Life near rapidly warming North Pole: Rain in winter and more avalanches

20 September 2019, 20:21 | Updated: 21 September 2019, 08:10

People living just 800 miles from the North Pole are facing new and unpredictable hazards because the climate is warming so rapidly.

The 2,300 inhabitants of Longyearbyen - the only major town on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, and the world's northernmost permanent settlement - are accustomed to harsh winters and the hazards of polar bears.

But freakish storms are increasingly common, raising temperatures by 25C (77F) in a matter of hours, even in mid-winter.

Sky News has visited the islands to see how people living in the most rapidly-warming part of the planet are adapting to climate change.

Martin Indreiten, the avalanche rescue team leader for Longyearbyen Red Cross, said: "The new normal is it's raining in mid-winter.

"It's now normal that we have heavy precipitation, it's normal that we have more avalanche activities, it's normal that we have more landslides."

Longyearbyen lies in a valley, surrounded by steep mountains.

In 2015 a storm triggered the biggest avalanche in a generation, burying 11 people in their homes. Two died.

Just two years later there was another major avalanche in almost the same spot, which destroyed a row of houses but without any casualties.

Avalanche fences have now been built up the mountainside to protect the town.

And 140 people living in the high-risk zone have been evacuated as a precaution ahead of this winter.

Plans are also being considered to move the cemetery because it was almost buried by a recent landslide.

Siv Limstrand, Longyearbyen's priest, said: "Suddenly there are different dangers.

"One thing is being hit by avalanche when you are outside. You know that's a risk.

"When you're inside your house you're supposed to be safe. So that's a major change psychologically."

Svalbard's average annual temperature has risen 4-5C in less than 50 years. That's twice as fast as the rest of the planet.

The warmth is penetrating deep underground, thawing soil that has been frozen for thousands of years.

Some of the town's houses have had to be underpinned as the earth softens.

The new climate is also affecting the most Arctic of pastimes. Traditional dog sleds are increasingly being replaced by buggies as the snow season gets shorter.

Audun Salte, who runs Svalbard Husky, said it was affecting his business.

"What's making me sad is that we are affecting natural habitats that again affects innocent animals that haven't been a part of doing this wrong.

"It's not nice being the generation that will be remembered in history as the idiots that didn't do anything, before it was too late.

"That's the message."