‘No concrete global warming proof in polar region’

Are the ices of the Arctic north about to melt away for good? Rami Abdelrahman gets the views of a range of Swedish researchers.

'No concrete global warming proof in polar region'

Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria is one of a number of Scandinavian royals making for the Arctic archipelago on the Swedish ice-breaker Oden this weekend to participate in an event to coincide with and promote International Polar Year.

But will there even be a need for such ice-breaking vessels in years to come? Many commentators would have us believe that glaciers and ocean ice are about to go the way of the dodo.

Upon their arrival at Svalbard in Norway, however, the royals are likely to be informed by Swedish polar researchers that there is in fact very little concrete proof tying global warming to climate changes in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. Some indeed argue that there is more change in today’s political rhetoric than there is in the environment.

Last year Sweden invested more than 33 million kronor ($5 million) on research in the Arctic region, which covers almost one quarter of the nation’s landmass. Most of the Swedish funding, according to many researchers, goes mainly toward surveying the effects of climate change on glaciers and wildlife.

Professor Göran Ericsson from Umeå University will head a research delegation this summer to the Arctic north. His particular task is to study patterns of moose migration as they relate to climate change. Ericsson can literally “ring up a moose.”

“We have attached GPS trackers on more than 40 moose. Once you dial the code to the GPS tracker, you can find the exact location of the animal,” he says.

“Humans sweat when they get warm, but moose cannot do that. If the weather gets warmer they move towards colder places, often risking food shortages,” he tells The Local.

Ericsson says moose have always moved about in the sub-Arctic regions of the Swedish north. But what researchers are testing now is whether the animals are moving further north due to climate change. “Sometimes this proves right, and sometimes it proves wrong.”

Tomas Berg works with the Fjällräv (mountain fox) project, a venture aiming to preserve wildlife in the region. He too says it is difficult to ascertain what is really happening when it comes to climate change.

“We know that there is change, but we do not know in which direction. For example, the weather in the mountains might be warmer now, but in the long run it could get colder,” he says.

Cecilia Johansson from Uppsala University is equally unwilling to link milder weather in the Arctic with more general climate fluctuations. A lecturer in meteorology, Johansson flies to the Arctic region twice a year to study the effects of climate change on snow patterns.

“When it comes to weather and climate there are so many interrelated factors, triggering a chain of effects. For example, we had a warm winter in Sweden, but it was quite cold in the Mediterranean region. So we have to look at global warming from a global perspective.”

Every researcher seems to display a similar reticence when it comes to drawing far-reaching conclusions. Andrew Mercer studies the changes in glacier forms in the Arctic region at Stockholm University.

“It is quite a big picture — we are talking about the whole planet. We have to compare many studies and often data is not available elsewhere in the same way it is here in Sweden,” he says, before adding that churches in Sweden have meteorological records dating back a few hundred years. Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, was one of the first Swedish scientists to study the effects of climate on wildlife.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, Swedish glaciers grew in size, which should indicate that we have had colder weather. But in fact there were other factors that contributed to their growth,” Mercer says.

However, climate has changed politics, especially in Sweden, as political parties include adaptation to climate change in their rhetoric and election campaigns. Mercer offers his view on the curious relationships between science and politics.

“What happened was that scientists sent out the results of their studies to politicians and the general public. Initially only the general public showed an interest. Politicians didn’t care. But once interest grew among the general public, the subject gradually made its way to the top of the politicians’ list of priorities,” he says.

The industrial sector also avoided the thorny issue of climate change for quite some time, thinking adaptation to a greener future a costly endeavour.

“However, scientists were able to prove that industry was damaging the climate. Scientists presented industries with possible scenarios and ways to adapt their products and mitigate climate change. With the growing interest in the general public, they began to see a new market with new opportunities.”

Mercer adds that industrialists are often on the same side as scientists, at least in Sweden.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch, though,” he says, explaining that it is cheaper for industries to avoid investing in new and green technologies, which are still in the development stage and remain expensive.

The discovery of oil has also added a new dimension to the geo-politics of the region. Investment has come pouring in from Europe, the US, Canada and Japan, as well as from Arab Gulf States, Latin America and China. According to National Geographic, 25 percent of all untapped global oil resources are to be found in the region.

But if oil reserves prove as plentiful as predicted, will there even be a need to drill through thick layers of ice in the future? The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, ACIA, anticipates the disappearance of all ocean ice in the period from 2060-2100 should global warming continue at the current rate. However, Swedish scientists are not convinced that today’s meteorological trends will stand the test of time.

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The unusual way Sweden once solved its housing crisis and boosted living conditions

In the first half of the 20th century, Sweden implemented an unconventional campaign to transform it from a country with the lowest standards of housing in Europe to one of the highest in the world.

The unusual way Sweden once solved its housing crisis and boosted living conditions
A working-class family in Stockholm in the 1940s. Photo: SvD/TT

“The good home knows no privilege or neglect, no favourites and no stepchildren,” proclaimed Swedish Social Democrat Per Albin Hansson in 1928. “In the good home, equality, caring, cooperation and helpfulness prevail.”

This was the dream of Folkhemmet (The People's Home) – comprised of the “great home” of the Swedish nation and the “small home” of each citizen – which would, in Hansson's words, “signify the breaking down of all social and economic barriers which now divide citizens into privileged and disadvantaged, rulers and dependents, rich and poor, propertied and impoverished, exploiters and exploited.”

For the majority of working-class Swedes who had flocked to urban areas starting in the 1920s and were living in crowded, squalid and often dangerous conditions, this ideal “good home” was indeed a dream.

“During the first decades of the 20th century, Sweden had one of the lowest standards of housing in Europe. In cities and towns, around a third of the inhabitants lived five or more persons in small one- or two-room apartments,” explained Maria Göransdotter of Umeå University in her 2012 article, A Home for Modern Life: Educating taste in 1940s Sweden.

“Despite a surge in housing construction and an increase in real wages for workers over the course of the 1920s, affordable, hygienic and spatially adequate housing was beyond the means of the vast majority,” architect Lucy Creagh wrote in her 2011 article, From acceptera to Vällingby: The Discourse on Individuality and Community in Sweden (1931-54). “The fact that almost 70 percent of all dwellings lacked proper bathing facilities and 60 percent had no central heating only exacerbated a housing problem reported at the time to be the worst in Europe.”

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Resolving the housing crisis and improving living conditions were therefore central to the creation of the People's Home. But rather than address the issue through the single solution of mass urban housing development, Sweden took a more nuanced approach that put at least some of the responsibility for improving living conditions on Swedish citizens themselves.

Beginning in the 1930s and particularly following the end of World War Two in 1945, Sweden's strategy for realizing Folkhemmet included a highly organized national campaign of “home reform” and “taste education” designed to bring the country into a collective and uniform modernity one home at a time.

“The centrality of the housing question in the socio-political agenda was a strongly contributing factor for establishing the home as one of the most important arenas for, and concepts in, social and material reform in the mid-20th century,” according to Göransdotter. “Specifically, the reform efforts concerned the domestic interior, and aimed at promoting a new and modern way of using and decorating the home through advice literature, educational efforts and legislation.”

Through this programme of social education, it was instilled in average Swedes that modern citizenship began in the home, and an outdated, poorly organized, and “ugly” home that did not exhibit a certain level of uniformity reflected similar attributes in the individual. It was made clear that in each home, “There should also exist a correspondence between the degree of modernity, the awareness of social and political issues, and the level of taste,” Göransdotter explains.

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These principles of Swedish Modernism – also called functionalism – were rooted in the philosophy of Swedish intellectual and writer Ellen Key (1849-1926) who, Creagh writes, “proposed that beauty in the home was as essential to the democratic cause as employment, better working conditions and educational reforms, for beauty was the innate and common longing of all people, a necessity that transcended the logic of class and wealth.” 

The campaign to indoctrinate Swedes with these principles, which would help them achieve “ideal” homes and, by extension, become “ideal” citizens, was defined by specific standards and clear visual models. One way these were perpetuated was via exhibitions designed “to spread good taste and make propaganda for a better way of living and furnishing the home,” according to Göransdotter.

The NK-Bo exhibition in 1947. Photo: SvD/TT

After World War Two, specialty departments like NK-Bo in the Nordiska Kompaniet (NK) department store in Stockholm also spread the Swedish vision for the ideal home to citizens through model interiors not unlike what we find in Ikea today.

Though the contrast between the images of how an actual working-class family lived in Swedish cities in the 1940s and how such families were being educated to live seem to represent an unbridgeable chasm, history has demonstrated just how effective these tactics were.

“This period saw the development and implementation of the Folkhem model for housing provision, a model recognised as one of the most effective in the world,” explain scholars Karin Grundström and Irene Molina in their 2016 article, From Folkhem to lifestyle housing in Sweden. “The Folkhem programme eliminated a national housing shortage and by the early 1970s had achieved decent housing conditions for the entire population of Sweden as well as a high housing standard.”

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.