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Gearing up in Ny-Ålesund

Ny-Ålesund with Blomstrandhalvøya in the background. FOTO: Eirik Palm

Gearing up in Ny-Ålesund

The first time Knut Ore was in Ny-Ålesund, people thought Blomstrandhalvøya was a peninsula. Then they saw the ice retreat.



"Have I seen changes? Absolutely," said the chairman of the Ny-Ålesund Symposium on the islet off of the world's northernmost permanent settlement. "It's called Blomstrandhalvøya because it was believed that the island was connected to the mainland. Since then the glacier has retreated 500 meters and there is open water."

"I see that it is as researchers are saying, agreeing very well with what is happening in practice. It is a frightening development and if you can help then you should do it."

Driven out of the Arctic
At the Ny-Ålesund Symposium taking place this week, it's about trying to break out of dead water. Much of the groundwork that may lead to a deal at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris next year must be made in 2014. Among the participants is Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, former president of Mexico; and Tine Sundtoft, Norway's Minister of the Climate and Environment. Ore said he hopes the 2014 Ny-Ålesund Symposium will provide input into the process. He is attending to emphasize the task the symposium and its participants have in advance of the Paris meeting.

When Ore was with Kings Bay AS, which until recently was as its chairman, he started the Ny-Ålesund Symposium in 2006. Attendees landing at Svalbard Airport could see the ice that lay beyond Adventfjorden. There has since been noticeably less ice in the Arctic.
When participants meet at the 2014 Ny-Ålesund Symposium 2014 it will be with the knowledge that climate change has led to the ice disappearing in both the Arctic and Antarctic. The sea ice in summer is becoming smaller, while at the same time the summer season is longer. The ice that freezes in winter has also become thinner and the weather makes it easier for the ice to move on.

"When Nansen drifted over the Arctic Ocean over 100 years ago, the rate was lower than today," said Jan-Gunnar Winther, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute. "One thing is that the ice in the Arctic Ocean melts more today than before, but there is also more ice which is being driven out of the Arctic, mainly between East Greenland and Svalbard."

Sea level increases
The IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report also shows changes described in previous reports have intensified, Winther wrote in an article with scientists Sebastian Gerland, Jon-Ove Hagen and Geir Moholdt from the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Winther said he also believes sea ice models until now have been too imprecise.

"There are hardly any parameters on the planet that are changing as strongly as the sea ice in the Arctic," he told Svalbardposten. "The models have miscalculated how quickly this has occured, and so we have not seen that the climate models were good enough."

The consequence of these changes is areas in the Arctic are becoming more accessible since summers are longer and there is less ice. That is again leading to new activities in the north.

Meanwhile, there is a slight tendency toward more sea ice in Antarctica. Changes in wind direction means the ice will spread over a larger area, but the general picture is the polar regions are warming up. The land ice in Antarctica is diminishing. The same is happening in Greenland. Most of the world's land ice is in those areas and as it melts sea levels are rising.

"Only 0.5 percent of the world's land ice is outside Greenland and Antarctica," said the Norwegian Polar Institute director, who is unable to attend the symposium this year. "It is disturbing given that their volume is so large." 

Gearing up
The waiting list is long, however, and the space was quickly taken by another person. The symposium – organized by Kings Bay AS in cooperation with The Research Council of Norway and five ministries – has built up a solid reputation over the years. A gathering of heads of state, business leaders, scientists and top environmentalists in their stocking feet (outdoor shoes are not allowed inside) also does something for the ambiance.
"Today we have it easy when it comes to getting presenters and participants," Ore said. "It suggests that this has been noticed. The fact that people go in stocking feet – people who are accustomed to hotels, suits and ties – means they lower their shoulders. It is easy to talk to people who are standing in stocking feet."

He remembers the results during the symposium's inception in 2006.

"In Kings Bay we looked at how we can act as a responsible community participant within our framework," he said. "When we said that climate change is first going to be felt in the Arctic, and would bring together major players to discuss climate and global warming seriously, and there it happened."

There are many heavyweight names on this year's list of participants, and Ore said he think more people will come forward and provide greater influence from the discussions in Ny-Ålesund. Even allowing that the former chairman of Kings Bay AS and honorary citizen of Ny-Ålesund is serving his last year as the chairman of the Ny-Ålesund Symposium.

"I have said to the ministries that I am giving the baton to the next person," Ore said.

"It has been 12 great years in Svalbard and I very much appreciate the people I have met here. I leave a part of the soul in Svalbard. But you should make sure that you go at the right time. Because I left the Kings Bay board last year I felt that it was appropriate and we have funding for several years forward. Everything is set."


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