Through an oversized window streaked in raindrops, I make out tiny cottages with snowy grass rooftops as a crackly voice announces, “We’re stuck on ice.” It’s late May, practically June, and to the beeping of the tour bus in reverse I imagine what it’s like for nearly half of Norwegians living seasonally off the grid in these modest wooden holiday “hyttes,” tucked perfectly into the alpine mountainside, adapting to the region’s rugged beauty—and now the gripping effects of climate change.
This is Norway, the land not only of fjords, but of more waterfalls than I’ve ever seen at one time, trickling and rumbling down towering glacierized cliffs deep into slowly shifting valleys. On a detour during a recent Holland America Line (HAL) shore excursion, we ascend onto the largest naturally eroding plateau in Europe, which also happens to be Norway’s biggest national park. Hardangervidda, scientists realized only two years ago, formed as a result of a massive glacier collapsing during a rapid temperature rise in Earth’s final Ice Age. And it’ll happen again in the arctic, first in Greenland and eventually along Norway’s fjords, if greenhouse gasses aren’t reduced.
Today, Norway, which has already protected 17 percent of its country (Hardangervidda and 46 other national parks), aims to bump that number to 30 percent by 2030, along with more than 100 other countries. In an effort to halve its 1990s carbon emissions by then, the government announced a proposal last fall to establish 10 new national parks along the western edge of the country. That includes designating four brand new national parks and upgrading six existing conservation areas to national parks. (The proposal also includes the expansion of eight existing national parks.) If approved by each individual municipality, Norway will join a growing number of countries, including Scotland and Costa Rica, vowing to protect the land through the creation and expansion of national parks with the sole purpose of combating climate change.
The designations will help to minimize flooding by protecting the infrastructure from storms, improve water quality by preventing contaminated wastewater that comes from urbanization and roads, and cool the air under a canopy cover of protected land that will help reintroduce threatened plant and animal species. After all, scientists have shown that undervalued wilderness can cut extinction risk in half, and we’ve all seen the sometimes irreparable damage that can occur after recent historic wildfires and flooding in Yellowstone National Park and other wilderness areas.
The designations would also mean no new holiday homes and no more wind farms or water-power plants on these sites. It involves hearing concerns from private landowners about potential pandemic-era visitor overcrowding that is already a problem in Norway’s existing national parks, similar to the increases in popularity so many national parks have experienced across the globe, including in the U.S.
“We’re trying to improve the ecological system as a whole by increasing the percentage of the protected areas in the country, but there’s a sociocultural dimension that involves getting acceptance from the people living in these areas before we can start the process,” says Kjell Kvingedal, an environmental director with the Norway government.
Norway’s proposed new national parks
While the protection process will likely take years, some progress was made in the last few months. These are the proposed new Norway national parks, all located in the western region of the country.
Hornelen National Park
Situated in the tourist destination of Bremanger, this proposed national park would offer visitors a wealth of untouched white sandy beaches, glaciers, and the tallest sea cliff in northern Europe—Hornelen mountain.
Masfjordfjella National Park
Located just north of the “fjord capital” of Bergen, Masfjordfjella has already earned early approval from two municipalities, Masfjorden and Alver. The area is home to a fish farm and series of fjords, with the namesake fjord celebrated for its long rectangular shape.
Øystesefjella National Park
A national park proposal encompassing the municipalities of Kvam, Samnanger, and Vaksdal, Øystesefjella’s many mountain ranges would offer sweeping views of Norway’s second largest fjord, Hardangerfjord.
Located in Ørsta, these jagged peaks are some of Norway’s most famous, towering 5,000 feet over several fjords with beautiful hiking trails and natural pistes for epic skiing.
Conservation areas that will be upgraded to national parks
And the national park expansions, which Kvingedal expects will likely be less of a hurdle, include Rohkunborri; Blåfjella-Skjækerfjella; Skarvan-Roltdalen; Femundsmarka; Dovre; Jostedalsbreen; Jotunheimen; and Raet.
While the proposed national parks would certainly win the hearts of visitors chasing adventure, on my recent coastal exploration of Norway onboard HAL’s Rotterdam vessel, all I could think about was the importance of protecting this infinite beauty.
During my visit of Hardangervidda, as I looked up at the distant water of Eidfjord and down 597 feet at a majestic waterfall called Vøringsfossen and its ribbons that tie together to swallow the valley into a coral reef for rare species of fish, it wasn’t hard to see why Norway is continually ranked one of the happiest places on Earth. These beautiful landscapes will take your breath away.
But behind the idyllic views is a less glamorous reality. In Norway, some fish, and as a result the birds, are getting disease and dying out from decreased oxygen levels. The water in these famously narrow, brilliantly blue inlets is becoming stagnant and warming at an unprecedented rate. Where there once was snow, ice covers the mountains, harming and killing plants and the reindeer (some of the largest herds in the world live here) that eat them, according to the United Nations and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, located in the fjords capital of Bergen.
To the north of the country scientists are on avalanche watch, monitoring massive boulders from the glacial retreat and permafrost melt threatening to create a tsunami that would wipe out an entire fjord village. If temperatures continue to rise at the current rate, the Arctic Ocean will be ice free by 2100, at which point northerly latitudes like Norway will experience massive flooding, according to a recent United Nations report. The report explains why Norway is setting such a high global bar for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as one of the first to ratify the 2016 Paris Agreement with big plans to cut back on fossil fuels despite being a major oil producer and exporter. And it’s why Norway continues to rigorously conduct research tracking the increase of carbon in the fjords.
Norwegians have long protected their land for obvious reasons. It’s home to more fjords than anywhere in the world, two of which are recognized by UNESCO, endlessly flowing waterfalls, gigantic glaciers of all shapes and sizes, and 50,0000 islands dotting the coastline. But now knowing the consequences leaves the country with no choice and little time. I saw the urgency through a mix of rain and ice that day on the alpine mountainside, and I knew it standing there feeling small in the face of the fjord.