Scenes of climate science at the edge of the Earth
In a frigid landscape, a group of dedicated scientists work to record stark signs of the climate crisis.
CLIMATE SCIENTISTS often consider Svalbard a hotspot of global warming. Since the 1990s, Earth’s average temperature has increased by less than 1°C, but the average winter on the frosty archipelago sandwiched between mainland Norway and the North Pole has crept up 1.7°C with each decade. In these remote reaches of the planet, even a few degrees can drastically alter the landscape.
Because the increases are so extreme at Svalbard, scientists have flocked to study the site, and since 2019, photographer Esther Horvath has captured life in this icy terrain. Her focus: an international group of women, some as young as their 20s, who run Ny-Ålesund, a mining village turned scientific base camp. From there, they witness the shift in all its fury and reveal how changes in the far reaches trickle down to the rest of the planet. Researchers here have made remarkable discoveries, including the first evidence that warmer Atlantic waters have been seeping into the Arctic for a century—a process known as “Atlantification.” In the months-long polar nights, the work of these 30 or so year-round residents shines a light on the most climate-stricken environment on Earth.
↑ Getting to Ny-Ålesund is perilous. Svalbard’s wild snowy winds rarely pause long enough for planes to take off and land. When Horvath left for the site in March 2022, storms were brewing; 10 minutes after she touched down, one hit the village with such force that she couldn’t open her eyes. If her flight had taken off five minutes later, they wouldn’t have been able to make it. In this case, two squalls were on a collision course, and there was a narrow window to get the plane through.
↑ When maintaining the Video In-Situ Snowfall Sensor, which analyzes snow particle sizes and distribution, the scientists of Ny-Ålesund need to pack more than just tools for upkeep. Everyone who ventures into the icy land must bring a firearm and a flare gun to protect themselves from roaming polar bears. All newcomers to the village, including grad students like Fieke Rader, must take a shooting course in preparation for rare but potentially dangerous encounters.
↑ The helmet jellyfish pictured here is a newcomer to the Arctic and dangerous to its biodiversity. This species typically lives in temperate waters across nearly every ocean in the world, but thanks to warming, the icy regions of the poles have become more welcoming. The invertebrate comes up to the surface only at night, but beneath the seas near Svalbard, it’s caused havoc: It reproduces quickly and eats up krill and small fish, which other creatures who live in the frosty depths depend on to survive.
↑ Norwegian resident and receptionist Signe Maria Brunk is one of the few people at Ny-Ålesund with pets. In fact, she came only on the condition that she could bring her two dogs. Pets aren’t allowed to live in homes or roam freely (to protect local wildlife like bird populations), but the town’s sled dogs and canines like hers enjoy a fenced-in yard and cabin. There, the furry townsfolk provide essential companionship during months- or years-long stints, Horvath says—especially important in the isolated corners of a frozen island.
↑ The Bayelva long-term climate and permafrost observatory sits just outside Ny-Ålesund. Over the past 24 years, geoscientists like Julia Boike have discovered that the topmost layer of permafrost—called the active layer because it melts in the summer and freezes in the winter—has nearly doubled in depth. A thicker active layer means more melting permafrost releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas that accelerates warming. The effects will hit hard close by: On the islands of Svalbard, many home foundations were built into this layer with the expectation that it would remain solid.
↑ For Laura Eicklemann, a diver and technician from one of the town’s centers run by the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, plunging into chilly harbors is all in a day’s work. Under an inky black surface that dips below freezing, she observes the fjord’s changing balance of ice and water and maintains the observatory’s underwater components, which include sensors for temperature, salinity, and pH. This spot is a stark reminder of the drastic change in climate: Normally in March, when this photo was taken, the fjord should be frozen so solid that people can snowmobile across it.
↑ Traveling out on the water in the Arctic is rarely a warm experience, but throw in a boat made completely of metal, and the chill penetrates your bones. Researcher Charlotte Havermans must brave these conditions to take oceanic measurements and net the invasive helmet jellyfish. In this photo, Havermans, at right, and her colleague Marine Ilg have just captured such a specimen—which can pose serious threats to Ny-Ålesund’s native flora and fauna.
↑ Climate change, Horvath points out, doesn’t happen overnight, so measuring tiny day-by-day shifts shows a world in motion. Every day since the 1990s, Ny-Ålesund scientists like Sandra Graßl have released a balloon like this one around lunchtime. From as high as nearly 18 miles above ground level, the atmospheric instrument gathers data such as temperature, humidity, and wind speeds. These metrics allow scientists to calculate shifts in the water cycle and other developments. In the ’90s, weather balloons deployed from this site were used to map the ozone layer’s depletion and its journey to recovery.
↑ The researchers of Ny-Ålesund give up essentially all connection to the outside world when they come to study the icy landscapes and atmosphere. There’s radio silence, says Horvath, and no WiFi. Instead of spending time scrolling TikTok or communicating with people back home, the scientists must find ways to fill their time with other activities, like painting. This far north, even relaxing indoors with friends requires piling on coats and strapping on headlamps.
↑ On clear nights, over the joint French-German Arctic Research Base AWIPEV, a green laser shoots into the sky. For the past 25 years, the Alfred Wegener Institute has been using this Lidar-based system to investigate aerosols suspended in the air. The particles play many essential roles in the atmosphere—think water droplets forming clouds—but spying their levels also offers a vital glimpse of shifting conditions—such as when evidence of wildfires and other far-off climate events reaches the pole.
↑ Susana Garcia Espada, operations engineer at the Geodetic Earth Observatory in Ny-Ålesund, stands in the glow of the observatory’s 20-meter-wide radio telescope. The massive antennas spy signals from remote celestial objects known as quasars up to 13 billion light-years away. The pulsing lights can tell the researchers where in space Earth is, the speed of its orbit around the sun, and how fast its crust is moving—all factors that influence our climate.
This story originally ran in the Fall 2022 Daredevil Issue of PopSci. Read more PopSci+ stories.