The worrying changes that are taking place in one of the places with the cleanest air on the planet

The air around me turns to something like diamond dust with each breath.

It’s cold, but it’s clear on this mountainside, in the middle of what is essentially an arctic wilderness. The extremely dry, frigid air almost instantly transforms the moisture in my mouth and nose into tiny, sparkling ice crystals.

I’m standing right under from the peak of Zeppelinfjellet, a 556m mountain on the Brøggerhalvøya peninsula of Spitsbergen, in Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean.

Below me is Ny-Ålesund, a small settlement with a population of 45 in winter and up to 150 in summer. It is the northernmost permanent settlement in the world, located about 1,231 km from the North Pole.

With the mountain rising on one side and a fjord on the other, it is a place of breathtaking beauty. is perhaps also one of the best places on the planet to breathe: Located far from major sources of pollution in the almost untouched arctic environment, the air here is some of the cleanest in the world.

The residents of the town are largely scientists who come for precisely this reason. In 1989, a research station was built on the flanks of Zeppelinfjellet at an altitude of 472m to help researchers monitor air pollution.

More recently, the Zeppelin Observatory, as the research station is called, has become a crucial place to measure the levels of greenhouse gases that are driving climate change.

But there are also signs that the air quality here may be changing.

From time to time, atmospheric currents carry air from Europe and North America to this part of Svalbard, bringing pollution from those regions with them. The researchers are not only seeing that increased levels of certain pollutants, Instead, there are signs of new types of windborne pollution that worry scientists.

“The Zeppelin Observatory is located in a remote and pristine environment, far from major sources of pollution,” says Ove Hermansen, a scientist at the Zeppelin Observatory and the Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

“If you can measure it here, you know it already has a global prevalence. This is a good place to study the changing atmosphere.”

Ny-Ålesund is the northernmost civilian settlement in the world. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

The research in Ny-Ålesund is a crucial part of an international effort to map humanity’s impact on the atmosphere. The measurements they take help “detect the baseline of contamination and calculate the global trend over time,” explains Hermansen.

Worrying measurements

Five days a week, an employee of the Norwegian Polar Institute makes a cable car ascent to the observatory, where they perform maintenance, take air samples and change equipment filters.

Because of its remote location and its elevation above atmospheric layers that can trap what little pollution is produced locally, the Zeppelin Observatory is the ideal place to help build a picture of what’s going on in Earth’s atmosphere.

The observatory’s sensors measure not only greenhouse gases, but also chlorinated gases like CFCs, heavy metals in the air, organophosphate pollutants like pesticides, and pollution typically associated with burning fossil fuels like carbon oxides. nitrogen, sulfur dioxide and particles such as soot.

The data they collect is then added to measurements taken elsewhere by an international network of stations to build a global “background” of atmospheric gases, aerosols, and particles in the atmosphere, providing a benchmark from which the pollution.

“Monitoring here at the observatory covers a wide range of topics,” says Hermansen, who has been working at the Zeppelin Observatory for two decades.

“Environmental toxins are particularly interesting for their biological effects and the state of the Arctic environment, while measurements of greenhouse gases and aerosols are especially important in a global context for their impact on climate change.”

But the Zeppelin Observatory can also provide an early warning of the changes that are taking place in the atmosphere.

Methane levels in the air around Zeppelin, for example, have been rising since 2005 and reached record levels in 2019. There is now growing concern that levels of man-made methane emissions threaten attempts to limit the amount of global warming.

ten days after 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, radionuclides, produced by the plant’s fission reactor, were detected in the atmosphere of Zeppelinfjellet. That revealed that these radioactive particles were being transported thousands of kilometers through the atmosphere in just a few days.

Zeppelin researchers have also observed spikes in the levels of sulphate, particulate matter and metals such as nickel and vanadium in the air around Ny-Ålesund during the summer months due to the increasing number of cruise ships visiting the area.

They have also detected high concentrations of “aged” particles between March and May each year, as weather patterns carry pollution from other parts of Europe and Asia.

As soot moves through the atmosphere, for example, it undergoes a chemical reaction that makes the particles more reactive and increases their toxicity.

Industrial smelters on Russia’s Kola Peninsula also produce occasional spikes in metals such as nickel, copper, zinc and cobalt in the air when the wind blows in the wrong direction during winter and spring.

The positive side

But it’s not all bad news. They have also seen levels of heavy metals such as lead and mercury decline, largely due to tougher regulations on burning waste and industry.

Efforts to reduce the use of organophosphate pesticides, which can become airborne when sprayed on fields, have also led to a gradual decline in the amount of these chemicals detected in the atmosphere around the Arctic.

a cable car
The researchers must take a cable car from the village to reach the observatory on the mountain, which has the advantage of an impressive view during the journey. (Photo: ANNA FILIPOVA)

More recently, researchers have noted increasing levels of microplastics in snow cores in remote regions of the Arctic, suggesting that they may have been transported there by air. That has prompted the Zeppelin researchers to monitor the atmosphere and the snow that falls there for microplastics.

“Very small microplastic particles can travel considerable distances through the air, similar to other particles we already measured on Zeppelin,” says Dorte Herzke, principal investigator at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research.

“What is different for microplastics is that they are entirely man-made, consist of highly durable polymers, and contain a wide mix of chemicals, many of which are toxic. We are concerned that microplastic particles could carry chemicals to the Arctic that might not otherwise get there, potentially causing damage to fragile ecosystems.”

However, while these intrusions from other parts of the world occasionally pollute the air in this corner of the Arctic, it still remains far from the worst pollution that humans release into the atmosphere.

There are other places that are also among the cleanest: In 2020, researchers discovered an extremely pristine layer of air over the Southern Ocean, directly south of Australia.

However, Ny-Ålesund is one of the few places that people can visit and live for a while, even if access is mainly limited to scientific researchers.

Ove Hermansen looks out the window
Ove Hermansen has studied air pollution for more than 20 years at the Zeppelin observatory, where researchers must also keep an eye out for polar bears. (Photo: ANNA FILIPOVA)

Surprisingly, it wasn’t always that clean.

Between 1916 and 1962, it was a coal mining town, until an explosion killed 21 workers, prompting the evacuation and closure of the mine. It has since been transformed into a place where data is pulled from the environment instead of coal.

“Cleanups have been carried out regularly since the 1960s when the mines were closed, but sadly there is still some contamination left in both the mining area and the town,” says Hanne Karin Tollan, research advisor at the base. Ny-Ålesund, which is operated by a company owned by the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment called Kings Bay AS.

“Kings Bay, which operates the entire Ny-Ålesund settlement, carried out environmental studies to map contamination in the ground in the period 2019-2022 to discover its extent and as a basis for further cleanup measurements. All rubbish, waste and contaminated soil is sent to approved sites in mainland Norway.”

How do you live there?

While those who work in Ny-Ålesund spend much of their time looking up to see what’s in the air above their heads, life on the ground in the village is unusual.

Residents come from all over the world, from countries such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Norway, Japan, South Korea, and China, among others.

There are only two weekly flights from Longyearbyen, Svalbard, offered on a bone-rattling propeller plane.

The town itself is made up of some 30 cottage-like buildings named after great global urban centers: Amsterdam, London, Mexico, Italy, to name a few. They serve as a reminder of the need for diplomatic relations in this place away from the bustling crowds.

However, other forms of connectivity are less immediately available: all mobile phones and Wi-Fi must be turned off.

The town is a radio-free zone in an attempt to keep airwaves in the area as quiet as possible, and special permission is required for researchers who want to operate any equipment that uses radio transmissions.

Green laser pulses from a building in Ny-Ålesund
Laser pulses from an instrument help monitor the levels of aerosols and other pollutants in the atmosphere over Ny-Ålesund. (Photo: ANNA FILIPOVA)

Among those taking advantage of the clear skies and RF-free environment is the Norwegian Mapping Authority, which has built a 20m observatory there to help monitor the Earth’s movements and gravitational field.

Violent storms often shake the cabins, and at night the wind blows inside, taking the heat out of the residents.

During my visits to the village, most nights I wore all of my outer clothing (jacket, pants, underwear, and midlayer, topped with a blanket) when inside the cabins.

Extreme weather is a danger to everyone who lives and works here.

Temperatures are often below freezing and the deepest cold ever recorded was -37.2°C in winter. In March this year, during one of my visits to Ny-Ålesund, temperatures reached a monthly record of 5.5°C. The previous record was 1976 at 5.0 °C.

Only with stoicism can you handle remote access, raw nature and harsh conditions along with long periods of darkness or continuous sunlight. I was at the science station during the harshest time of the year, the dark season of the polar night, when there is no light for months.

Getting around meant using headlamps and taking advantage of the moonlight. A young Italian PhD student I met was walking alone in 2 or 3 meters of visibility, facing strong winds and snow, just so she could change the filters on some instruments.

But the darkness also offers fantastic views of the Northern Lights moving like a ghost through the sky.

The stalking of the bears

There are other dangers beyond the dark and cold for researchers who venture out this time of year.

Svalbard is the natural habitat of the polar bear, and over the years bears have been seen near the settlement, even through it.

As a result, the community has a rule that no one can lock the doors of any building in case a bear shows up and there is an urgent need for shelter.

“You have to adapt and work around polar bears, not the other way around,” says Christelle Guesnon, one of the researchers working at the Zeppelin Observatory for the Norwegian Polar Institute.

“The bears like to follow the river and often take the road between the Ny-Ålesund settlement and the Zeppelin observatory. It happens quite often that we are up at the observatory and a polar bear walks by. Then we wait until the bear is gone.”

After 4:30 p.m., the closing of the working day, the small community tends to retire to their homes.

Deprived of instant communication and mobile contact, here it is relied on having met someone earlier for any socialization. The village dining room is the only place where people gather to spontaneously socialize over lunch and dinner, exchanging stories about the Northern Lights and the wildlife they encountered.

Many of those shared stories testify to the changes that are occurring in this remote arctic ecosystem.

Leif-Arild Hahjem, who has worked in Ny-Ålesund for many years as an engineer at the Norwegian Polar Institute, told me that he has been in the area since 1984 and has seen dramatic changes in the surrounding landscape.

Person looking at an instrument outside a research station.
The instruments scattered around the research station are used for frequent measurements and their filters need to be changed. (Photo: ANNA FILIPOVA)

“The fjord next to the settlement was frozen back then, you could go there with a snowmobile, but since 2006 or 2007 it’s not frozen anymore,” he says. “The settlement is surrounded by many glaciers that are getting smaller and most of it is due to rising temperatures.”

Rune Jensen, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute in Ny-Ålesund, says somewhat sadly that in the 1980s an area known as Blomstrandhalvoya, near Ny-Ålesund, was still believed to be a peninsula, but as the glacier has withdrawn in recent decades, it has become an island, cut off from the mainland.

“Today, we are experiencing the effects of a warmer Arctic in several areas,” he says.

“For example, the increased influx of warmer water from the Atlantic alters the entire ecosystem in the fjord outside Ny-Ålesund. It even affects polar bears, which are forced to adapt their diet. Previously they used to catch seals in the frozen sea. We are now seeing a huge increase in the number of polar bears feeding on seabird nest eggs and capturing seals from land.”

In the sky and landscape, the residents of Ny-Ålesund witness the distinctive features of our ever-changing world.

For now, however, they can still take a deep breath knowing that the air they inhale is a scarce and precious resource.

*Anna Filipova is an environmental photographer and journalist based in the Arctic. She can be found tweeting at @Anna_Filip. This story was made with the support of the Judith Neilson Institute, for Journalism and Ideas, and was originally produced and published in English for BBC Future.

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