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What’s going on up there?

Written by: Alexa Stone
Polar bears, reindeer, and Arctic foxes roam the glaciers and frozen tundra of Svalbard, a 23,000-square-mile archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Wildlife shares this domain with 2,500 human residents — people likely to be found in one of four communities.

Scientists far outnumber the year-round residents. Currently,  6,431 of them participate in research onsite or remotely from 53 countries. They have  628 active projects — of which 184 were initiated this year.

On this Svalbard map, 476 research installations are plotted in areas marked “I”. The areas marked “C” are where 100 camps are operating. Beyond the installations and camps, fieldwork is conducted at over 10,000 onshore and Arctic Ocean locations.

Explore this map at the Research In Svalbard Portal.

from A to Z

There are good reasons why hundreds of research sites and thousands of scientists are in Svalbard.

Here’s one: Over the past 45 years, average temperatures in the Arctic have risen by more than 5 degrees Fahrenheit. This has exposed darker ground and ocean as snow and ice have melted. As a result, the ground and ocean now absorb more sunlight, causing the region to warm nearly four times faster than the rest of the planet.



Climate-related aeronomy research in Svalbard has studied how processes like solar flares and geomagnetic storms impact the ionosphere and thermosphere. Studies of the outermost layer – the exosphere – have documented and analyzed the atmosphere’s long-term evolution.



Here, where climate change has happened fastest, local communities have been among the first to experience the consequences. Among those impacts, Inuit populations have experienced food insecurity. Thinner sea ice has made hunts more difficult. Week-long hunts have been compressed into day trips.

The potential health risks triggered as]microorganisms are released from the permafrost are being monitored and studied. Anthropological research identifies and documents survival strategies that may one day be adapted for other biomes.



After measuring the distribution and abundance of Arctic wildflowers, botanists have measured climate change impacts that also threaten the lichens and mosses that are so abundant in that region.

Plant physiology studies have revealed how photosynthesis, water relations, nutrient cycling, and plant-pollinator interactions have varied. That information may contribute to developing sustainable solutions relevant far beyond the Arctic.



Artic climatologists take a long-term view of atmospheric patterns that — in the short term — bring storms, drought, and flooding.

Data from ground-based stations, satellites, and aircraft provides for analysis of temperature fluctuations, precipitation, sea ice extent, snow cover, and other climate variables. Climatology findings document climate change impact on sea ice, permafrost, glaciers, and wildlife.



Research in Arctic ecology reveals the extent of climate change’s impact on land, freshwater, and ocean environments. These environmental changes are further studied to provide insight into physiological, behavioral, and genetic adaptations among Arctic species.

Other ecologic studies support an immediate need for Arctic communities. The scientific knowledge gained is helping to guide climate change mitigation strategies. Those are enabling proactive responses to melting permafrost and infrastructure destabilization.



Through field study, Arctic geologists have documented temperature, precipitation, and sea ice extent changes that occurred in roughly 100,000-year interglacial cycles. Their investigation of those prehistoric cycles has identified where and how landscapes and ecosystems have been impacted.

Adaptation strategies based on scientific findings can help Arctic communities cope with today’s accelerated climate change.


Marine Biology

Temperature, salinity, sea ice extent, and ocean circulation affect the abundance and distribution of Arctic marine life. Global warming has brought rapid and significant changes to all of those.

Studies of marine mammals, seabirds, fish, and plankton have revealed how those species adapt to climate change and what limitations they face. Further studies on plankton, benthos, fish, and seabirds document physiological, behavioral, and genetic adaptations in that ecosystem.



Warmer year-round weather, amplified by Arctic “heat waves” of above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, could cause summer ice melts within the next decade.

Meteorologists in Svalbard are studying climate change’s effects on Arctic temperature, precipitation, and wind changes. That research has documented heat waves, cold spells, and the consequential storms and melting ice likely to reshape global weather patterns.



The rich coal composition of Svalbard islands has yielded a vast fossil record of Precambrian life, 600-800 million years ago. Within that record, Paleontologists have identified over 110 microfossil species.

The Precambrian era was significantly warmer. Changes seen in the fossil record of that period reveal how past Arctic ecosystems reacted to climate change and how long that adaptation took.



Zoologists in Svalbard have studied Arctic foxes, bearded seals, and Svalbard reindeer, but the 300 polar bears residing there year-round receive the most attention. A subset of ursine inhabitants have been stalked, marked, and tracked to reveal how climate change redirects their movements between ice and land.

Other studies look into the Arctic waters where fish abundance, distribution, and migration patterns reveal climate change impact.

There are reasons for the research!

Research in these many sciences gather data, test hypotheses, and produce findings that are the foundation on which climate change solutions can be built.

Scientific knowledge remains essential to slowing and ultimately reversing today’s accelerated global warming. Policy decisions are better informed as understanding the Arctic environment grows. Better atmospheric cleansing and greenhouse gas reduction tools can be deployed as the best technologies are funded.

Arctic research

SOURCES: — Research In Svalbard Portal — Research Council of Norway — Guidelines for researchers in Svalbard (Governor of Svalbard) — University of Oslo