Geological attraction

19.12.2016
The geology of Svalbard and the sense it gives of unspoilt nature make this Arctic archipelago a unique place for Jan Stenløkk. He seldom heads home until his luggage is overloaded with fossils and rock samples

| Bjørn Rasen and Arne Bjørøen (photos)

NPD profile. Palaeontologist and Svalbard expert Jan Stenløkk is attracted by the sense of unspoilt nature he gets in these islands and the unique opportunities they offer to study geology.

NPD profile.
Palaeontologist and Svalbard expert Jan Stenløkk is attracted by the sense of unspoilt nature he gets in these islands and the unique opportunities they offer to study geology.

 

His suitcase is not the only thing which weighs on this NPD palaeontologist and Svalbard veteran every time he flies south. He longs to return and explore more.

These islands are certainly part of Norway – but different, Stenløkk emphasises. Its landscapes are unlike those on the mainland, and its rock formations can be found only here.

These belong to the same lithological units found beneath the Barents Sea to the south, but are exposed in Svalbard to the light of day.

“This is an exceptional place to teach geology,” Stenløkk says. “We can study Barents Sea geology on a large scale and understand its petroleum systems. That’s very useful when hunting for oil and gas.”

He maintains that “everyone” has heard of Svalbard as a mystical place far to the north. And few places this close to the Pole are so easy to access.

Scheduled flights depart daily. In addition, a growing number of cruise ships call in the Is Fjord and at the main settlement of Longyearbyen.

Thousands of adventurous tourists want to enjoy a taste of its distinctive nature, and dream of seeing a live Polar bear or two.

Stenløkk himself has caught a whiff of these beasts – although it was probably the other way round – several times on his trips, most recently twice this August. Two turned up at places just after he had left.

“You don’t mess with a Polar bear,” he emphasises. “They’re fearless predators. So the rules require us to carry signal guns and rifles as soon as we’re outside Longyearbyen.”

Chair of the Norwegian association for amateur geologists, Stenløkk knows the islands well and takes groups of members and others on expeditions.

“Little infrastructure has been developed here,” he notes. “Mobile phone coverage is poor and weather conditions change quickly. You’ve got to be careful and think about getting home.”

Spraining an ankle or – even worse – breaking a bone out in the field can quickly become a big challenge.

 

Collector. Jan Stenløkk meets the young fossil-sellers Paula (left) and Emil. A deal is struck.

Collector.
Jan Stenløkk meets the young fossil-sellers Paula (left) and Emil. A deal is struck.

Desire

Despite all the dangers, Stenløkk has a burning desire to get even further into the landscape or up the fjords. Svalbard is a geological Eldorado which is far from fully explored.

“No trees grow here, but we can spilt a stone and find the fossil imprint of a fine leaf,” he says. “One nobody has seen for millions of years – since Svalbard’s climate was roughly the same as in central Europe today.”

He also recalls the fantastic discoveries of ancient reptiles made by professor Jørn Hurum and his team in Svalbard, including a large number of complete skeletons in Triassic and Jurassic rocks.

Unearthed not far from Longyearbyen, these remains make the islands one of the world’s richest areas for discoveries of marine reptiles.

The NPD has also found a complete skeleton on Edge Island, which the geological museum in Oslo helped to recover. It has been named Oda, after the NPD’s initials in Norwegian and the museum’s better-known primate fossil called Ida.

Movement is restricted on Svalbard, and private visitors find it almost impossible to get beyond the Longyearbyen or Is Fjord areas. Expeditions are also expensive and demand much logistics.

 

Fieldwork

But geologists – including NPD personnel – occasionally conduct fieldwork in Svalbard. A chartered ship usually functions as their base, and they head ashore in light boats to study selected areas.

The aim is either to understand Barents Sea geology (see the main picture) or to go into more detail in order to grasp the depositional history which helps to clarify its petroleum systems.

Licensing rounds with new exploration acreage in these waters could enhance interest in Svalbard fieldwork. Such activities are likely to expand when times improve for the oil industry.

“We’re not in Svalbard to explore for oil,” Stenløkk stresses. “But this is where the seabed and 200-300 metres of the sub-surface emerge and offer excellent conditions for study.”

He first collected fossils in the islands on a private visit in the early 1990s, but has since clocked up 20 trips – a number of them for the NPD.

The original visit remains fixed in his memory. “I went at my own expense to the Fort at the head of the Is Fjord, which is now a conservation area.

“Going ashore in this well-known geological locality to collect fossils was like standing by the Egyptian pyramids. Up here you feel as if you’re the first-ever visitor – there’s no well-trodden paths.”

 

International

Svalbard is home to an international community, and both Stenløkk and the NPD have carried out joint fieldwork with the Russians on several occasions.

Although their aim has always been to understand Barents Sea geology, climate and environmental questions are attracting ever-growing attention in the islands today.

The NPD is involved in work and studies related to these issues, including a project for depositing CO2 in sub-surface formations known as the carbon laboratory.

In addition to contributing to management plans, the directorate has collaborated with the University Centre of Svalbard to support PhD students.

“We feel scientists can get a good view of climate change up here,” says Stenløkk. “That includes changes in vegetation, water temperature, marine species, bird migration patterns and much more.”

 

Pressure

The seas around Svalbard have been more or less free of ice in recent years. Stenløkk believes that this could boost pressure for more activity in the islands. Fishing is one possibility, and tourism perhaps the biggest.

He has noted that a discussion is under way on how many visitors Svalbard can cope with. After all, they leave an environmental footprint. Growing numbers also want to do more than trudge along the main street in Longyearbyen.

But he is not particularly concerned: “The lack of infrastructure and the restrictions everyone must observe limit opportunities and mean that Svalbard preserves itself.”

Stenløkk has no concerns about pursuing geological work in Svalbard, despite today’s heated discussions on the climate.

“Petroleum operations in the Arctic are under debate. That’s a political matter and not something the NPD has a view on. Our job is to acquire data as the basis for political decisions.”

Since Svalbard is Norwegian territory, he believes it is important that national interests pursue more work and research there in a number of disciplines.

Such activities should not be left solely to the scientists from other nations who are queuing up to conduct studies in the islands.

He still feels strongly attracted to Svalbard – even after 20 trips – because so many highly interesting fossils and rocks remain to be collected.

 

Shipmates. Jan Stenløkk accompanied Arctic researcher Yngve Kristoffersen on an expedition by hovercraft over the Polar ice cap a few years ago. They met again by chance in Svalbard this August.

Shipmates.
Jan Stenløkk accompanied Arctic researcher Yngve Kristoffersen on an expedition by hovercraft over the Polar ice cap a few years ago. They met again by chance in Svalbard this August.