Sep 112009

Spitsbergen, the archipelago in the far North, is a unique arctic wilderness and at the same time a hub of an astounding variety of human activities, ranging from coal mining to satellite tracking, carbon storage research and tons of scientific projects. An on-site report.

The plane is late. Fog lies low between the fjords, no chance for the twin-turboprop aircraft to take off. The miners waiting with me shrug their shoulders, drop their bags and get another coffee. They are used to the uncertainties of travelling in a wilderness like this.

Spitsbergen is a place most people probably have to look up on a map – only to realize that it’s not on the map. Due to the Mercator projection’s distortion of high latitudes, mapmakers tend to cut off their maps close to the North Cape. But from the northern most tip of Europe it’s still another 650 kilometres before the peaks of Svalbard, as the locals tend to call it, stick out from the perennial clouds so typical for this region.

Attention, polar bears! Applies to all of Svalbard. The sign shouldn’t be taken too lightly. Once you leave town, encounters are possible all year round.

Attention, polar bears! Applies to all of Svalbard. The sign shouldn’t be taken too lightly. Once you leave town, encounters are possible all year round.

The archipelago, slightly smaller than Bavaria, is well into the Arctic, in fact only a few land masses are closer to the pole. But due to the Gulf Stream’s warmth, ice conditions are quite favourable and allow shipping traffic most of the year. Accessibility and proximity to the pole – a unique combination, which, over the centuries, has attracted a variety of visitors. The Vikings were the first to mention Svalbard, the ‘cold coast’, and after Wilhelm Barentsz rediscovered the islands in 1596, hunters visited them regularly. In 1906, the American John M. Longyear started to mine coal, an industry which to this date remains the lifeline of Svalbard. And today, more and more scientists enjoy the convenience the mining infrastructure offers for their arctic research. The total population is about 2800, 2300 of which live in the ‘capital’, the Norwegian town of Longyearbyen, 400 in Russian Barentsburg and 100 in the research community of Ny Ålesund. Statistically speaking, each one of these residents drives 1.1 snow scooters. Little wonder in a place which has long winters but no roads between the settlements. Locals almost loathe the summer with its four months of midnight sun and prefer the winter because ‘you can go everywhere’. A notion I almost come to understand sitting in a hangar waiting for a plane.

The Coal and the Ice

Finally the fog clears and the plane can take off. An hour later I’m bumping up a dirt road over a glacier. Roy Are Hanssen, Technical Manager at the Norwegian coal company Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani (SNSK), points to an area well below the face of the glacier: “Only a couple of years ago this was all ice. The glacier is retreating very quickly.” Having a coal miner lamenting about global warming is not as contradictory as it may seem. For most people in Svalbard the coal might have been the reason to come, but those who stay more than a season soon develop a certain respect and love for the unspoiled nature around them. Nonetheless, this still impressive glacier makes mining coal here in Svea Gruva a real challenge.

Bought from the Swedes, hence the name, and long neglected, Svea Gruva is today the most productive coal mine in Svalbard. When the resources in the hills around Longyearbyen dwindled, the state-owned SNSK shifted its focus to Svea, some 60 kilometres away in the next fjord. Today, about 400 people come to work in Svea – and only to work. Life in the well developed community of Longyearbyen is much more convenient and miners are flown into Svea for two weeks at a time.

Quite an effort, and I finally can’t hold back my most pressing question: “Why come to such a remote place? Why battle the Arctic for a bit of coal?” “Oh, it’s not just a bit,” says Hanssen, “with a peak output of four million tons per year, Svea is one of the top mines in Europe and Norway’s only coal mine.” And to stop more pesky questions from a German journalist, he adds: “Besides, more than 60 percent of our coal is sold to Germany.”

With these numbers in mind, the mine entrance we have just reached seems somewhat underwhelming: all you can see are two large steel tubes sticking out of the mountain surrounded by a few temporary service buildings. No coal, no conveyor belts and only the occasional truck. The mine in Svea has its peculiarities. For one there’s the glacier – or actually two glaciers. Number one is the Høganes glacier we are standing on. The access road and the entrance area are right on top of it. Moving about two metres a year, the glacier is the reason for the ever bumpy ride up here and the easy-to-move service buildings.

Harvesting Coal

High above the coal seam there’s a second glacier, the Gruvefonna. “This one is causing us even more trouble,” says Hanssen. “In the summer, when the ice melts, large amounts of water flow through cracks in the rock and flood the mine. We used to pump it all out, but a couple of years ago we dug a tunnel down the mountain. It’s used to transport the coal out, but it’s also a natural drain.” So that was the torrent we passed on our way up.

In the old days, an overhead trolley transported the coal from the mine to the harbour.

In the old days, an overhead trolley transported the coal from the mine to the harbour.

“Apart from these specialities, the mining itself is more or less standard longwall mining,” adds Hanssen casually. Except there isn’t anything casual about longwall mining, which is to traditional coal mining with drill and minecart what a combine harvester is to a scythe. From the main tunnel at one side of the coal seam two tunnels, or drifts, 250 metres apart, are dug across the three-kilometre wide seam. Finally, the mining equipment is installed in a tunnel connecting the ends of the two drifts. This consists of a row of 150 steel shields supported by hydraulic props. A coal shearer running in front of them cuts the coal, which is then transported away by a face conveyor. Once the shearer has passed, each shield is moved forward individually by hydraulic cylinders leaving the rock cave-in, the goaf, behind. This process is repeated once an hour, each time cutting about 0.8 metres off the 3.5-metre high seam.

At this rate the current seam, about the size of the town centre of Oslo, will be cut around 2013. “But then there is another field a bit further away which will last a few more years – after that, we don’t know,” is how Hanssen summarises the future of coal mining in Svalbard.

While currently the mining industry is vital for keeping up the infrastructure and settlements in this harsh environment, in a few years’ time other industries will have to take over this role. The Norwegian government of Svalbard, the Sysselmannen, has therefore decided to concentrate on other business besides mining, namely tourism and science.

Svalbard has been used as a base for science and exploration for a long time. From here polar explorers like Roald Amundsen, Umberto Nobile or Salomon Andrée started their attempts to reach the pole with various kinds of transport ranging from planes and dirigibles to balloons. Today, with not even the pole left as a white spot on the map, the explorers are shifting their focus elsewhere – towards space, for the example. Like the people from Svalsat station of the Kongsberg Satellite Service who operate some 20 satellite dishes atop Platåberget, a mountain outside Longyearbyen.

From Svalbard Into Space

Fog again. For more than 20 minutes now my taxi driver has been crawling through the whiteout of the low clouds, completely lost in the maze of antenna access roads on the mountain. I suggest he drops me off so I can continue the search on foot, but he insists on driving me right to the door. Finally, a building emerges from the clouds and Veronika Ekstrand, Senior Operations Engineer of Svalsat, greets me apologetically: “Sorry for the low visibility, there’s usually quite a nice view across the fjords.” No worries, I have come for a different, much more special view.

“Due to the high latitude of Svalbard at 78º13’ North, our antennas are in a unique position and can ‘see’ all the polar orbiting satellites, which pass 14 times a day,” explains Ekstrand, “whereas facilities on lower latitudes may be out of sight because of the Earth’s rotation. This has contributed to making us the world’s largest commercial facility for polar orbiting satellites.”

Founded in 1996 at the request of NASA, Svalsat is today operated by the Norwegian company Kongsberg Satellite Services, KSAT. In contact once per orbit with about 100 of an estimated 1500 polar satellites, Svalsat offers three different services to all major space agencies and many other customers: Telemetry, Tracking and Command services directly relay data from and to satellite control centres at NASA, ESA, Jaxa or other space agencies without any further processing. But KSAT can also analyse the data, which is done for some of the Earth observation satellites. And, with the expertise to interpret and verify satellite images, KSAT also sells tracking services to customers without satellites of their own. The tracking includes oil spills, ice coverage, algae movement, ship detection or simply weather conditions. Although she obviously takes great pride in the quality of these services, Ekstrand recalls a false alert when a Navy ship was suspected of dumping oil, when in fact it was blubber from a dead whale the boat was tugging.

But it’s not just data the engineers fight with; there are other things, too. “Although we are sometimes called operators, we really are maintenance engineers,” explains Ekstrand. “Since the road can be cut off during wintertime, we have to be self sufficient and able to fix  software as well as hardware problems on our own.” Not a big deal, one might think, but the term maintenance engineer takes on a whole new meaning when you imagine the following scenario: An antenna dish stalls during a raging snow storm in the pitch black polar night. You slip into your thermal suit, grab the tools and a good flashlight, then make sure you strap on the flare gun and shoulder the rifle. Rifle? “I’m chicken,” jokes the jolly Ekstrand, “but then you never know if the white hump over there is a pile of snow or a polar bear.”

Polar bears are common all over Svalbard: an estimated 3000 roam the islands. Encounters are seldom, especially during summertime, but it’s not advisable to leave remote buildings or the town without a high-powered big game rifle – about three bears per year get killed in self defence. No wonder taxi drivers are a little nervous when they are so far out of town.

Seeds for Eternity

So is the lady who’s picking me up. To ease the tension, I enquire about the strange building we pass on the way down the mountain, like a concrete wedge jutting out of the mountain. “Oh, that’s the entrance to the Global Seed Vault, the doomsday vault they call it,” she chats, relaxing conspicuously in spite of the austere subject. The Global Seed Vault is designed to store duplicates of seeds from seed collections all around the globe. Many of these collections are in developing countries. If seeds are lost, e.g. as a result of natural disasters, war or simply a lack of resources, the seed collections may be re-established using seeds from Svalbard – hence the doomsday nickname. 120 metres deep into the mountain, the vault is, in addition to the natural permafrost, chilled to minus 18 degrees Celsius, promising centuries of safe storage for up to 4.5 million different seed samples.

Svalbard, the local name for Spitsbergen, is the land of glaciers and ice.

Svalbard, the local name for Spitsbergen, is the land of glaciers and ice.

While I ponder at such diversity in an environment where the tallest plants grow only up to your ankle, we arrive in Longyearbyen and a relieved taxi driver drops me off at the Svalbard Science Centre. Resting on 390 poles, the huge modern structure is designed to withstand ice and snow storms. Inside, its rooms are lined with warm, bright wood, a perfect sanctuary for the many science activities in the area. By far the largest tenant is the University Centre in Svalbard, UNIS, proud to be the northernmost higher education institution with 20 full-time professors and about 350 international students of arctic biology, arctic geology, arctic geophysics and arctic technology.

Next door is the Svalbard Science Forum for information on and the coordination of all research in Svalbard. EISCAT also has an office here. The European Incoherent SCATter Scientific Association operates a 32-metre and a 42-metre radar antenna at the end of the road – which isn’t very far since the whole road network of Longyearbyen is only 50 kilometres long. EISCAT studies the interaction between the Sun and the Earth as revealed by disturbances in the magnetosphere and the ionised parts of the atmosphere. We commoners admire some of these ‘disturbances’ in the form of the spectacular aurora, or Northern Lights.

Two Visions and Global Warming

I pass a few other institutions before I find the door of Alvar Braathen, head of the Longyearbyen CO2 Lab. The young enthusiastic professor was able to squeeze in a little time while holding an international workshop on the modelling and risk assessment of the geological storage of CO2: “Longyearbyen is the perfect setting for a CO2 Lab. We have a closed energy system, all our fuel comes either from the coal mine or is shipped in as oil or gas. There are suitable rock formations for storage close to the power plant. And last but not least, if we succeed, we will be a globally recognized showcase because we operate in one of the best protected wilderness areas of the world.” The basic goal of the lab is to capture and store CO2 from the local power station. Due to the design of the coal-fired plant, this will be done in a post-combustion process, stripping CO2 out of the flue gas using chemical membranes. The gas will then be transported to the storage site about five kilometres away and injected some 1000 metres underground into a saline aquifer capped by a thick sealing layer of offshore shale and permafrost. Due to the pressure, the CO2 will become a fluid, slowly spreading in and interacting with the aquifer. “Currently we are still at the stage where we are drilling test wells and analysing the cores to verify the layering of the reservoir,” admits Braathen, “but soon we will inject water as a test fluid into the wells and see how it spreads. After that we will use CO2 and in a final phase, somewhere between 2012 and 2013, we will start to capture and store CO2 from the local power plant. Our long-term vision is to transform Longyearbyen into a zero CO2 community.”

A bold vision, especially since the participants at the workshop are still discussing vigorously about how the CO2 will spread in the first place and when it’s going to stop. So far no-one knows – not very assuring for the public who are afraid of leaks that might kill live-stock, or even people, with high concentrations of CO2. But then again, doing nothing is the biggest risk, as one of the participants put it. Indeed, if global warming continues at this rate, another vision, or nightmare, might come true for Svalbard: Some speculate that by 2015 the Arctic Ocean around the North Pole will be ice-free and open to commercial traffic. As a consequence, a substantial portion of the global shipping traffic would move to the north and Svalbard could become the ideal stop-over and a transport hub. Poor prospects for snow scooter lovers and polar bears.

Matthias Meier
Offizielle Seite des Fremdenverkehrsamt von Spitzbergen mit Informationen zu den Inseln und Tourismusangeboten.
Seite des norwegischen Gouverneurs von Spitzbergen mit Informationen zu Verwaltung, Umweltschutz und Polizei. Auch Artikel zur Geschichte und den Einzelheiten des Svalbard-Vertrags.
Internetpräsenz der Kohlegesellschaft Store Norske. Einzelheiten zu den Aktivitäten in Svea Gruva und Bilder und Filme zum Longwall Mining.
Alles über Kongsberg Satellite und die Empfangsanlage Svalsat.
Texte, Bilder und Hintergrundinformationen zum Saatgutspeicher Global Seed Vault.
Video des TED-Talk von Cary Fowler über den Global Seed Vault.
Das Universitätszentrum in Spitzbergen: Alles über Forschung, Studium und die Institution selbst.
Das Svalbard Science Forum koordiniert die Forschungsaktivitäten, unterhält eine Datenbank und hilft Forschern in Svalbard bei ihren Vorbereitungen.
Alles über das EISCAT Atmosphärenradar im Allgemeinen und die Antennen in Spitzbergen im Besonderen.
Das CO2-Labor in Spitzbergen mit seinen Aktivitäten.
Informationen zum Workshop über die Modellierung von CO2-Speichern.
Homepage des Luftschiffmuseums in Spitzbergen, das die Expeditionen von Nobile, Amundsen und anderen dokumentiert.
Seite des norwegischen Polarinstituts.
Svalbard-Seiten mit Bildern, Infos und vielen Links zu örtlichen Geschäften.
Viele Bilder und Webcams.,1518,436458,00.html
Spiegel-Artikel über das Studium in Spitzbergen.
Deutscher Artikel über die Kohlegrube in Svea.
Tagebuch der Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition, die, der Name sagt es, nach Ähnlichkeiten zwischen der Landschaft in Spitzbergen und dem Mars sucht.
PDF über die Eisbären in Spitzbergen.


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