7 Nov 2016

Arctic Circle: explore in 360

When it comes to climate change, there’s quite a lot to get your head around. So we thought we’d try putting climate change around your head.

At the end of the Arctic summer we took a 360 degree camera to the north of Norway’s Svalbard Islands. The archipelago is one of the last true Arctic wildernesses and home to one of the most northerly human settlements.

We filmed at the front of Svalbard’s glaciers as they collapsed into the sea, in fjords that no longer freeze in winter, and on fishing vessels that can now enjoy access to parts of the northern oceans previously encased in ice.

On average, the world is now about one degree warmer than it was in pre-industrial times. But the Arctic has warmed twice as fast. And for an environment dominated by frozen water, both on land and across the North Pole, change here is very apparent. And very rapid.

We arrived in Svalbard at the end of what is almost certain to be the warmest year on record. And for the Arctic it has been an exceptional one. “Absurdly warm,” was how one expert described 2016’s Arctic mid-winter and early spring. The first six months of the year were all, individually, the warmest ever recorded.

Greenland’s ice sheet melted spectacularly in the springtime and glaciers in places like Svalbard lost thickness due to falling rain instead of snow. And when sea temperatures began to rise later in the summer, the glaciers that float on the ocean began to collapse into it faster than usual. The process that makes icebergs, called “calving”, happens every summer in the Arctic. But this summer, the rate of the calving was faster than anyone studying the glaciers can remember.

We visited the front of the Kongsbreen and Kongsvegen glaciers at the peak of this calving. The silence of the completely still fjord was regularly interrupted by the thunderous crash of huge icebergs falling off the front of the 50 metre high glacier front.

But the most profound changes in the Arctic is far less dramatic. The gradual reduction in the extent of sea ice covering the frozen northern oceans. This loss of reflective ice is thought to be one of the factors that will accelerate warming in the north. But it’s also opening up the Arctic’s previously untouched resources to exploitation.

One of the reasons for this year’s dramatically higher temperatures was a strong El Niño event. It has now passed and its quite likely 2017 won’t break 2016’s record. But the other thing you will see in this video is that the powerful signal of human induced climate change is now riding beneath natural climate events like El Niño, accentuating their extremes.

The Arctic is in for a lot more extreme change to come.