Contemporary recession of glaciers and its environmental implications in Sørkapp Land, Spitsbergen

W. Ziaja, K. Ostafin
Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Institute of Geography and Spatial Management, Poland


Spitsbergen glaciers' recession began at the beginning of the 20th century, due to the climate warming and has persisted until today. That was observed by both field investigations and analysis of maps and other materials. Sørkapp Land, the southern Spitsbergen peninsula which forms a land wedge between two seas, is a good study area. Topographic maps current for 1899-1900, made by Vasiliev and De Geer, are detailed enough for comparative studies with the Norwegian topographic maps at a 1:100000 scale current for 1936 and 1961-2002 as well as with air photos and satellite images. Sørkapp Land became much less glaciated region: the glaciated area decreased by 41,5%, from 1252 km2 in 1899-1900 to 744 km2 in 2004-2005. 47,5% of the deglaciated area (241 km2) was inundated by the sea. Hence, the land mass decreased by 15%, from 1627 km2 to 1386 km2. Glaciers covered 77% of its territory in 1899-1900 and only 54% in 2004-2005. Nowadays, they cover only about half of the peninsula. Upper extents of glaciers and areas along them are also transformed due to decrease in ice thickness. The most extensive type of glaciation is in change: from the net glaciation into the mountain glaciation. The glacial recession pace doubled since 1990-1991 (up to almost 9 km2 a year). A completely new landscape (landforms, water bodies, coastline, etc.) appears in the deglaciated areas. Life expansion (animal colonization, plant succession soil formation) is in progress there. Annual production of plant biomass and biodiversity are increasing in the land. The glacial isthmus (between the peninsula and the rest of the island) narrows progressively (200-250 m a year) and is only 7 km wide now. Hence, it is possible that Sørkapp Land will be transformed from the peninsula into an island if the isthmus' bedrock is below the sea level.