By Thin Lei Win
LONGYEARBYEN, Norway, March 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - On a damp winter's afternoon in February, a bus driver taking visitors to the local airport grumbled that this small Arctic town, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, was the warmest place in the country.
His comment followed two days of rain and above-freezing temperatures in Longyearbyen, a town of about 2,000 people, even as the mainland was struggling with frigid weather and snow.
Relatively warm weather inside the Arctic Circle ought to be highly unusual for February; increasingly, that is not the case.
The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet, something Norway's Svalbard archipelago - where Longyearbyen is located - is seeing firsthand, said Kim Holmen, international director of the state-funded Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI).
"It has been 86 consecutive months where every month has been above normal (temperatures)," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in his office at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS).
"This type of weather was highly unusual," the scientist said, gesturing at the rain lashing his office window.
"Now we have it every winter and several times a winter."
Svalbard's winter temperatures have increased by 2 to 2.3 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 4.1 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade since 1979, said Ketil Isaksen, Oslo-based senior scientist for the Norwegian Meteorological Institute (MET Norway).
The increased temperatures have brought avalanches, thinning sea ice and thawing permafrost. The fjords no longer freeze completely and the glaciers are retreating, scientists said.
Arctic regions are losing land ice, and losses from Greenland and Arctic glaciers are "a big contributor to sea level rise globally", Isaksen said by phone.
And while higher temperatures might make it easier to grow food in northern Norway, researchers have said the appearance of species new to such climes could threaten existing ecosystems.
FROM COAL TO TOURISM
Longyearbyen, the administrative centre of Norway's Svalbard archipelago, was established little over a century ago as a coal-mining company town.
The decline of mining meant it had to rebrand itself to lure tourists eager to visit the most northerly town in the world that can be reached on a scheduled flight. Scientists and students have also been drawn here to research the Arctic.
Despite its harsh climate and lack of social security benefits, Longyearbyen boasts residents from mainland Norway and 40 other countries including Ukraine, Germany, Thailand and the Philippines.
That is a legacy of its status: although part of Norway, it is governed by an international treaty signed in 1920 that gives citizens and companies from treaty nations the same right of access to and residence in Svalbard.
Homes and buildings are low-rise, made with wood and built on the permafrost. Hanne Hvidtfeldt Christiansen, a Danish professor at UNIS, said temperatures in the frozen soil have been slowly increasing.
In addition, the permafrost's active layer - the surface that freezes and thaws each year - is "increasing by approximately half a centimetre to a centimetre on an annual basis," she said.
This means the frozen layer is decreasing correspondingly, said Christiansen, who is also president of the International Permafrost Association.
That would require strengthening buildings' foundations, researchers have said; additionally, thawing permafrost could release harmful greenhouse gases and cause landslides and subsidence, threatening buildings, roads and pipelines.
In late 2016, for instance, an unexpected thawing of permafrost caused water to enter the entrance tunnel of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a safehouse here that guards seed samples of the world's food crops.
PREPARING FOR THE UNKNOWN
Scientists fear that the situation will get worse in the coming decades.
A study co-authored by MET Norway's Isaksen said that in the worst-case scenario Svalbard could by 2100 see a rise in the annual average temperature from minus 5.9C (21F) to as much as plus 3.3C (38F), and 40 percent more rain.
The study was commissioned by the state's construction group Statsbygg - which, starting this year, plans to build 100 residential units in Svalbard - in response to avalanche fears.
It is not clear what other adaptation plans the local authorities have - the mayor of Longyearbyen declined a phone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, preferring to speak face-to-face.
Meanwhile, climate change is being felt across Svalbard's ecosystem, scientists said. Warmer waters are bringing Atlantic cod, which could threaten native polar cod.
And warmer winters mean more rain, which freezes on the ground trapping the plants under ice, and making it hard for grazing animals to feed.
The locals are anxious, NPI's Holmen said.
"Windy nights like last night when houses are shaking used to be cosy. The sort of feeling that, 'We live in the High Arctic, we know what a storm is like'," he said.
"That sort of pride has turned into worry and fear."
He said the only way to prepare for the unknown was to keep as many options open as possible.
"That requires the biodiversity, the diversity in people, the diversity in economy, in technology," Holmen said.
The consequences of a warming Arctic would be felt far beyond this tiny settlement, he said.
"The oceans and the atmosphere are connected. So whatever you do, wherever you are on the planet, influences the Arctic, and the Arctic will undoubtedly also influence you," he said.
"You and I are part of the problem. You and I are part of the solution."
(Reporting By Thin Lei Win @thinink, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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