The Arctic archipelago of Svalbard — home to 3,000 humans, a few hundred polar bears, and a couple of "Doomsday vaults" — has experienced its highest ever temperature over the weekend.
The 41-year-old record was smashed on Sunday, July 26 after temperatures in the town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard reached 21.7°C (71.06°F) in the afternoon, according to the Norwegian Meteorological Institute. It beats the previous record, set on July 16, 1979, by 0.4°C.
Found on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, Longyearbyen is the northernmost permanently inhabited town with over 1,000 people in the world. In mid-November, the area is plunged into pitch darkness and doesn't see sunlight again until late-January. While this Arctic settlement is no stranger to profound seasonal changes, the new record is still fairly remarkable; average summer highs are typically just 3 to 7°C (37 to 45°F) while average winter "highs" are -11 to -13°C (12 to 9°F).
The Arctic is one of the hardest-hit corners of Earth when it comes to climate change. Recent decades have seen a considerable rise in air and water temperatures, along with sea ice loss and permafrost thawing. If current trends continue, some models say it looks likely we’ll see ice-free summers in the Arctic before 2050. Arctic warming is especially worrying as it creates a nasty feedback loop: As increasingly more ice melts, less sunlight is reflected and more heat is absorbed by the darker ocean surface and land. This creates a vicious cycle whereby the temperature increases, resulting in further sea ice loss, and so on.
The wider ecosystem in Svalbard is already feeling the burn. Back in 2019, ecologists noted at least 200 reindeer had starved to death, the most severe drop in the reindeer numbers since scientists started recording the population in 1978. The hundreds of deaths were closely linked to milder winters causing dramatically heavier rainfall. In turn, more rainwater settles on the tundra causing the ground to become icy and difficult for the reindeer to feed on vegetation.
Svalbard is also of interest as it’s home to the Global Seed Vault and the Arctic World Archive, two “apocalypse proof” vaults that are used to safeguard important relics of human civilization, from plant seeds to artworks, in the event of a natural or human-made disaster. Unfortunately, the Global Seed Vault has already been threatened with mild flooding after freakishly warm temperatures and heavy rains led to increased meltwater in the area.
But Longyearbyen isn’t the only part of the Arctic Circle wracking up record temperatures. On June 20, the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk reached 38°C (100.4°F), potentially the highest temperature on record in the Arctic.