The watchtower

Keeping climate vigil on an Arctic island

A chill wind was blowing off the glacier. Small blue chunks of ice occasionally split from its face and floated down the fjord toward the ocean. A strange green ribbon of light flashed across the sky above from an anonymous building on the foreshore. And on the snow behind, a polar bear wandered warily around a strange human settlement that had grown up on this remote fjord at the seventy-ninth parallel.

I had come to Ny-Alesund, an international community of scientists that, in the darkening days of autumn, numbered fewer than thirty people. The hardy band was there to man this Arctic watchtower on the northwest shores of Spitzbergen, the largest island of a cluster of Arctic islands called Svalbard, because it is reckoned to be one of the most likely places to witness firsthand any future climatic conflagration. Hollywood directors may have chosen New York as the place that would descend into climatic chaos first. But while the scientists here heartily enjoy watching their DVD of The Day After Tomorrow, they are convinced that Ny-Alesund is the place to be. The place where our comfy, climatically benign world might begin to end. Where nature may start to take its revenge.

Ny-Alesund is a tiny town of yellow, red, and blue houses two hours' flight from the northernmost spot on mainland Europe. It is nearer Greenland and the North Pole than Norway, which administers Svalbard under an international treaty signed in 1920. It has history. This was where great Norwegian Arctic explorers such as Roald Amundsen and Graf Zeppelin set out for the North Pole, by ship, seaplane, and even giant airship assembled here. More recently, the High Arctic was famous for its military listening posts, where the staff sat in the cold silence, waiting for the first sign of a Russian or American nuclear missile streaking over the ice to obliterate New York or Moscow or London. But today the biggest business is climate science—waiting for the world to turn. Says Jack Kohler, of the Norwegian Polar Institute, down south in Tromso: "If you want to see the world's climate system flip, you'd probably best come here to see it first."

Spitzbergen is already one of the epicenters of climate change. For a few days in July 2005, the scientists put aside their instruments, donned T-shirts and shorts, and sipped lager by the glaciers in temperatures that hit a record 68°F—just 600 miles from the North Pole. Even in late September, as the sun hovered close to the horizon and the long Arctic night beckoned, the sea was still ice-free, and tomatoes were growing in the greenhouse behind the research station kitchens. Old-timers like the British station head Nick Cox, who has visited Ny-Alesund most years since 1978, marvel at the pace of change. "It stuns me how far the glaciers have retreated and how the climate has changed," Cox says. "It used to be still and clear and cold. Now it is a lot warmer, and damper, too, because the warmer air can hold more moisture."

Photographs in the town's tiny museum show families who used to work in coal mines here in the 1930s, huddled in warm clothes down by the shore. Looming behind them are glaciers that are barely visible today, having retreated about 3 miles back up the fjord. The glaciers and ice sheets that still cover two thirds of Svalbard are some of the best-studied in the world. And visiting glaciologists leave each time with worsening news. In the summer of 2005, British glaciologists discovered that the nearby Midtre Lovenbreen glacier had lost 12 inches of height in a single week as it melted in the sun. The Kronebreen glacier may be dumping close to 200,000 acre-feet of ice into the fjord every year.

Jack Kohler is attempting a "mass balance" of the ice of Svalbard. He reckons that 20 million acre-feet melts and runs off into the ocean each year now. Another 3 million acre-feet is lost from icebergs slumping into the sea from 620 miles of ice cliffs. At most, half of this loss is being replaced with new snow. That is an annual net loss of around 1 1 million acre-feet—a staggering volume for a small cluster of islands, and probably second in the Arctic only to the loss from the huge ice sheet covering Greenland. And there is more to come, Kohler says. Many of Svalbard's glaciers and ice caps are close to the freezing point and "very sensitive to quite small changes" in temperature. Boreholes drilled into the permafrost show a staggering o.7°F warming in the past decade. A few more tenths of a degree could be catastrophic, he says.

Ny-Alesund is a cosmopolitan community, especially in summer, with Norwegians and Germans, Swedes and British, Spanish and Finns, Italians and French, Russians and Americans, Japanese and Chinese and Koreans. It is also quirky. Checking some equipment in the empty Korean labs, I found a pair of Spanish scientists hiding there. They said they couldn't afford the accommodation fees in the main compound, but couldn't bear to give up their work measuring glaciers. The Chinese had departed for the winter, but left behind a pair of two-ton granite lions to guard the entrance to their building. The week before, a shipload of Scotsmen, dressed in kilts and offering whiskey galore, showed up at the quayside for some R&R while investigating the sediments on the bottom of the fjord; and since then some Yorkshiremen had flown a remote-controlled helicopter the size of a small dog over glaciers to map them in 3D.

At Ny-Alesund there are magnetometers and riometers and spectrophotometers probing the upper atmosphere; there are weather balloons aplenty, a decompression chamber for divers, and even a big radio telescope that measures the radiation from distant quasars with such accuracy that it helps correct global positioning systems for the effects of continental drift. The scientists here measure chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and carbon dioxide, mercury and ozone, water vapor and radon; they fingerprint the smoke and dust brought in on the breeze to find out where they came from; they photograph the northern lights and sniff for methane from the melting tundra. On some cloudless nights, the German researcher Kai Marholdt sends that green shaft of laser light into the sky to probe the chemistry of the stratosphere. There is so much scientific equipment littering the tundra that nobody is sure what is still in use and what has been abandoned by long-since-departed researchers. There are plans for a cleanup, because passing reindeer keep getting tangled in the cables.

Meanwhile, the bears are coming. As the sea ice disappears, polar bears that live out on the ice and hunt for seals are being forced ashore. They are becoming bold. They break into the huts dotting the island, which are maintained for scientists spending a night out on the ice. They are looking for meat, but will sink their teeth into anything soft—bed mattresses and even inflatable boats have been torn to shreds. Anyone moving out of Ny-Alesund has to carry a gun.

Svalbard has long been recognized as extremely sensitive to climate variations. In the early twentieth century, during a period of modest warming in much of the Northern Hemisphere, temperatures rose here by as much as 9°F—a figure probably not exceeded anywhere on the planet. In the 1960s they fell again by almost as much, but the rise since has taken them back to the levels of the 1920s, with no end in sight. Climatologists warn against seeing warming here as an unambiguous sign of man-made climate change. But Ny-Alesund does seem uniquely sensitive to nudges on the planetary thermostat. It is a place where climate feedbacks like melting sea ice and changes in winds and ocean currents work with special force. And who knows what the future will hold? Only about a hundred miles out to sea, Wadhams's last chimney may be living out its final days.

Svalbard is a place to watch like a hawk, and not just for changing climate. The ozone layer is on a hair trigger here, too. Many researchers expect a giant ozone hole to form over the Arctic one day soon, just as it did in the Antarctic twenty-five years ago. And so, on the roof of the Norwegian Polar Institute, the largest research station in Ny-Alesund, pride of place goes to a gleaming steel instrument with a grand embossed name plate announcing that you are in the presence of Dr. Dobson's Ozone Spectrophotometer No. 8—Dobson Meter No. 8, for short. The British meteorologist Gordon Dobson, one of the earliest researchers into the ozone layer, built the first of his spectrophotometers in 1931, in a wooden hut near Oxford. His eighth, built in 1935, came north to Ny-Alesund and ever since has been pointing to the sky, measuring the ultraviolet radiation pouring through the atmosphere, and thus indirectly measuring the thickness of the ozone layer.

Dobson eventually produced 150 machines. They still form the core of the world's ozone-layer monitoring network. Their work was considered routine, even dull, until one of them discovered an ozone hole over Antarctica in the early 1 980s. Now Dobson Meter No. 8 and its minder, research assistant Carl Petter Niesen, are looking into the skies above Ny-Alesund for a repeat here. The most northerly and among the oldest in continual service, the instrument needs a little help these days to keep going. It has a duvet and a small heater to keep it from seizing up in the winter cold. Uniquely here, it is not connected to a computer logger. Even in the depths of winter, Niesen goes up on the roof to write down its reading with a pencil in a large logbook. Not much science happens that way anymore, but the Dobson meter, with its idiosyncratic but continuous record for more than half a century, is irreplaceable.

Dobson Meter No. 8 hasn't spotted a full-blown hole in the ozone layer yet. But as the researchers have waited, they have discovered other strange things happening to the chemistry of the atmosphere. Svalbard, it turns out, is on the flight path of acid fogs from Siberia that get trapped in thin, pancakelike layers of air close to the ice and turn the clear, still air into a yellow haze. Sometimes it rains mercury here, as industrial pollution cruises north and suddenly, within a matter of minutes, precipitates onto the snow.

Pesticides, too, have arrived in prodigious quantities, apparently from the fields of Asia. They condense in the cold air and become absorbed in vegetation. They work their way up the food chain to fish and polar bears and birds. But the very highest concentrations occur in a lake on Bear Island, in the south of the Svalbard archipelago, beneath a huge auk colony. The chemicals that have become concentrated in the Arctic air, and then concentrated again in the Arctic food web, are concentrated one more time in the urine of the auks. What at first sight might seem to be just about the least polluted place on Earth turns out to be a toxic sump.

Ny-Alesund is the most northerly permanent settlement on Earth. And the summit of Mount Zeppelin, 1,600 feet above the settlement, is the top of the top of the world—the ultimate watchtower for the world's climate. I went to the summit in the world's most northerly cable car with Carl Petter Niesen, who was taking his daily journey to tend the huge array of instruments designed to sniff every molecule of passing Arctic air. Recently, he says, carbon dioxide levels in the air on Mount Zeppelin have increased more sharply than at other monitoring stations around the world. Some days he measures levels approaching 390 ppm—fully 10 ppm above the global average. There is always some scatter in the readings. But it seems, he says, as if fast-rising emissions from power plants and cars in China and India are traveling north on the winds with the mercury and the pesticides and the acid haze. Not for the first time, he has caught a whiff of the future here at the top of the world.

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