Svalbard, though this isn’t how I saw it at the time: before it destroys it altogether.
Earlier that year, on 21 February 2017, an avalanche – the second in three years – had swept down from Mount Sukkertoppen and hit two blocks of flats in Longyearbyen. They had been evacuated by the governor because the meteorological conditions resembled those that preceded the previous avalanche, which had resulted in two fatalities, a two-year-old girl and her father, and many more injuries, and knocked eleven houses from their foundations.
Line Nagell Ylvisåker moved to Longyearbyen a decade before these unprecedented events. In My World is Melting, she describes her dawning realisation that what had once been abstract climate data were now a real and present danger to her family:
We have built a house here in the town, have two children, call this place home, and I started getting worried when bad weather was forecast … If we set the  avalanche in context, along with the avalanche we had in 2017 and all the landslides we’ve had in recent years, a clear trend starts to appear. When the temperature rises, the air can hold more moisture, and we can get more precipitation. With an increase in rainfall and other snowy conditions, the risk of all types of avalanche increases.
At first, Svalbard had felt to Ylvisåker more like a magical idea than a crucible of environmental realities:
In 2006, I started working as a journalist at Svalbardposten. In December, it was clear that this would be the warmest year in Svalbard since the temperature measurements began … it didn’t make an impression on me. One degree warmer here and one degree warmer there. I didn’t think about it as I whizzed around on my snowmobile, the wind on my hair and freckles on my nose. It was so beautiful, so wild, demanding and real.
This sounds a lot like the ‘sleepy thrill of perfect happiness, to be speeding north under the Aurora’ that Lyra experiences in Northern Lights, the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman’s characterisation of Svalbard is typical: as the northernmost outer edge of what is knowable, a last outpost for European civilisation, before the true Arctic swallows everything in incomprehensible blankness; a place for adventures to play out (and eventually, in His Dark Materials, a bridge to parallel worlds).
There’s a similar mythic charge to other stories about Svalbard, whether true or not. Smeerenburg (‘Blubber Town’), the 17th-century whaling metropolis of bakeries and brothels described by snow-addled sailors and explorers returning from the archipelago, turned out to be a wildly exaggerated fantasy based on a few shacks and tents. But the last German soldiers to surrender in the Second World War really were a unit based at a weather station on Nordauslandet island, who only found out they were on the losing side when they were rescued by a Norwegian seal hunting ship four months after the war had ended.
Visitors have always brought their illusions, preoccupations and preconceptions to Svalbard, and taken something from it in return. And it’s always been a bad deal for the Arctic: ‘Human activities in the archipelago have always been purely extractive,’ Eriksen writes. ‘Visitors who courageously braved the extremes of the Arctic climate before the advent of Gore-Tex and central heating were mostly engaged in trapping, hunting and whaling. They took something out without giving anything back.’ Coal then dominated the extractive activities for the whole of the 20th century, with mining operations from both sides of the Iron Curtain coexisting side by side on Svalbard. The last mine, run by Norway’s state-owned coal company, was supposed to shut this year, but its closure has been delayed until 2025 because of the energy crisis precipitated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Nowadays, there’s a bit more give and take. Earlier this year, two ice cores 125 metres long were drilled out of the Holtedahlfonna icefield and flown to the Ice Memory Sanctuary in Antarctica, so that climatic history can still be traced through Svalbard’s glaciers even after they’ve disappeared completely. Meanwhile deposits from Albania, Croatia, North Macedonia and Benin were brought to Svalbard’s Global Seed Vault, which houses 1.2 million samples from over five thousand plant species from around the world as an insurance policy against ecological collapse. At the Seed Vault’s tenth anniversary celebrations five years ago, water had to be pumped out of its entrance foyers after another warmest month on record melted the permafrost that was the whole reason the vault had been built in Longyearbyen.
I weaned myself off glacier calving videos by listening to sound recordings by Ugo Nanni, a research scientist at the University of Oslo. Over the summer solstice in 2022, Nanni was part of a team that drilled 327 metres down to the bottom of Svalbard’s Kongsvegen glacier with a hot water jet. They installed seismometers, with which ‘we can listen to the whole glacier, like a doctor with a stethoscope, and its secrets.’ I asked Nanni whether these peculiarly affecting gothic soundscapes are the normal songs of glaciers, or something closer to cries of anguish as they melt away. ‘What you can say,’ he replied, ‘is that you are shifting from something quiet to something much more noisy … because of the cracking, the crevassing, but also because of melting water, which will produce more noise.’
I asked why he has chosen to report from the frontline in this way: why take raw scientific data – captured to measure how much more quickly the glacier is slipping over its bedrock before it plunges into the ocean, meltwater acting as a lubricant – and publish it on Soundcloud? ‘We are used to observing nature, observing the environment,’ he said. ‘But we are not used to listening to them and feeling that they move. I don’t really want to say that they are alive but a lot of people, when they interact, they realise suddenly that it’s not just a piece of ice. It’s something different.’
This piece, the last in the series, is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.