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Once one of Norway’s most accessible glaciers, the Nigardsbreen has receded to reveal a difficult trek across hard slabs of rock. Instead of 50 tourists at a time, guides now take as few as six people, even though business couldn’t be better.
Steinar Bruheim, a guide who’s led tours across glaciers for over 30 years, knows why tourists flock to Norway’s rural, western countryside in the summer.
“They want to see it before it disappears,” Bruheim said.
The Nigarsbreen, like over 90% of the world’s glaciers, is melting. And while the planet is experiencing record temperatures, global travel and tourism, which researchers believe represent at least 8% of carbon emissions, couldn’t be healthier. In 2017, there were 1.32 billion tourist arrivals internationally, with Norway earning almost $19 billion from tourism representing 4.2% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to Innovation Norway, a government entity focusing on business growth.
Norway, like most countries in Western Europe, is experiencing record numbers of tourists, especially during the peak summer months—more than half of all overnight stays traditionally happen from May to August. And most of those tourists, according to Innovation Norway, come to see the fjords and the famous Northern Lights in northern Norway.
That influx of tourists is putting a strain on its natural wonders, especially glaciers.
“They are part of the problem”
In the late 1980s and ’90s, Bruheim’s business mostly came from German and Dutch tourists. But with help from a falling krone, Norway’s currency, and a rise in overall international travel, Norway’s tourism industry has exploded.
The U.S. is Norway’s third most popular market, behind Germany and Sweden. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of U.S. travelers staying in Norway’s hotel rooms, cabins and campsites grew 168%, with 815,656 overnight stays in 2018. (In Norway, hotels must disclose the number of beds sold each night as well as their guests’ country of residence.)
This past June, right before the peak of Norway’s travel season in July, U.S. tourists accounted for 151,889 bed nights, up 24% from the previous year.
While guides including Bruheim have profited from the increase—especially among American, Chinese and Indian tourists—it comes with a price for the environment. A direct flight from New York City to Oslo, Norway produces about 0.87 metric tons of CO2, according to an emission calculator from Carbon Footprint, a U.K.-based green energy consultancy. A direct flight from Beijing to Oslo produces 1.89 metric tons.
“The longer they travel, the faster the glacier melts,” Bruheim said. “They are part of the problem.”
“We don’t get enough [snow] to sustain the glacier”
Carbon emissions, which are released when fossil fuels are burned, trap heat within the atmosphere and are the cause of man-made global warming, according to 97% of climate scientists. In 2013, a NASA-led team of scientists put the start of the current massive glacial retreat at the mid-1800s, specifically linked to the burning of coal at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Pål Gran Kielland, a geographer and educator at the Norwegian Glacier Museum, equates the lifecycle of a glacier to a business. Snow is like profit, he said: As long as snowfall continues to outpace the rate at which a glacier is melting, the glacier will continue to “stay in business.”