Something is happening to Norway
Slowly, almost imperceptibly.
Researchers are no longer in doubt: Global warming has begun to make Norway warmer and wetter.
Not in 50 years, or 100. But now.
So what has changed? Have things really begun to happen already? Over the past twelve months we have traveled around the country, looking for answers. Chasing climate change.
- Mads Nyborg Støstad
- Patrick da Silva Sæther
We didn't expect
to find so much.
Our climate journey begins with a curious observation, here in the little hamlet of Vallsjøen, in Hedmark. Something strange is happening in our lakes.
Trond Nygaard, who works for the municipal waterworks here in Sør-Odal, draws up a bucket of water to show us the strange phenomenon.
“Look! The water is as dark as Lipton tea!” he says. In fact, lakes and rivers are becoming browner, all over southern Norway.
This change has been taking place since the 1980s, and until the present day the main cause has been a decrease in acid rain. But now researchers think that climate change is also having an effect. When the climate becomes wetter, more dissolved soil and plant material washes out into the water. In a warmer climate, a more fertile landscape also contributes to browner water.
In Sør-Odal, people still get clear water in their taps, because they have this modern purification plant. In other places, things are a bit worse.
Here in Asker and Bærum, for example, it will soon become problematic to get a sparkling white T-shirt after doing the laundry. Now they have to build a new purification plant, at a cost of between NOK 700 to 1000 million.
I don't think that people fully realize that this is happening. They just expect to get clean water in their taps.
The short summary of climate change in Norway is that our country has become one degree Celsius warmer over the past 115 years. But what exactly does this single degree of warming lead to? That was our question a year ago, when we began to call scientists and read climate reports.
And the first thing we discovered was that Norway looks different.
A changing landscape
The landscape has changed in many ways. For example, examine the timberline. The trees have begun to creep up the valleysides, in step with rising temperatures and the changing use of wilderness. In some places, the timberline is over 100 meters higher than before.
There is less snow in the lowlands. In parts of the Oslo wildlands, the skiing season has become nearly 40 days shorter.
But the most visible change in the landscape, we found here, in the far northeast of Norway.
Large portions of the birch forest in the region have been destroyed. One could easily believe that something had exploded here. But the culprit is in fact a larva.
The larvae of the so-called autumnal and winter moths attack the trees and eat their leaves. Climate change aggravates the destruction, according to researchers. New species of moth are spreading northwards, and milder winters are beneficial for the moth eggs.
In Nesseby, one of the hardest hit areas, we find Oddvar and Frøydis Betten. Before, they had dense birch forest all the way in to the walls of their cabin.
Now they are surrounded by dead trees.
At its worst, the roads here were green and slippery. They were covered by larvae.
It is still unclear how the moths affect wildlife here. But researchers and reindeer owners fear that such major changes in nature can create ripple effects throughout the entire eco-system.
Even the sea floor has changed. Hartvig Christie celebrates as he emerges from the deep. «There's seaweed here! Lots of seaweed!»
For several decades, marine biologists have been watching a war on the sea floor. Between sea kelp – which he calls the rain forest of the sea – and sea urchins, which spread destruction.
In the 1990s the sea urchins appeared to be winning – they had transformed the sea-bed into a desert, from north to south. But then something happened that astonished Hartvig Christie.
Researchers started finding kelp plants, from central Trøndelag to Troms in the far north. The ocean temperature had risen, and suddenly the spiky invaders were gone. A consequence of climate change, according to Hartvig Christie.
He emphasizes that this is a positive climate change, seen in isolation.
But it is frightening just how much a few tenths of a degree can change the sea floor. The changes in the ocean are massive.
Most Norwegians don't pay much notice to the kelp forest or moth larvae. But climate change also alters something that we all feel first-hand, every day – namely, the weather.
The great weather shift
Norway has always had varied weather. But the message from the numbers is clear, from weather stations all across the country: The weather has changed.
There is 18 percent more precipitation now than there was 115 years ago. This is not some prediction from a researcher's PowerPoint presentation. This is a present-day fact.
Measurements from Blindern in Oslo show that the major summer rain showers have nearly doubled in intensity. The drainage systems in the capital are not equipped for this.
When the sewer pipes in Oslo are filled to overflowing with rainwater, the pressure must be relieved. And then sewage is released into the rivers.
After powerful downpours the rivers disgorge sewage into the Oslo fjord. On such days there can be 100 times more intestinal bacteria than normal in the fjord, according to municipal bathing water quality measurements.
This is why the local authority discourages swimming, for example, at the popular bathing spot Sørenga, the day after rainfall.
Though seaside visitors don't necessarily grasp this message once the sun is shining again.
But powerful showers can have greater consequences than bacteria levels. In August, this dam outside of Bergen collapsed, due to both a structural defect, and also – intense rain . Western Norway set several rainfall records this autumn.
Just a few weeks later there was a massive downpour in Kristiansand. People barely had time to grab their umbrellas before they were up to their waists in water. Over 70 cellars were flooded. A few hours of rain did NOK 90 million worth of damage.
And finally, Norway's driest place, Skjåk, was covered by water. The cause – rain, combined with melting snow – in October.
21-year-old Pia Forberg awoke in the middle of the flood in Skjåk. The water was about to rise as high as the window frame. Just after, water began to trickle up between the floorboards, and she had to evacuate.
When she returned the next day, the apartment was a wreck.
I've always believed that you don't need boots in Skjåk. This was a shock.
Luckily, no lives were lost in floods in the previous year. But heavy rainfall can also result in landslides. In December 2017, a 38-year-old woman died when 200 tons of wet earth hit a residence in Osterøy.
We can't conclude that these isolated incidents are caused by climate changes. On the other hand, we can conclude that such incidents have already become more common. And that it will likely cost us several hundred billion NOK to arm ourselves against all this water.
But it was not flooding that made 2018 memorable. It was heat waves and drought. Climate changes may lead to more drought, even if there is more rain. This is because as it becomes warmer, more water evaporates.
This is exactly what happened in the summer. First came the hottest May on record, then the hottest ever July, and when it also scarcely rained, Norway became bone dry. The Civil Defense expended 71,313 man-hours putting out over 800 forest fires, like here in Lommedalen.
Of course it wears you down. And then it wears you out.
But the drought hits farmers the hardest of all. Like the Engebretsen family.
This summer, nothing grew on their farm. These pathetic tufts could not feed the family's more than hundred cows, calves and oxen.
The only solution was to send dozens of animals to the slaughterhouse. Mother Linda realized this as early as June. But she hesitated at the laptop for months. It was too painful to hit 'send' and deliver the message to the butcher.
Part of the reason was because Linda and the children were so fond of the cows. Each of them have a name, and some of them have gotten a place of honor on the kitchen cabinets.
But mostly it was because these are suckler cows, and they should have lived and produced calves for many more years. Without them, the family might not be able to afford to run the farm any more.
Finally, on this day in October, Linda managed to send in the form to the butcher.
And in November, while the children were at school, Linda said her farewells through the window of the butcher's van. Soon she will be down to between 20 and 30 cows – a death blow for the farm .
This drought will be the end of me as a farmer.
OK, we need to slow down a bit. When you talk about climate change, it is easy to just scream about the negative and dramatic. In reality it is, as always, a bit more nuanced. For example, we must mention that Norway has gotten off relatively lightly in terms of drought so far, all things considered. We in the north are also lucky when it comes to rising sea level and storms. In addition, not all climate changes in Norway are purely negative.
Positive climate change effects
The summer of 2018 was a wet dream for everyone who likes to enjoy themselves in the sun, as we can see here in Frysja in Oslo. And they are not alone in getting something good out of the changing climate.
Farmers, for example, have received new possibilities with a warmer climate and longer growing season. Here and there, even a few vineyards have begun to spring up.
Here by the edge of Sognefjorden, Bjørn Bergum and his partner harvested nearly two tons of Pinot Noir, Solaris and other exotic grape varieties this year. Bergum didn't think about climate change when he got started, but now acknowledges that his project would have been difficult without the rising temperature.
This is just the beginning. The next dream is to establish a wine district up here.
A few kilometers further southwest, in idyllic Lærdal, fruit farmer Ivar Petter Grøtte is experimenting with cherries, peaches, and even apricots.
Foreign visitors can scarcely believe their own eyes when they come here. Apricots, so far north!
In the mountains, both children and adults cheer about something completely different, namely large amounts of snow, like here at Sjusjøen in Hedmark in February last year. There has actually been more snow in the mountains, where the temperature is still well under freezing during the winter.
But under closer examination, not even these examples are only positive.
All the snow in Sjusjøen this winter resulted in a series of power outages and damage to cabin roofs.
For the wine farmer in Slinde, the summer of 2018 was actually too warm for some of the grapes.
And most significant of all: In 2014, right after fruit farmer Ivar Petter Grøtte had planted his new apricot trees, a 200-year flood hit – and swept them away.
Four years after the flood, he is still working to clear up the damage.
What is new is the intense variability. We farmers are used to weather, but it has become extreme.
The start of this climate investigation was marked by relatively calm and undramatic climate changes. But the sense of gravity grew with the droughts and floods. And there remained one further substantial change. A climate change that is truly occurring at top speed in Norway: namely, melting.
Norway is melting
Our iconic glaciers are melting so much that they are hardly visible on postcards any more.
Before, this boat could bring tourists all the way to the edge of Nigardsbreen glacier. But in a bit over 50 years the melting glacier has retreated a kilometer.
The melting is rapid. In the summer of 2017 this edge of ice was 81 meters further down the mountainside. Now you need a mountain hike in order to reach the glacier.
Up by the ice, one finds signs, barriers and Torbjørn, a guard. Because the Nigardsbreen glacier can be especially dangerous when it is melting so quickly.
In the summer, a block of ice loosened while three tourists were too close. The person in this video was saved. Another lost their life.
The guides still manage to arrange family tours on the glacier – but only just. Each morning is a struggle to create a serviceable route.
People who haven't been here for a while are shocked. They don't recognize the place.
But melting also has consequences that one seldom considers. Such as in the so-called palsa bogs. There we found one of the strangest climate changes we have seen.
“It's completely incredible,” exclaims biologist Annika Hofgaard. For the first time in five years, she is back in the bog outside of Kirkenes.
This landscape has been covered by large mounds for several hundred years. The mounds consisted of frozen bog water. But something is wrong. The landscape here is almost completely flat.
They are gone. It is both sad and frightening.
Annika Hofgaard took this photo the last time she was here, five years ago. But since then the ice inside the mound has melted.
The only thing that remains now, is a puddle. The same thing is happening in all of Norway's palsa bogs.
The change can be dramatic for bird life here, and more.
As our climate journey approached its end, it was just such changes that made the greatest impression. Not dollars, cents or billions, but - birds. Time after time, we spoke with shaken, or simply sad, biologists.
They told us about the Arctic fox, which is acutely endangered. In the new heat, they are being ousted by the red fox.
We saw birds suffering stress as their favorite food vanishes.
And we heard about the lemming. Previously, there was a ‘lemming year’ – population spike – every fourth year. Now the regular lemming cycle is gone. This affects other animals, such as grouse – because in nature, everything is connected.
And when animals are affected, the people who are dependent on them are affected as well.
Like reindeer herder Nils Arvid Guttorm. “We have had difficult winters before. But not as extreme as in recent years,” he says.
His problem is icing on grazing land. If it is too warm at the beginning of the winter, a hard layer of ice can form over the pasture, and his animals will not be able to get through to their food.
A few years ago, Nils Arvid had to provide feed every day throughout the winter, in the middle of the plains. When spring arrived, he was so worn out that he considered giving up on reindeer husbandry.
"Luckily my wife stopped me. She said: You'll go crazy if you quit!" Nils Arvid is glad he kept at it. But when you live in such proximity to animals and nature, you notice every little change.
My father always read the weather signs. In the autumn, he could see how the winter would be. But in the final years of his life, he was a worried man. Because the signs weren't right any more.
Not far away, Frank Myklebust is hauling up fish. In the far north of Norway, the sea is teeming.
Frank used to live in Lofoten, where he was dependent on the traditional ‘lofottorsken’, spawning cod.
The drawback with living in Lofoten was that Frank constantly had to sail north after other fish when the cod season was over. “Every trip took several months. I hardly knew my children.”
But a few years ago the spawning cod began to appear further north as well, since the ocean had become warmer.
Today, Frank lives 600 kilometers northeast of Lofoten, in Mehamn in Finnmark. There he can now fish for cod and other seafood – right outside his door.
In Frank's new home port, at the top of the map of Norway, they are suddenly experiencing a true fishing boom, with a new fish processing center and many new residents. The question is: what will the fishing industry do when the cod continue their journey further northeast in the future? Because the next stop is Russia.
The future... yes. We haven't spoken much about that, because our climate investigation is only about the here and now, about things that have already happened. But the future nightmare scenario, three degrees warming, is in fact already to be found, one place in Norway. We had to travel there before our investigation was finished. To Svalbard.
The thawing island
It may seem as though the weather is particularly confused here, at the northernmost point of Norway, halfway between the mainland and the North Pole. On Svalbard it has been warmer than normal for 97 months in a row.
On average, the archipelago has had three times more warming than the rest of the country.
The houses here in Longyearbyen are built on frozen ground, so-called permafrost. But now the frost is thawing.
This means the buildings are more vulnerable to sinking and cracking.
It is particularly bad at the sea edge. This is where the Hübner family cabin used to stand.
Not any more. The family had to move the entire cabin 100 meters away from the sea.
The ground had thawed and become unstable. The plot of land belonging to Christiane, Wolfgang and little Silas was gradually being washed into the sea.
For those of us up here, who can see the climate changes so clearly – it is frightening that people don't take them seriously.
The cemetery overseen by clergyman Leif Magne Helgesen was suddenly in the middle of a landslide zone. He no longer dared to use it for new burials. “This is supposed to be a place of peace. But the melting of the permafrost has turned the mountain into a slide,” says Helgesen, who has now given up the position of parson on Svalbard.
There are so many climate effects on Svalbard that we cannot go through them all here. But we can't leave out the melting of sea ice. The Norwegian Meteorological Institute announced in August that they had never observed less ice around Svalbard than now.
Polar explorer Kim Holmén sighs. Here, there used to be ice until well into May. Now Isfjorden, The Ice Fjord, is ice-free all year round.
Before, you could drive right across this fjord with a snowmobile. This winter there hasn't been a single bit of ice.
The melting is dramatic for animal life here. Researchers have observed polar bears needing to swim for several days in order to find spots to hibernate.
And worst of all: Snow and ice are important because they reflect the warm rays of the sun away from the Earth. Therefore, without the ice, the planet warms up even faster. A classic vicious circle.
The most striking impression after a year's journey through our climate, is how many different things have happened to our country. Just in the past year, we have seen heat records, rainfall records and extreme weather – but also – quiet, long-term changes. And so, it is too late to prevent Norway or the world from changing. Because the changes are already in full swing.
Nevertheless, things are not completely hopeless. According to a new report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we can still halt the rate of global warming.
But to do so we must implement comprehensive changes to our society, according to the IPCC. We must change everything from our eating habits to how we build our cities. And we have to start now.
If not – this is just the beginning.