Eyewitness to change

Åshild Ønvik Pedersen’s first trip to Svalbard was in 1996. Over the years she has experienced major changes due to the climate.

“Each season of fieldwork poses new challenges related to climate change,” says researcher Åshild Ønvik Pedersen. Photo: Marte Visser

Her first trip to Svalbard was in 1996 as a newly qualified biologist and environmental manager. She was studying Arctic biology on the archipelago, at a time when climate change was beginning to accelerate and be noticed in the environment. She remembers the winter as having mild and rainy spells. The tundra was covered in ice and there were reports of high mortality rates among reindeer because the ice prevented them from grazing.

In 2012, Åshild Ønvik Pedersen started working with reindeer for the Norwegian Polar Institute. Since then, the changes in nature have been noticeable – and extreme. In areas around Ny-Ålesund, on the west coast, the reindeer researcher has experienced record amounts of snow, ice-covered tundra, wetter summers with rainfall like what falls in mainland Norway, and extreme glacial melting. Rivers that used to be easy to cross have now become a challenge.

“This extreme weather is a challenge not only for the animals and plants in the ecosystems but also for us when we try to study them.”

Åshild Ønvik Pedersen

Åshild had an unpleasant encounter with the onset of climate change on Svalbard when she first started counting Svalbard reindeer on Brøggerhalvøya and at Sarsøyra and Kaffiøyra in Forlandssundet. The winter of 2012 was also characterised by mild weather, and travelling across the ice-covered tundra was a challenge. The researchers had to resort to snowmobiles with extra studs on their tracks, and use crampons around camp.

Two years later, the Norwegian Polar Institute started its reindeer tagging programme. By this time, it was no longer possible to reach all the localities because the glaciers had changed and could no longer be crossed. In addition, no sea ice formed on the bays, making them equally impassable.

Since then, even more challenges have arisen related to safe travel in the field. Glaciers are retreating or melting, creating new formations and cracks. Rivers can be in full flow in the middle of winter, and spring snowmelt starts earlier.

These major changes in nature have affected data collection, forcing researchers to adopt alternative solutions.

“The winter reindeer counts on the peninsulas in Forlandssundet have been cancelled and replaced with counts in late summer. Access by boat is easier – and the data are actually of better quality because they include calf production and the re-observation of tagged animals. Sarsøyra was impossible to get to for some time, and we had our snowmobiles transported there by boat or dangling under helicopters in order to follow up the long-term monitoring programme, which is essential for the understanding of how animals are able to adapt to a changed habitat.”

Åshild Ønvik Pedersen.