Svalbard’s glaciers are shrinking

Around 60 percent of Svalbard's land area is covered by glaciers. The Norwegian Polar Institute has been measuring the mass balance of selected glaciers in Svalbard since 1967-1968. These data are among the longest continuous High Arctic time-series done on glaciers.

Kronebreen in Kongsfjorden calving

Kronebreen in Kongsfjorden calving. Photo: Geir Wing Gabrielsen / Norwegian Polar Institute

One important reason to measure mass balance is to calculate how much Svalbard’s melting glaciers contribute to sea level rise. The average global sea level rise is currently about 3 mm per year. About half of the increase is due to melting of the "smaller" glaciers, that is, all glaciers outside Greenland and Antarctica. However, the margin of error in these estimated is still fairly wide. It is therefore important to quantify how much various ice-covered regions on Earth contribute to sea level rise. Svalbard’s contribution is not insignificant, given that the archipelago constitutes about 10 percent of the ice-covered area in the Arctic (excluding Greenland).

Svalbard’s glaciers have retreated from their maximum positions in the 1920s. Some glaciers that used to calve in the sea now end far inland. Since 2001, the glaciers’ net mass balance has shown a general negative trend: they melt more in the summer than they "fatten up" on snow and ice in the winter, and the trend has accelerated, especially in western Svalbard.

The glaciers in Svalbard melt relatively quickly because of the archipelago's location in a comparatively warm part of the Arctic, and the increasingly rapid melting is explained by rising summer temperatures in the Arctic. This trend is entirely consistent both with glaciers elsewhere in the world and with developments in the Arctic as a whole.