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NASA releases unique images of unprecedented summer melting in the ice-covered archipelago of Svalbard, Norway

Due to exceptionally warm air temperatures in the summer of 2022, Svalbard has experienced record-breaking melting. The recent manifestation of a fast changing climate in the ice-covered archipelago of Norway is the abundance of meltwater, much of which went to the ocean. Halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole is Svalbard. Outside of Greenland and Antarctica, the planet’s surface is covered by glaciers to the extent of 6%, or more than half of its total area.

Warming had already changed the climate prior to the record melting. The ‘firn,’ a top layer of compressed porous snow, has been losing its capacity to retain significant amounts of meltwater as glaciers have been retreating. This summer’s melting was brought on by consistent warm breezes coming from the south.

From May 1 to July 25, 2022, air temperatures in some areas of the archipelago were up to 1.8°C (3.2°F) higher than average. Due to a significant warming trend that started on July 15, Svalbard achieved its highest-ever recorded melt volume on July 17.

A number of other factors also contributed to the record-breaking occasion. Sea ice in the archipelago started to melt earlier than usual, and by the end of spring 2022, open ocean could be seen. (On rare occasions, sea ice may last through the summer.) With no need to first cool off by blowing over sea ice, this allowed warm southerly winds to straight overfly land. Additionally, there wasn’t much snowfall during the winter of 2021–2022.

As the weather warmed, the thin covering of new snow quickly melted, revealing vast expanses of older, darker snow, firn, and bare ice. These darker surfaces absorb more solar radiation than bright, fresh snow does, which accelerates melting during the long, sunny days of the Arctic.

The firn layer used to trap a sizable percentage of the meltwater, where it would eventually refreeze. By keeping meltwater from entering the ocean, the method can aid in maintaining glacier ice. Between 1981 and 2010, 34% of the summer’s meltwater was retained by Svalbard’s snowpack. This summer, only 8% of the staff was retained.