Magnet in the north

19.12.2016
Climate scientists and tourists flock to Svalbard, where main settlement Longyearbyen resembles an international melting pot with more than 40 nations represented. But these islands also provide a unique window on geological history and the sub-surface beneath far northern waters.  

| Bjørn Rasen and Arne Bjørøen (photos)

78°N. Longyearbyen offers a unique starting point for research on geology and the climate. It is home to 2 200 people from 44 nations.

78°N.
Longyearbyen offers a unique starting point for research on geology and the climate.
It is home to 2 200 people from 44 nations.

 

“With this White Paper, the government wants to make provision for existing activities and varied new ones. Longyearbyen will remain a viable community which is attractive for families.” (White Paper 32, 2015- 2016)

 

The snowmobiles are the first thing to catch your eye on arrival in Longyearbyen. They stand everywhere, in big parking spaces, in the passages between the countless warehouses and temporary buildings, along the roadside or outside each home.

These vehicles look as if they have just been tossed aside where they were when the snow vanished in the spring. Virtually every resident has not just one, but several of them.

This August day is free of snow in the lowlands and the temperature is 8°C – almost a balmy summer’s day for an Arctic settlement of roughly 2 200 people – including 1 200 Norwegians.

 

Veteran. Driven by an unquenched thirst for knowledge and motivated students, Arctic geology professor Snorre Olaussen spends weeks out in the field in Svalbard.

Veteran.
Driven by an unquenched thirst for knowledge and motivated students, Arctic geology professor Snorre Olaussen spends weeks out in the field in Svalbard.

 

Dump

“Longyearbyen looks like a dump,” exclaims Snorre Olaussen, a professor in Arctic geology, who asks what sort of impression it gives the thousands of tourists who arrive on cruise ships.

“We certainly have some fine buildings, but most of the place is a shambles – a kind of hillbilly culture where people show no sense of ownership.”

Suggesting that this could be because people who move to Longyearbyen only remain for four years on average, he wants the government to take the initiative on clearing the place up.

In his view, visitors deserve to get a cleaner impression of the unique natural environment in these far northern islands.

Olaussen has spent a long time there, and enjoys his daily walk to work at the University Centre in Svalbard (Unis) a few hundred metres from his home.

Almost all his neighbours drive to work and virtually everywhere else – by car in the “summer” and by snowmobile during the long winters. Each trip is only a few hundred metres.

Unis occupies one of the little town’s more impressive buildings. Founded in 1993, it concentrates on high-quality research in Arctic biology, geology, geophysics and technology.

Its location at 78°N gives the centre a unique advantage, because students and staff can use the natural environment as a laboratory – perfect for observation and data acquisition.

 

Northern learning. The University Centre in Svalbard is a cornerstone in Longyearbyen.

Northern learning.
The University Centre in Svalbard is a cornerstone in Longyearbyen.

 

Collaborates

With 690 students from 44 nations in 2015, Unis collaborates with a number of international research institutions through a number of projects. Half its staff and students are non-Norwegians.

“They mostly study the climate,” explains Olaussen.

He argues that too much of it is confined to Svalbard with insufficient attempts to increase understanding of the wider Arctic Ocean.

In his view, lack of funding to conduct expeditions in these waters means that Norway’s position as a far northern nation is being undermined.

Increased activity in this part of the world makes studies of Arctic technology, geophysics and geology more important than ever, Olaussen maintains.

“Svalbard’s like a textbook on geological history, where we can study rocks from the Precambrian 3.7 billion years ago right through to more recent Jurassic and Cretaceous formations.”

Generally speaking, the Unis leadership is slightly concerned because its financial support is conditional on half the students being Norwegian.

Olaussen notes that many students from Norway fail to find Svalbard as exotic as their foreign counterparts do, and choose places like Hawaii instead.

“We benefitted from good times a few years back, and financed long-term projects. A number of these will be expiring soon, and the outlook after that is a little more uncertain.

“Five years ago, competition over getting a place here was really tough, and the best students are graduating now. New undergraduates are more uncertain today.”

He explains that Unis has close ties to the University of Bergen, the University of Copenhagen and certain others in Europe – but not to the University of Oslo.

The centre has pursued a number of collaboration projects with the NPD, which cover field work as well as supporting MSc students.

“Statoil, Lundin, ConocoPhillps and AkerBP [previously Det Norske] are among the companies which show an interest, support logistics and contribute technical assistance,” Olaussen adds.

The most relevant project currently under way is a three-four year study of carbonate rocks, which have gained relevance following the Alta and Gohta discoveries in the Barents Sea.

Unis has received top-quality data from Lundin and AkerBP to support its research work, and Olaussen is full of praise for the trust the companies have shown.

A similar good collaboration has been developed with Russian institutes and universities, providing access to information Unis has not had before.

Olaussen accordingly sees a number of exploration opportunities to the east, which paint a more optimistic picture than the data published by the NPD in its resource report.

Coal is another key asset for Svalbard. Everyone arriving in Longyearbyen sees the transport lines and mine adits on the mountain slopes.

Most of these are merely monuments to an industry which once symbolised the islands, and nearly all the mines have shut down. Number seven is the only one left.

Olaussen notes that its output is needed to fuel the power station in Longyearbyen. “A majority here will soon be opposed to burning coal, but it used to be crucial for this community.”

He lists four cornerstones for human activity in Svalbard – nature management, industry, research and tourism. “And when one leg disappears, the table gets more unstable.”

At the age of 70, he remains an enthusiast for research and field work, and reckons he has devoted six weeks to the latter during 2016.

“Young students out in the field, who wake up and understand – and often teach me something as well – are what gives me the drive to carry on.”

 

Rich history. Curator Sander Solnes can offer plenty of petroleum history. Exploration for oil in Svalbard began before the drilling rigs ventured onto the NCS.

Rich history.
Curator Sander Solnes can offer plenty of petroleum history. Exploration for oil in Svalbard began before the drilling rigs ventured onto the NCS.

 

Pioneers. Quite a few prospectors sought “black gold” in Svalbard during the early 20th century. The Longyearbyen museum has a collection of the signs used to stake claims.

Pioneers.
Quite a few prospectors sought “black gold” in Svalbard during the early 20th century. The Longyearbyen museum has a collection of the signs used to stake claims.

 

Fortune hunters

The Svalbard Museum shares the same building as Unis, but with its own entrance. Described as a cross-disciplinary institution, its exhibits are dominated by animal life and hunting.

However, curator Sander Solnes also knows a great deal about geology and petroleum. Objects covering those subjects are packed away in store.

“Svalbard’s like a history book,” he agrees. “It was under water 150 million years ago and had a warm climate. As the land rose, new sediments were deposited with associated fossils.”

That formed the basis for the coal reserves still found in large quantities. In the early 20th century, a string of fortune hunters also came looking for minerals and oil.

Solnes retrieves claim signs dating to that period from the collection – including one appropriately heralding Arctic Oil.

“Norway understood at an early stage that it was important to safeguard Svalbard,” he says. “Such signs were removed – an action which led to the Svalbard treaty.”

That document was signed on 9 February 1920. The government saw a need to secure sole rights to land and mineral deposits in the face of mining projects and other attempts at development.

The treaty recognises Norway’s sovereignty over the islands, but requires the country to give a number of other nations equal rights with Norwegians in certain areas.

These include the right to access and live in Svalbard, fish and hunt, and pursue all types of maritime, industrial and trading activities. Norway is responsible for environmental protection.

Oil opportunities have also been explored in more recent times. Belgium’s Fina drilled on Edgeøya in the 1970s, and Norwegian interests had a rig working in Berzeliusdalen outside Longyearbyen in the 1960s and 1970s.

But only coal mining has been commercial in the islands, even though Solnes says that operator Store Norske made no money for its first 55 years of operation.

A further NOK 1.5 billion was invested in the Svea mine south of Longyearbyen two years ago. But declining prices in the coal industry forced a temporary closure.

That is a problem, Solnes admits: “A mine left idle for three years will need fresh investment.” And it is not certain operations will ever resume.

Roughly two-thirds of the coal produced in Svalbard has been exported, with the remainder used locally for electricity generation.

 

“The seas around Svalbard have not been opened for petroleum operations. Exploration wells have been drilled on land in Svalbard earlier without making commercial discoveries. Since the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act came into force in 2002, no permits for exploration drilling on land have been issued either.” (White Paper 32, 2015-2016).

 

Mineral-rich. “Commissioner of mines” Per J Brugmans wants to create valuable commercial activity by exploiting Svalbard’s rich mineral resources.

Mineral-rich.
“Commissioner of mines” Per J Brugmans wants to create valuable commercial activity by exploiting Svalbard’s rich mineral resources.

 

Resources

“It’s reasonable to ask what we’re going to do with Svalbard if we aren’t going to exploit the natural resources up here,” says Peter J Brugmans.

He bears the imposing title of department director for the commissioner of mines at Svalbard in the Directorate of Mining in Trondheim, and spends almost 200 days a year in the islands.

His office in Longyearbyen is on the first floor of a building which stands on the main street at the point where the shops cluster.

He wants to see more geological research because there is so much unique material to study, and points to the tonnes of bones from ancient reptiles found by palaeontologist Jørn Hurum.

“What he’s doing is interesting,” emphasises Brugmans. “This work and other scientific discoveries show that Svalbard’s geology has not been sufficiently studied.”

More detailed geological mapping is needed, he thinks, because the islands might contain interesting minerals which could benefit companies involved in such areas as electronic components.

His office contains glass cases with a broad array of Svalbard minerals, including copper and gold. Volcanic rocks 300-400 million years old along the west coast hold ores of interest to industry.

Brugmans has written a book about the hunt for oil in the islands as a forgotten slice of Norwegian history. Interest in drilling there during the 1960s predated North Sea exploration.

Companies involved included Caltex and Shell, but they eventually gave up. “They drilled 17 wells on pure speculation,” says Brugmans. “That was before seismic surveying in the 1970s and a gas discovery in Sør-Spitsbergen.”

Incidentally, Unis also found gas a few years ago while drilling in connection with a project to map possible sites for carbondioxide deposition.

The mining commissioner’s role includes handling applications for claims which confer the right to exploit minerals and rocks found within its confines.

But he is not under much presure from new enterprises. The areas which might be interesting for mining coal or minerals are now largely covered by conservation orders.

Brugmans finds it difficult to say anything about the future for industry in the islands. “Most of the issues relating to Svalbard are political. And it’s the presence or absence of political will which decides whether we’ll hunt for minerals.”

He adds that “tourism and research, particularly on the climate, get the attention. It’s a paradox that nobody studies the impact of tourists. We see daily snowmobile caravans from February to the end of April.”

Even without the snow, the tourists arrive. Two cruise ships moor and 6 500 visitors are put ashore. Longyearbyen’s few streets are soon filled with excited people from many nations.

The peace is disrupted by clicking cameras and buzzing voices. A few hours later, laden with obligatory souvenirs, the visitors return to the harbour and set off for their next destination.

 

Carrying less. Cable car for coal transport. Many of them are no longer in operation.

Carrying less.
Cable car for coal transport. Many of them are no longer in operation.

 

Conscious

“The tourist industry is conscious of the need to avoid leaving traces,” says Stig Henningsen, who runs Henningsen Transport & Guiding.

“Organisers try to avoid having too many people in the same place at the same time. And visitors who come here to experience Svalbard have done their homework and know the rules.

“But the cruise passengers who drop by don’t particularly care whether they’re calling in Greenland, Iceland or Svalbard.”

He has followed developments in Svalbard for over 50 years, and is more than averagely interested in social changes there. And he wants a more diversified local economy.

“Professors and students aren’t enough. We must have a rounded society.”

Henningsen thinks the hotels are feeling the effects of reduced coal mining, with many commuters gone. Service industries are also affected because their staff are often married to miners.

And times are set to get tougher for plumbers, electricians, schools and nursery schools. He is happy that his wife works for the government, so that the family’s finances are secure.

He arrived in Svalbard as a child in 1964 and worked for Store Norske in the mines before setting up his own business in 1997 with a tourist boat, expanding later to snowmobiles.

His fleet of the latter has been reduced from 50 to 30 units because the time they take does not pay off. He now operates two boats with a total crew of 13 as well as guides, office staff and a mechanic. Annual turnover is NOK 18 million.

“I’ve invested so much that the bank probably wants to keep me here,” Henningsen muses. “Svalbard’s impressive landscapes make it unique. It’s my childhood home, and I haven’t found a better place to be. I could have been unlucky and lived in Oslo.”

The heavy international presence is good for the community, he believes. And “those who return to the mainland because they feel isolated up here aren’t getting out among people enough.”

Cultural life in Longyearbyen is good, with various festivals arranged every year and few performers refuse a booking there. The sports hall and swimming pool are filled to capacity.

Henningsen seldom feels a need to get away, beyond a holiday trip in the winter and an occasional week in the summer. “I go aboard. Nowhere in mainland Norway is better than here.”

 

Logistics. Stig Henningsen has created a living by leasing snowmobiles and operating two boats which take scientists and tourists out into Svalbard’s varied landscapes.

Logistics.
Stig Henningsen has created a living by leasing snowmobiles and operating two boats which take scientists and tourists out into Svalbard’s varied landscapes.

 

Open-air

Living and working in Svalbard is by definition an open-air existence. Some take that even further by having a holiday cabin in the islands, like NPD geologist Steinulf Smith-Meyer.

 

Holiday cabin. Geologist Steinulf Smith-Meyer has held various jobs in Svalbard in the past, and was so entranced that he obtained his own holiday home there.

Holiday cabin.
Geologist Steinulf Smith-Meyer has held various jobs in Svalbard in the past, and was so entranced that he obtained his own holiday home there.

 

“I visited Svalbard for the first time as an 18-year-old, before starting at university,” he recalls, standing beside some boathouses close to Henningsen’s office.

“Since then, I’ve worked up here for Store Norske, the mining commissioner and the Norwegian Polar Institute.

“And I’ve also spent a winter as a hunter on the northern tip of Svalbard. Today, my wife and I have a cabin at Reveneset on the other side of the fjord.”

He tried life as a coal miner for six months, and found the experience “cramped and physically demanding” – the exact opposite of life as a fox hunter with his wife.

“Being in full control and dependent only on yourself was a great feeling. We caught 52 Arctic foxes during our stay.”

With the NPD since 1992, Smith-Meyer has only been on one expedition in and around the islands in connection with work during that time.

He feels the NPD’s presence in Svalbard is important since it is responsible for charting resources on the NCS – including unopened areas.

“And the rock strata are exposed to the light of day here. This is the best place to explore in order to understand the geology of the far north.”

 

Logistics

Owning a cabin calls for a lot of logistics because the infrastructure is limited, he admits. A boathouse is useful for storing the family’s four snowmobiles.

“They’re a necessary means of transport and a kind of ‘pleasure boat’,” he observes, adding that he also has a rubber dinghy for crossing the fjord.

“Holidaying here is like being in the Norwegian mountains,” Smith- Meyer says. “It’s clean and clear.”

But the journey to the cabin is long and an ordinary weekend too short. It takes three hours by air from Oslo, and he often stays overnight in Longyearbyen before heading to Reveneset.

On arrival, he has to get things ready and secure supplies. Food and fuel must be purchased. In the summer, he fetches drinking water from Longyearbyen.

Melted snow takes over in the winter. Without electricity, paraffin and battery lamps have to be used for lighting.

Even with little wind, a survival suit is essential. And a rifle is always to hand during the walk up from the beach to the cabin or when moving about outside.

 

Long way. Smith-Meyer depends on a boat in summer and a snowmobile in winter to reach his holiday paradise.

Long way.
Smith-Meyer depends on a boat in summer and a snowmobile in winter to reach his holiday paradise.

 

A Polar bear broke in once and rummaged around the cabin – fortunately while the family was absent. On this trip, two were observed close to the cabin a few hours after he returned to Longyearbyen.

Smith-Meyer is not frightened by that, but has great respect for the animals. Svalbard has about 2 500 of them, according to Paul Lutnæs, senior adviser in nature management at the governor’s office.

A shot from a signal gun is enough to frighten them off. Using a rifle – which means shooting to kill – is exceptional. Two Polar bears have been shot in Svalbard during 2016.

Each incident leads to headlines in the press and a detailed police investigation. The shooter can expect a stiff penalty if they were not in imminent danger of death.

Lutnæs says it is also forbidden to hunt walruses in Svalbard, and the governor’s office keeps a close eye on expeditions to ensure compliance out to 12 nautical miles off the islands.

 

In charge. The governor of Svalbard has the finest ship in the islands. Paul Lutnæs works on nature management in his office.

In charge.
The governor of Svalbard has the finest ship in the islands. Paul Lutnæs works on nature management in his office.

 

During my visit to Svalbard, I am privileged to witness an encounter between two academics who are both, in their different ways, dedicated to digging out more details about the far north.

 

Researchers. Two professors keen to learn more about the far north in their respective fields: Arctic scientist Yngve Kristoffersen (left) and palaeontologist Jørn Hurum during a rare encounter in Longyearbyen.

Researchers.
Two professors keen to learn more about the far north in their respective fields: Arctic scientist Yngve Kristoffersen (left) and palaeontologist Jørn Hurum during a rare encounter in Longyearbyen.

 

Arctic researcher and geology professor Yngve Kristoffersen is in Longyearbyen for work on the hovercraft used in his expeditions far out on the ice cap (see Norwegian Continental Shelf 1-2016).

He regards Svalbard as a jumping- off point for pursuing more research in the Arctic Ocean, and not just in the islands themselves.

And Professor Hurum, already mentioned above, is also in town with an expedition team after excavating almost a tonne of fossil bones.

The two scientists meet at Spitsbergen Hotel, where Hurum’s party has called in for a muchanticipated shower, a cold beer and a good meal after many days out in the field.

This work has involved standing up to their knees in mud and recovering the remains of animals who lived in Svalbard almost 250 million years ago.

The scientists had to dig out 70 tonnes of shale to reach the strata containing these fossil. Afterwards, they put the spoil neatly back in place, as required by the governor’s office.

“We’ve found the bones of big sharks who could have been five to 10 metres long as well as fragments of a reptile jaw,” reports Hurum.

He has spent many seasons in Svalbard, but cannot say whether more expeditions will follow. “We’ve enough material now to keep us busy for a decade. But there’s plenty more to find here.”