Aug 3, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Melt record set in rapidly warming Svalbard, Norway

Satellite image of melting glaciers on Svalbard, Norway in August 2022.
Satellite image showing rapidly melting glaciers on Svalbard, Norway. Sediment runoff is turning the ocean into milky hues, and the darkened ice surface shows areas where melt is increasing. (Copernicus/EU)

The Norwegian Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard, situated northeast of Greenland, is seeing a record melt season tied to human-caused global warming, scientists tell Axios.

Why it matters: The meltwater is pouring into the Atlantic Ocean, where it helps to raise sea levels. The rapid melt this year demonstrates Svalbard's status as one of the fastest warming places in the Northern Hemisphere, at about three times the rate of lower latitudes.

Zoom in: According to Xavier Fettweis, a geography professor at the University of Liège, the mean meltwater runoff is 42.6 billion metric tons in 2022, which is 3.5 times larger than average and 1.4 times larger than the previous record, set in 2018.

  • Svalbard set a record on July 17 for its highest recorded melt volume, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
  • This was due to a push of relatively mild air well north of Scandinavia and was related to a melt pulse in northern Greenland as well.  
  • Fettweis said the meltwater runoff anomaly is five times the variability from year to year during the 1981-2010 period, which he says is "statistically unlikely."
  • "Only a changing climate can explain this," he said via email.

Context: Unlike glaciers that terminate in floating ice shelves, most glaciers in Svalbard don't melt at the base, and instead do so from the top down. An early snowmelt this year helped to prime ice surfaces for melting, Ted Scambos of the University of Colorado at Boulder, told Axios in an email.

According to Scambos, temperatures in Svalbard have been about 2 to 3°C above average since May, which is an unusually long stretch of time.

  • "May took away much of the fresh snow, exposing the glacier ice and older snow to warm air and sunlight easier in the season than is usual," Scambos said. This has in turn allowed for more rapid ice loss.
  • Fettweis pointed to the suspended sediment in waters near Svalbard seen in satellite photos as an indication that melting is now occurring at the base of the glaciers.
  • "This could increase the discharge of icebergs in the next years accelerating the mass lost from Svalbard due to global warming," Fettweis said.

Yes, but: While the melting of Greenland's ice sheet is the largest annual contributor to sea level rise, the melt seen in Svalbard this year is yet another warning sign of the consequences of a rapidly warming climate.

  • While it won't cause an immediate, obvious increase in sea levels, any added freshwater contribution to the ocean from Svalbard or other land-based ice helps worsen growing damages from sea level rise.
  • This includes the phenomenon of increasingly frequent tidal flooding, also known as "sunny day flooding," which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned is an increasingly prevalent phenomenon along the U.S. coast on Tuesday.
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