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Extreme Weather Is Turning the Arctic Brown, Signaling Ecosystem’s Inability to Adapt to Climate Change
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average, triggering extreme weather events that threaten to transform the icy tundra into a desolate landscape of dead vegetation. But the consequences of this phenomenon, known as “Arctic browning,” are more than superficial: As Aristos Georgiou reports for Newsweek, a new study published in Global Change Biology suggests the worrying shift in color could significantly hinder the region’s ability to adapt to climate change.
“Extreme climatic events can significantly reduce the ability of Arctic ecosystems to take up carbon,” lead researcher Rachael Treharne, an Arctic ecologist at England’s University of Sheffield, writes in The Conversation. “[This has] implications for whether the Arctic will help combat climate change, or accelerate it.”
To gauge the effects of Arctic browning, Treharne and her colleagues visited the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway. There, they observed two extreme weather events. The first was a frost drought—a seemingly contradictory process that occurs when high winter temperatures melt an insulating layer of snow, leaving plants exposed to the Arctic’s harsh winds until they lose water and are unable to replace it with liquid from the impenetrable frozen soil. The second was extreme winter warming, which is a “False Spring” of sorts that tricks plants into prematurely shedding their cold tolerance.
According to Georgiou, frost drought led to the death (and browning) of dominant evergreen vegetation, while extreme winter warming sparked a severe stress response signaled by the emergence of dark red pigments in the plants’ shoots and leaves. Compared to healthy green heathland, vegetation affected by these two conditions absorbed significantly less carbon dioxide across the entire growing season, reducing their ability to combat climate change.
Treharne tells Georgiou that carbon intake amongst plants experiencing high stress levels dropped by 50 perfect. Intake amongst vegetation dominated by dead plants dropped by 48 percent.
“It is surprising that these reductions are so similar,” Treharne says, “suggesting that extreme events can have major impacts on ecosystem CO2 balance even where vegetation is not killed.”
Arctic browning operates in direct contradiction to a phenomenon known as “Arctic greening,” which Treharne defines as the tendency for plants to grow taller and more productive as summers warm.
Alexander Askew of Physics World further explains that many climate models tend to assume an arbitrary level of greening across the Arctic—a fact that leads to potentially erroneous predictions of Arctic ecosystems absorbing more carbon and slowing rather than speeding up climate change.
The scale of browning seen in recent years “suggests the reality may be more complex,” Treharne notes in a statement, “calling into question our understanding of the role the Arctic plays in global climate, and whether we should expect Arctic ecosystems to slow or accelerate future climate change.”
Ultimately, the team’s findings point toward the need to treat extreme Arctic weather events as bellwethers of global climate change. If dramatic measures are taken soon, Arctic warming could slow by as much as 7°C. Such steps, according to The Conversation, are “critical to minimizing the impacts of climate change both in Arctic ecosystems and worldwide.”
Norway’s coast is the landscape of legends. Fjords tower over bright blue waterways, colorful fishing villages hug rocky shores, Sami tribesmen herd reindeer to pasture and polar bears roam past Viking burial grounds. From Bergen in the south to the Arctic town of Kirkenes, a trip up the coast embodies the best of Norway: majestic and ever-changing scenery, with history present at every turn. Each season offers a new set of spectacular experiences: Hike past rushing waterfalls and over wildflower-dotted mountain passes in spring, cruise into famously beautiful Geirangerfjord in summer, watch migrating whales in the fall and in winter sit back for the nature’s best sky show – the Northern Lights.
For more than a century, Hurtigruten Cruises has introduced passengers to the magic of Norway's coast and is proud to be offering this experience to Smithsonian Journeys travelers beginning in 2018. Explore some of Norway’s most unique coastal destinations in the map above, and click through the slideshows below to discover why a trip up Norway’s coast is a must any time of year.
As April melts into May and June, waterfalls begin to flow more heavily, snow disappears from hiking paths, and flowers begin to carpet the mountains. The days get warmer and lighter, and Norwegians emerge from their winter quarters to explore the new scenery. Hunting for blossoms is a favorite pastime, especially in Kristiansund—home to more than 20,000 flowers—and the fruit orchards of Hardangerfjord. Spring is also prime birdwatching season. Take a boat safari to Gjesværstappan, the nesting grounds of more than one million puffins, or hike to Hjelmsøystauren, which boasts the highest number of bird species gathered on a mountain in all of Europe. Here, you’ll find kittiwakes, common guilllemots and razorbills among other birds. In March, head to Bodø to witness the world’s strongest tidal current, Saltstraumen.
Image by Pedal-Power-Photos/iStock. Fog rolls in to North Cape, Europe's northernmost point. (original image)
Image by Harvepino/iStock. In his 1894 novel Pan, Norwegian author Knut Hamsuns wrote of the midnight sun: "Night was coming on again; the sun just dipped into the sea and rose again, red, refreshed, as if it had been down to drink. I could feel more strangely on those nights than anyone would believe." (original image)
Image by Pedal-Power-Photos/iStock. Campers go to bed with the sun still in the sky. (original image)
The phrase “eternal summer” takes on new meaning when it comes to Norway’s coast. Days stretch long into the night, and above the Arctic Circle, the sun never sets. In northern towns like Tromsø, watch the sun linger on the horizon in a frozen sunset radiating brilliant shades of red and gold over the Barents Sea. Even as far south as Bergen, nights are often so bright that you can take pictures without a flash. The extended daylight makes virtually endless activities possible. Sail through the legendary Geirangerfjord past gushing waterfalls and abandoned farmsteads, hike to Svartisen glacier, climb the twin-peaked Svolværgeita mountain, or play golf in the middle of the night at Bodø Golf Park. To end the day, do as the locals do and head to an outdoor beer garden.
Beginning in October, the lush greens of summer transform into rich hues of red, yellow and orange. This spectrum of color, combined with cooler temperatures, make autumn the perfect time for hiking. Head to Hjørundfjord, one of Norway’s most pristine fjords, for spellbinding views. Thanks to its steep cliffs, the area has been hard to cultivate and nature left to its ways. Fall is also a great time to learn about the close relationship of the Norwegian people to the land. Visit a Sami camp to learn how the reindeer herders use Arctic flora to prevent pain and discomfort, or go on an Arctic bushcraft harvesting excursion to learn how coastal inhabitants have harvested, stored, hunted and fished for centuries. Out on the water, see whales make their annual migration to warmer waters, and at Honningsvåg, witness nearly 4,000 reindeer swim across the mile-plus wide Magerøy Strait.
Image by bogdanhoria/iStock. Witness the northern lights through the ceiling-high glass wall of Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral during a candle-lit midnight concert. (original image)
Image by FotoKnoff. Sun sets on the village of Reine. (original image)
In the winter, nights get longer, and towns in the extreme north can see days without a sunrise, known as “polar nights.” But these days of darkness aren't without a light show. Electromagnetic radiation causes shades of green, blue, yellow, red and orange to dance across the sky, beckoning photographers and thrill-seekers from around the world. For a true Norwegian experience, set out to hunt the lights in the wilderness of Kvaløya on a Sami reindeer sledge, dog sled or snowmobile. Far from artificial light, you will feel transported in time. At Tromsø’s Arctic Cathedral, witness nature's show through its ceiling-high glass wall during a candle-lit midnight concert. In Kirkenes, embrace the frigid weather to the fullest by spending a night in a hotel made almost entirely out of ice and snow. Fishing enthusiasts will enjoy the world cod fishing championship at Svolvaer, where the world’s largest catches of cod are made from January through April, and in February music lovers flock to Kristiansund’s annual Opera Festival, based out of Norway’s oldest opera house.
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The Norwegian coast is as storied as it is beautiful. As you travel from south to north, through fjords and past rocky cliffs pulsing with puffins, you can almost picture Vikings rowing their longships. From the Hanseatic wharf of Bryggen, where German merchants established trade dominance centuries ago, to the Art Nouveau architecture of Alesund, relics of the past are everywhere. As a backdrop to this rich history, the landscape astounds at every turn. Lush valleys transform into snow-covered mountains and vast plateaus over which the Northern Lights dance. Whether enjoying a traditional Viking meal or exploring Kvaløya Island pulled by a team of huskies, here are ten reasons to make the Norwegian coast your next travel destination.
1) See the colorful Bryggen wharf, a Unesco World Heritage Site(joaquinaristii/Foap/VisitNorway.com)
To walk through the multicolored wharf of Bryggen is to stroll through medieval Norway. Though its original wooden buildings were destroyed in fires, each rebuilding has followed old patterns and methods, so the town looks much like it once did. Walking through narrow rows of the two- to three-story buildings with gabled facades, it’s easy to picture how German merchants lived and worked during the 14th through 16th centuries. Learn about Bryggen’s Hanseatic League origins at the Bryggen Museum, then head to one of Norway’s largest outdoor fish markets and wander past the medieval Bergenhus fortress. To end your tour, ride the Fløibanen Funicular and enjoy sweeping views of the city and mountains beyond.
2) Soak up the breathtaking beauty of Nordfjord(Sverre Hjørnevik/VisitNorway.com)
Nordfjord passes by some of Norway’s most awe-inspiring and diverse landscapes, from spectacular mountains and valleys to rolling farmland and rocky, wild coastline. Spanning 66 miles, it connects Europe’s largest mainland glacier with Norway’s westernmost point and boasts countless sights in between. Between Florø and Måløy, pass the rock carvings at Vingen, where more than 2,000 deer are etched, as well as Hornelen Mountain where, according to legend, witches used to dance with the devil every Christmas and Midsummer’s Eve. Whether you want to ski, surf or hike to Norway’s deepest lake, adventure is never far away.
3) Embark on a silent whale safari in Kaldfjord(Asgeir Helgestad/Artic Light AS/VisitNorway.com)
Gliding across the glassy waters of Kaldfjord amid towering cliffs, you might feel as if you’re in a painting. The world seems frozen, until all of a sudden the surface of the water begins to move. A whale emerges from the deep, spouting water from its blowhole before diving back down with a thunderous splash. Seeing these giant mammals along Norway’s coast is a heart-pounding, surreal experience, and sailing through Kaldfjord on the vintage schooner Opal is one of the best ways to encounter them up close. With its unique electric propulsion system, the boat sails quietly through the channels. The only sounds you’ll hear are the lapping of waves against the boat, and that of orcas and humpbacks gliding by.
4) Marvel at the Art Nouveau architecture of Alesund(Samuel Taipale/VisitNorway.com)
Located at the entrance to the magnificent Geirangerfjord, the city of Alesund is straight out of a fairytale. After a fire destroyed its wooden buildings in 1904, they were rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style, which has persisted to this day. Walking through Old Town, turrets, spires and ornamental decorations greet you at every turn. Start your tour at the picturesque fishing port Brosundet, then stop by Apotekertorget Square to admire the iconic statues of a fisherman and his wife and continue down Main Street. Be sure to visit the Art Nouveau Center. Housed in an old pharmacy building, it displays everything from multimedia exhibits about the history of the art form to original interiors and décor. For a birds-eye view of Alesund’s architecture, climb 418 steps to the top of Aksla Mountain.
5) Step inside the largest Viking building ever found(CH/VisitNorway.com)
Journey back 1,000 years and experience how Vikings lived at the Lofotr Viking Museum. A full-size reconstruction of the largest Viking-era house ever found, the museum introduces visitors to Viking history in an interactive way. Inside the 292-foot longhouse, sealed with tar and lit by oil lamps, join a Viking chieftain and his lady for a traditional Viking meal. Your hosts will make offerings to the Norse gods and tell sagas of battle, full of dark humor. Wash down your meal down with mead, the drink of the Norse deities.
In the summer, try your hand at rowing a Viking longship guided by a høvedsmann, or Viking ship cation. On land, learn the art of archery and axe-throwing, or take part in the five-day Lofotr Viking Festival in August featuring Viking handicrafts, concerts and games.
6) Dog sled through Tromsø’s wilderness(Terje Rakke/Nordic Life/VisitNorway.com)
Traveling in a sled behind a team of eager huskies is one of the best ways to see the winter landscape of Kvaløya Island. Sit down and enjoy the ride, or try your hand at steering, as you race past deep blue oceanscapes, mountains and open plateaus blanketed in snow. During the polar night, when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, you may even catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights.
7) Puffin watch near Gjesværstappan(Asgeir Helgestad/Artic Light AS/VisitNorway.com)
The puffin is an important part of Norwegian culture, so much so that it has its own festival every year on the island of Røst. While there are many clifftop colonies of puffins across the coast, one of the best places to see them is on Gjesværstappan, a series of nesting cliffs in the form of an archipelago with almost one hundred islands. From April through September, more than one million puffins travel here to nest in the grassy hills, and boat safaris leave daily from the mainland. In addition to puffins, spot gannets, white-tailed eagles, eider ducks, great cormorants and Arctic skuas, among other birds.
8) Meet reindeer and experience traditional Sami culture in Lapland(CH /VisitNorway.com)
On the vast plains of Finnmark, live a day in the life of a Sami reindeer herder. From the traditional fishing village of Kjøllefjord, head to a Sami camp on the Nordkyn Peninsula. Your hosts will meet you in traditional dress and invite you inside their lavvo, or tent, where you’ll sit down by a roaring fire. Sip on hot broth while learning about Sami traditions such as joiking, a form of throat singing. Relaxed and warm, head outside to meet the reindeer and try your hand at lassoing a pair of the antlers.
For a truly immersive experience, spend the night. Before retiring to your bed of reindeer skins, head out into the wilderness on a traditional reindeer sledge, the oldest means of transportation in the north. In the winter, you may see the ethereal Northern Lights dance across the sky, and in the summer, the sun never dips below the horizon.
9) Stay in a hotel made of snow(Terje Rakke/Nordic Life/VisitNorway.com)
Two hundred and fifty miles north of the Arctic Circle near the Russian border lies the Kirkenes Snow Hotel. In the winter, 15 tons of ice from a nearby lake transform the hotel into a glistening blue-white wonderland. Grab a drink a Norway’s largest ice bar—a popular choice is a shot of crowberry juice known as “Rudolph’s Revenge”—before turning in for the night on a bed of ice surrounded by walls of snow sculptures. Though an ice hotel, there are plenty of ways to stay warm: Hit the sauna, or sit by the fire at the Gabba Restaurant and enjoy a traditional meal of sausage and potato pancakes.
10) Catch King Crab(Terje Rakke/Nordic Life/VisitNorway.com)
Weighing up to 22 pounds with leg spans reaching six feet, the king crab is a catch to write home about. From the Finnmark coast, you can head out with an experienced fisherman on a rigid-hulled inflatable boat and help pull up the monstrous crustaceans from the Barents Sea. Back on land, prepare and eat your catch in a traditional boathouse. The meat is sweet and tender, pairing well with white wine and a dash of lemon.