Politics in stone: Svalbard’s Cenozoic coal

Today, we come full circle: Our journey on Svalbard started with coal in the Carboniferous, and it will end with coal. But with much younger coal, from the Early Paleocene, 65 to 60 million years ago, which has had quite some impact on the politics in the high North. I know you love gorgeous geology pictures, but this time I will resurface my inner political science nerd, from before I saw the geo-light.

From the last episode, we remember that Svalbard smashed into Greenland, and a small mountain chain built up along its western coast. But just before that, this was a land of rivers and forests, shown by the many fossils of leaves and twigs. Fossil collecting trips around Longyearbyen are a family-friendly way of milking tourists for money.

And in between: Swamps, now coal. Once again, the coal testifies to how the Earth’s climate has changed through time, and how it today is quite cold, geo-historically speaking. In the Paleocene, Svalbard was probably around the latitude of Bjørnøya, but the fact that the coal exists proves that it was a much warmer climate as well.

This Cenozoic coal blankets the whole of west and central Svalbard; the areas where such young rocks are preserved. The age interval 65 to 60 million years has five coal layers, but the thicknes varies a lot. Only one of them is thick enough for mining in Longyearbyen, another in Svea.

We will now leave geology and venture into somewhat even dirtier and dark than coal: politics. The Svalbard coal has played an important political role in the High North, especially during the cold war.

Coal has been known on Svalbard since the 19th century, and some small scale operations were set up, but the long transport distance, cold, darkness and expensive logistics shut these down as fast as they appeared. Svalbard was also a no-man’s land, rife with conflicts and claim jumping. Proper industrial mining only started with the American magnate John Munro Longyear, in what became the main Norwegian settlement: Longyearbyen.

The countries with interests around the arctic negotiated the Svalbard Treaty in 1920, to end the lack of authority on the islands. The agreement gave Norway ownership of Svalbard, but also made it a demilitarized zone, and gave all countries that signed the treaty rights to live and do economic activity there. Coal mines opened also in Van Mijenfjorden on central Spitsbergen; the Swedish owned Sveagruva, in Ny-Ålesund on the Northwest coast, the Dutch Barentsburg on the outer, south bank of Isfjorden. But, in practice, Svalbard was as cold and remote as before, and mining was only occasionally profitable.

It took the Cold War to make Svalbard more than an occasional visiting spot for scientists and adventurers. East and West both wanted to maintain presence, with subsidies for coal mining as the main strategic weapon in this military no-go zone.

Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani – the Great Norwegian Spitsbergen Coal Company was originally a private company, but was later taken over by the the Norwegian government. It took over the Longyear company in 1916, and Svea in 1934.

The Russians took over Barentsburg in 1934, and in 1939 they also started mining the Carboniferous coal in Pyramiden. For shorter periods, they also mined two minor settlements, Grumant and Colesbukta, between Barentsburg and Longyearbyen.

Spitsbergen coal has also had impacts on domestic politics: The mines in Ny-Ålesund had complex geology, because they were essentially within the fold and thrust belt. Complex faulting creates complex safety issues, and after a series of accidents, the last and worst in 1962, when 21 workers lost their lives, the mines in Ny-Ålesund were finally closed. The accident also triggered the first non-Labour party government in Norway after World War 2: The Labour party had slowly lost its strangling majority of Stortinget, the Norwegian parlament, and after the 1961 election, they had to lean onto the Socialist party’s two delegates to get majority. The opposition blamed the government for having been sloppy with safety in the state-owned mines, and when the two socialist reps suported a vote of non-confidence, Norway got its first centre-right cabinet. It lasted only three weeks, before the socialists joined back with Labour, but was important to prove that Labour party rule was not a natural Law, even in Norway.

In the Soviet Union, the mines on Svalbard were used as propaganda, exhibition pieces for socialism. Jobs there were popular, as they were well paid, Soviet wise – and the Russians even kept cattle and pigs for dairy and meat.

The end of the cold war led to big changes in the coal mining. Norway decided it could no longer justify spending tons of money on subsidies, and Store Norske started a turnaround. In Longyearbyen, mines had been successively opened and closed as they got exploited, and difficult to operate because the coal seams could be as little as half a meter thick. Now, only Mine 7, the youngest and with a thicker coal seam was kept and modernised for efficient operation – and to feed Longyearbyen’s powerplant, the only coal fired one in Norway. In Svea, a new, thick coal seam, Svea Nord, was developed for very efficient stripping of the coal. The plan worked, Store Norske became profitable – until recently, when last fall . At the same time, Svea Nord has been emptied, and an even new field, Lunckefjell, is developed.

To balance the reliance on the corner stone coal company, Norwegian authorities have invested in making Svalbard a centre for scientific research. The University Centre on Svalbard, opened in 1996 and steadily expanded. Today, it has a faculty of 23, with many associates and guest lecturers, and up to 450 students through the year. UNIS has become a gravity hub for research in the arctic; climate, pollution, geology, biology, engineering, aurora… There is even a project on storage of CO2 from the coal power plant in sedimentary rocks. Longyearbyen has the world’s northernmost commercial airport, and because the northernmost fingertip of the Gulf Stream passes west of Spitsebergen, the climate is somewhat mild for the latitude.

(Yes, I know you do not believe that last statement).

Tourism is the other big thing in Longyearbyen. There are hotels, pubs – hence the nickname Longdrinkbyen – restaurants, dog sledging, snowmobile adventures. Full service hotels and cruises, to freezing and exhausting – a.k.a. “adventurous” – ski trips.

The Russian settlements have had it worse. Pyramiden was closed in 1998. The coal in the Carboniferous graben had became too sparse and cumbersome, it was economically empty. Barentsburg is still in operation, but no longer being a propaganda window, investments and working conditions both went down. Barentsburg is also more technically challenging to mine, as it is just on the toe of the fold and thrust belt. I visited Barentsburg first in 1999, last in 2005, and the increased dilapidation was clear. Where Longyearbyen has morphed into an (almost) typical Norwegian municipality, with public administration and elected body, Barentsburg is still a company town. Heaven is still high and Emperor Putin far away in Barentsburg.

What’s next? Darwin knows. Even with the tourism, Norwegian taxpayers still subsidy infrastructure (including kindergartens) and research on Svalbard. Without the history of the Cold War and desire to show our sovereignity to our big neighbour bear, Norway could possibly have chosen to establish a minor research base, and skipped all the other costs. But history seems to repeat itself. The big bear moves and rolls over some of its neigbours. Will Russia once again use Barentsburg to show off, and put up statues of Putin next to Lenin in their settlements? Will they dust off plans to reopen mines in Colesbukta and Grumant?

History is difficult to tell in advance, but it seems that politics makes sure the coal adventure on Svalbard is not over for quite a while. There is enough coal to mine for quite a while. Likely not profitable, most of it, but after all, this is not business. It is politics.

One response to “Politics in stone: Svalbard’s Cenozoic coal

  1. Pingback: Glaciers: The slow sculptors | Adventures in geology - Karsten Eig·

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