LONGYEARBYEN (Reuters) - A remote chain of Arctic islands is advertising itself as a showcase of bad things to come from global warming.
Visitors to Svalbard can see reindeer, seals or polar bears in the Arctic, where U.N. scientists say warming is happening twice as fast as on the rest of the planet in what may be a portent of changes further south.
Local authorities said such visits are less environmentally harmful than Russian-led tours on nuclear ice-breakers or sky-diving trips over the North Pole.
“This is one of the few ecosystems we have in the world that is functioning, with the polar bear as the top predator,” said Rune Bergstrom, environmental expert at the governor’s office.
“Svalbard is probably the best place to see change, and the easiest place to reach in the high Arctic,” he said.
Glaciers have been retreating in parts of the Norwegian-run archipelago, Europe’s largest wilderness. Last summer, some previously unknown islands were found after a glacier shrank.
U.S. senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain, among contenders to take over from President George W. Bush in 2009, visited in 2004. Since then Nordic prime ministers, tourists, climate students and Arctic researchers are coming too.
Tourists, many on cruise ships, spent a total of 70,000 nights in the islands last year, up from almost zero 20 years ago. Bergstrom said tourists were rich, and so could be influential when they returned home.
“Svalbard is an important meeting place...You clearly see the melting of the ice, problems for polar bears, for birds, which are damaged by global warming and environmental pollutants,” Norwegian Environment Minister Helen Bjoernoy told Reuters.
Norway wants more world action to fight global warming and last month set the toughest national goal in the world, to become “carbon neutral” by 2050, with no net emissions of greenhouse gases that come mostly from burning fossil fuels.
Trying to influence politicians to go green is a big change for Longyearbyen, a village of 1,800 people built around a coal mine where temperatures in early May are about minus 5 Celsius (23.00F) even with a midnight sun.
A coal-fired power plant emits grayish smoke from a high chimney into the pristine Arctic air over Svalbard, whose islands cover an area about as big as Ireland.
Svalbard is trying to clean up its own act with a plan to bury the carbon dioxide emissions from the local coal-fired power plant by about 2025.
Bright blue, red and yellow houses nestle in a valley between snow-covered peaks, and specialties in a local restaurant include seal and whale.
Visitors are warned that a climber was killed by a polar bear in 1995 on a mountainside above the village. A road sign warns of polar bear danger on the entire island.
Bjoernoy is planning a conference on Svalbard in August — guests will include the head of the U.N. climate panel which released reports this year warning of widening damage from droughts, floods, a spread of disease and rising seas.
Companies are also visiting the islands to raise awareness.
A group of Dutch, British and Irish students attended a climate change college in Longyearbyen run by Ben & Jerry’s, a U.S. ice cream maker, to educate them about climate change and help them launch grassroots environmental campaigns back home.
Briton Rob Bell, for instance, wants mobile phone companies to create chargers that switch off when the phone is full: “If everyone unplugged their phone chargers it would be enough to power 33,000 homes for a year.”
Anne Leeflang said she would try to persuade students in the Netherlands to shift to water-saving shower heads. And Lesley Butler from Ireland will work as a consultant to help small businesses go green.
Environment Minister Bjoernoy she said she saw no contradiction between showing off the impacts of global warming in the Arctic when many oil companies, such as Norway’s state-controlled Statoil, are hoping for new finds as the sea ice recedes.
“It’s important for Norway to contribute to develop technologies for oil and gas and simultaneously be honest about the problems posed by our production,” she said. Norway is the world’s number 5 oil exporter.
Experts say the Arctic warms faster than the rest of the planet because darker water and land, when exposed by melting ice and snow, soaks up more heat and accelerates the thaw.