Winter ice declining in Svalbard's fjords

The rapid decline in arctic sea ice has been widely noted. This trend is especially relevant in Svalbard, where the reduction has a particularly strong impact on polar bears. The bears depend on the ice for access to seals which are their main source of sustenance. Without enough ice, hunger increases and the population is threatened.

winter ice decline in svalbard climate change
Sea ice around the northeast Svalbard island of Nordaustlandet


This year's winter in Svalbard has been especially tumultuous. Temperatures were well above normal for most of the fourth quarter of 2016, with rain and mudslides in October at a time when the ground should have been frozen solid. January has been significantly colder though, with temperatures approaching -30°C at times. So as the sun begins to creep over the horizon after the polar night, the question is whether the sea will freeze as it historically has.


The west side of Svalbard and the main island of Spitsbergen are exposed to warm currents from the Atlantic and thus are less cold than the east. And yet historically it was cold enough that the largest fjord, even being open to the Atlantic currents, received the name Isfjorden or "Ice Fjord". Because the first explorers found it, well, full of ice. But it has now been a decade since it last froze.

winter ice decline in svalbard climate change
Nansenbreen glacier along the coast of Isfjorden


This year, researchers at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) together with colleagues from mainland Norway, Scotland, and the US see some signs of hope for ice. Isfjorden will remain ice free as the water remains around +3°C over freezing at this point. Longyearbyen lies along a side-fjord called Adventfjorden. Tiny patches of sea ice have formed in shallow waters here, and side fjords have greater potential for ice, but it remains unlikely to be much.

winter ice decline in svalbard climate change


Ironically, ice probably will form further south at Van Mijenfjorden thanks to lower sea temperatures. Further north, Kongsfjorden - site of the research town of Ny Ålesund - is much warmer and has little chance of ice forming. The far northeast of Svalbard on Nordaustlandet island - which contains Austfonna, the third largest ice cap on earth after Greenland and Antarctica - should see Rijpforden freeze. The area is not exposed warm Atlantic currents and is considered a good place to study true arctic conditions, versus Kongsfjorden as a location to study warmer processes.

winter ice decline in svalbard climate change

Kongsfjorden viewed from the scientific research settlement of Ny Ålesund


The trends remain clear though. As in the rest of the Arctic, while year to year variations are always in play, sea ice is shrinking fast. Perhaps the recent repeated visits of a polar bear and her two cubs into settlements along Isfjorden and Van Mijenfjorden can serve as a valuable reminder of the rapid changes being caused by global warming.

You can read more about our environment measures and what we do to help save our arctic home on our website.

1 comment

  • John Locke

    I last visited Ny Alesund in 1978 in late August and noted on one night while the sun was visible on the northern horizon a thin film of ice formed over the Eastern part of Kongsfyord as the temperature dipped below 0 C .I heard then that in earlier years that the Russians and Norwegians snowmobiled across the ice in Winter for visits! Recent temperatures have dipped to -14C and still no ice!! only a little close to shore.

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