Climate solutions from the Arctic, the fastest warming place on Earth

In the Arctic, where a reliable supply of energy can mean the difference between life and death, one community is leading one of the planet’s most unique renewable energy transitions.

For more than 100 years, the economy of Svalbard, Norway – a group of islands near the North Pole – has revolved around coal mining. But burning coals warming the planetwhich contributes to climate change, which is now melting Svalbard’s glaciers.

The Norwegian government has now given Svalbard a mandate to close its last coal mine within two years.

“We are proud of the mining industry,” says Heidi Theresa Ose, CEO of coal mining company Store Norske. “At the same time, we are now looking into the future and finding new ways to contribute energy.”

CBS News traveled to the world’s northernmost and fastest-warming community in Svalbard. What scientists learn there helps Americans understand the changes happening in the United States. As the Arctic warms, it contributes to rising sea levels along our coasts and instability in the atmosphere that contributes to our extreme weather events.

While Svalbard intends to transition to renewable energy, there is very little data on how well wind and solar can cope in the islands’ harsh winter conditions, where there is no sun for months at a time.

Renewable energy in the Arctic

In a place as cold and remote as Svalbard, any off-grid power outage could require a total evacuation of its 2,500 residents to the Norwegian mainland, 600 miles away by boat or plane.

With that in mind, Store Norske has partnered with researchers at the University Center in Svalbard to begin reliability testing of the world’s northernmost solar farm at the site of Isfjord Radio, a remote luxury hotel. The hotel runs on generators powered by diesel fuel.

“We don’t have a lot of experience with how (the technology) can handle the harsh climate and weather conditions that we have up here,” Ose said. “We have a job to verify the technology in the arctic climate.”

Store Norske reports strong results from its 360 solar panels. In the summer, when the sun shines for 24 hours, the panels provide all the electricity needed to run the hotel.

In the spring, the company learned that the panels can collect both direct sunlight and light that bounces off the snow. Ose said that while fuel is still needed in the total darkness of winter, the hotel has been able to reduce diesel consumption by 70%.

The next test site will be the city of Longyearbyen with 2,500 inhabitants, which is considered to be the northernmost community in the world. In October, it stopped burning coal at its power plant and switched to cleaner but still dirty diesel. The city intends to add renewable energy to Longyearbyen’s energy mix, as these technologies are proven reliable in the Arctic.

In addition to Longyearbyen, there are around 1,500 communities above the Arctic Circle where people live off-grid. Store Norske plans to sell its renewable energy solutions to these communities, which include settlements across Canada and Alaska.

“If you put all these 1,500 (communities) together, you have something really big in total that would have an impact,” says Anna Sjöblom, meteorologist at the University Center in Svalbard, who is collaborating on the project.

Avalanche protection technology

In addition to renewable energy, Longyearbyen is also the place where Store Norske and the University Center in Svalbard have developed new technology to help predict another threat to community well-being – avalanches.

While winters are very cold, snowfall is generally light. But in January 2015, a big storm hammered the island with blinding wind and snow. More than 16 feet fell in about 12 hours in some places.

These rare conditions triggered an avalanche on one of the city’s mountains – the first to ever cause serious damage to Longyearbyen. The snow ripped houses off their foundations and left them in a heap. Two people died, including a young girl.

“I knew the girl,” recalled Line Nagell Ylvisåker, editor at Svalbard Post. “She went to kindergarten with my daughter. So it was really close and hard to understand that it happened.”

Since the fatal avalanche, Martin Indreiten with the Artic Safety Center at the University Center on Svalbard has led the effort to defend society against the threat of future avalanches.

Indreiten said the risk of an avalanche has always been reliably highest in the spring, but as Svalbard warms, they can now also happen at other times of the year.

“It’s the uncertainty,” Indreiten said. “You do not know,”

Norway spent $25 million to build a dam at the bottom of the mountain to stop snowfall and protect the city. Higher up on the mountain, it built avalanche fences that help prevent the snow from sliding down.

Indreiten designed an early warning system that would give people time to evacuate. In collaboration with the Norwegian mobile company Telenor, Indreiten and his colleagues developed the low-cost snow cord.

The units are installed in remote locations. They cast a beam off the snow to measure its depth and send back hundreds of measurements every day. Each device can last up to 10 years on a single battery and costs just $600.

Researchers designed an early warning system for avalanche risk that would give people time to evacuate.

CBS News

“We get information from the places we want to get information, and the cost is so low that many people can use it,” Indreiten said.

Avalanches are a problem in communities around the world. In the United States, 25 to 30 people die each winter in avalanches, mostly in national forests, according to National Avalanche Centre.

Indreiten hopes that the new technology can be useful all over the world. It has already been installed in another avalanche-prone community on the Norwegian mainland.

“If you have better tools to make forecasts, then we could move people out of harm’s way when it’s necessary to do that,” Indreiten said.

Go on an adventure to Svalbard in Norway this particular interactive web page and learn how climate change affects communities across our country.

Meet our experts

Martin Indreiten the collaboration on an early warning system to protect the community in Longyearbyen against the threats of future avalanches. His team at the Arctic Safety Center built low-cost snow depth sensors that are now deployed on the steep slopes around the city. Each device sends back hundreds of readings a day, giving safety managers better insight into avalanche risk and when to issue evacuation orders. Indreiten believes that avalanche-prone communities around the world will benefit from the technology developed on Svalbard.

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