“It’s like being on another planet” is a frequently heard comment by visitors gazing at Svalbard’s vast arctic wilderness. Taking a flight over this group of islands neighboring the North Pole reveals vast stretches of icy mountains and glaciers where no human has set foot. Yet, in a handful of places the uninitiated might be surprised to spot clusters of lights revealing modern settlements. In these tiny hives amidst the arctic desert, people are engaged in a centuries-old tradition of relying on ingenuity and determination to survive and make a living from natural resources in one of the most isolated places on Earth.
Fame and fortune have been won (and lost) for half a millennium in Svalbard. First was the hunting of whales and other animals. This took expeditions ever further north into uncharted territory where an unexpected result was the discovery of new scientific truths that now may be among those most critical for humanity’s future. But nearly all of those efforts have been aided by another natural resource. A resource that since the late 1800s has changed the tiny settlements in Svalbard from a rough society of explorers into the modern age. Coal.
Those black lumps have literally fueled virtually all economic activity in Svalbard beginning with the whalers in the 1600s who burned it on their ships, to the local kids today who sell chunks to tourists on sidewalk stands. They were the primary reason for the establishment of the Svalbard Treaty. They helped make the archipelago a target during World War II. They are associated with some of Norway’s deadliest accidents and worst political scandals. And they resulted in more than a century of boom-and-bust mining cycles that at times caused entire settlements to vanish in the blink of an eye.
THE EARLY FREE-FOR-ALL COAL RUSH
Yet Svalbard’s settlements are still often portrayed as mining communities, and some locals are eager to embrace a return to those days of a tight knit company town in the wilderness. At least for the next decade or so, and despite a growing global aversion to coal mining. As the dominant industry in Svalbard for more than a century beginning in the late 1800s, the innumerable tales of Arctic frontier success, struggle and death are intertwined in what long-timers see as the foundation of Svalbard’s society.
Those tales are driven by seekers of knowledge and adventure in addition to riches – and the similarities between some of the first arrivals and those today are remarkably similar. The first expedition involving scientific research was by Russians in 1764 looking for a northern shipping route to Asia (which they and other countries are now looking at again as climate change shrinks the Arctic ice sheet). The whaling expeditions of the 17th and 18th centuries brought researchers who made landmark discoveries involving oceanography, climate and species behavior. All areas where Svalbard today is at the forefront of polar research. And once enterprising souls began moving in force from sea to shore in the latter half of the 19th century in search of opportunities, studies shifted to what minerals might be extracted profitably.
Some tales are well-known to those with even a cursory knowledge of Svalbard. Longyearbyen is, of course, named after the American John Munro Longyear, one of two co-founders of the Arctic Coal Company in 1906 that was the area’s first successful industrial coal operation. A timber and mineral developer in Michigan, he visited Svalbard on holiday in 1901 and was inspired by coal prospectors he met. After purchasing numerous claims on the west side of Adventfjorden he and his partner established the company that was headquartered in Boston, but hired mostly Norwegians as miners. But Longyear is hardly the only – or first – person who made a major impact.
Imagine, under a slightly altered history, Longyearbyen instead being named Poolebyen for Jonas Poole, a 17th century British whaler who was among the first to mention finding coal in Svalbard. Or Zachariassenbyen for Norwegian skipper Sören Zachariassen, who opened the first mine and sold the first load of coal in the late 1890s (although his venture was brief). Or Ayerbyen for Frederick Ayer, an American medical and textile tycoon who was Longyearbyen’s oft-forgotten co-partner.
Frederick Ayer: The U.S. businessman, seen here in 1911, is the oft-forgotten co-founder of the Arctic Coal Company and the town now known as Longyearbyen. Photo courtesy of Samuel Atkins Eliot.
Those are just a few of the many names that could have become historical figures with a simple twist of fate during the free-for-all melee of Svalbard’s early coal mining days. More than a hundred land claims were made between 1898 and 1920, with the total area of those claims exceeding the total landmass of Svalbard. With the claimants relying on primitive wood signs dropped in the wilderness to define their boundaries.
“It was a colourful mixed bag of people who set up their claim signs and declared ownership of the areas,” a Svalbard Museum narrative of the early mining outposts notes. “They came from nine or ten different nations. Some were specialists, whilst others were adventurers. A few had a little knowledge about minerals. Some gave up their projects quickly and sold on their areas. Others arrived with expensive production equipment only to find that the project was uneconomic. Those who failed left Svalbard, leaving their equipment behind.”
SVALBARD TREATY REMAPS THE SETTLEMENTS FOR THE MODERN ERA
Two notable companies emerged from that coal rush. The first was the British-owned Spitsbergen Coal & Trading Company, which opened the first year-round mining settlement, Advent City, in 1904 on the north shore of Adventfjorden across the bay from modern-day Longyearbyen. The second was John Munro Longyear’s Arctic Coal Company in what was then known as Longyear City. The latter became Svalbard’s first truly viable coal mining operation, with 200 mostly Norwegian men working for the American-owned company by 1910. The mines and settlement were sold in 1916 to the Norwegian government owned Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani A/S (The Great Norwegian Spitsbergen Coal Company).
Arctic Coal Company: This U.S.-owned company founded in 1906 became the first commercially successful mining operation in Svalbard. It was sold to Norwegian owners in 1916, who renamed it the Store Norske Spitsbergen Coal Company.
The success of mining in Longyear City resulted in other countries rushing to Svalbard to establish mining communities soon thereafter. These included Swedish interests who established the settlements of Pyramiden and Sveagruva in the 1910s, to the north and south of Longyearbyen respectively. While Dutch investors established Barentsburg to the west of Longyearbyen in 1920.
Longyear City: The town now known as Longyearbyen in 1908, two years after it was founded by the Arctic Coal Company. Photo courtesy of Galleri Nor.
But the multitude of nationalities and settlements in an archipelago not governed by any country resulted in numerous problems, including ongoing labor disputes between miners and the owners of the companies (which, among other things, resulted in the end of operations at Advent City in 1908). Several governing proposals were offered, including a joint administration by Norway, Sweden and Russia, but discussions were put on hold at the onset of World War I. During post-war discussions in Versailles, Norway successfully negotiated for sovereignty, resulting in the signing of the Svalbard Treaty in 1920 and its enactment in 1925.
The treaty’s signing, along with a steep drop in coal prices, brought an end to Svalbard’s coal rush and by 1930 only two countries were involved in mining operations: Norway and the Soviet Union, a situation that with the exception of World War II and the breakup of the Soviet Union remains unchanged to this day. On the Norwegian side, Store Norske operated a series of mines in Longyearbyen over the decades as well as the mine at Sveagruva, while the Kings Bay Coal Company conducted mining in Ny-Ålesund more than 100 kilometres further north of the other settlements near the 79th parallel. The Soviets, whose state-owned company Arktikugol had purchased Barentsburg from the Dutch in 1932, extracted coal in Barentsburg, Pyramiden and Grumant City-Coles Bay.
Frozen landscape: Satellite map of Svalbard showing the four main late-20th century settlements. Photo courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA.
DEADLY TRAGEDIES AND THE DESTRUCTION OF WORLD WAR II
But while the riches from the mines allowed a few tight-knit settlements in Svalbard to thrive into the modern era (despite some notable economic downturns), there were tragedies which represented difficult historical moments.
The first major incident occurred on January 3, 1920, when a coal dust explosion in Longyearbyen’s Mine 1 killed 26 people. It remains the deadliest accident in Store Norske’s history and a memorial with the names of all those who have died working for the company was placed at the base of the Mine 1 mountain on the company’s 100-year anniversary in December 2016.
Svalbard became a military asset – and target – during World War II because of its coal mines and usefulness for collecting meteorological data. Germany used the coal for military purposes and the weather data for coordinating northern operations during its occupation of mainland Norway. Following Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, the Russians and Norwegians in Svalbard abandoned their settlements, destroying stocks of coal and fuel as they did so. During subsequent fighting Germany would demolish Barentsburg, Grumant and Longyearbyen, while British troops destroyed the mine at Sveagruva in 1944 to keep Germany from using the coal there. Rebuilding and resumption of mining occurred quickly after the war, although operations at Sveagruva were halted in 1949 and didn’t resume until 1970.
The post-war decades were something of a “golden era” for mining. In Longyearbyen, where Mine 2 was once again in operation, the establishment of Nybyen (a cluster of barracks and a store at the base of the mine’s mountain), Huset (a combined cafe/cinema/community centre a short distance from Nybyen), a hospital, and Svalbardposten (a weekly newspaper) all occurred within a few years after the war. Pyramiden, which reached a peak population of more than 1000 residents, became an idealistic model of Soviet society. Rebuilding went slower in the Soviet settlement of Barentsburg, although by the 1970s the settlement reached its peak, also housing more than 1000 residents.
An exception during this era was Ny-Ålesund to the north, where a series of accidents between 1948 and 1962 killed more than 60 miners. The deadliest was on November 5, 1962 when 21 miners died in an explosion. The subsequent investigations led to the end of mining in the settlement in 1963 and the collapse of Einar Gerhardsen’s government who had served a record 17 years as prime minister and was known as “The Father of the Nation” for his post-war rebuilding efforts. It also spawned a 2017 movie called Kings Bay. Ny Ålesund has since became a hub for scientific research and today there are 16 permanent research stations operated by agencies for ten countries. The overlapping international presence and environmental purity of its land/sea/atmosphere, both unique worldwide, make it among Earth’s foremost locations for climate change and other research.
BOOM TURNS TO BUST
Meanwhile, Store Norske began opening new mines outside the city limits of Longyearbyen, including Mine 5 in 1959, Mine 7 in 1966, Mine 6 in 1969 and Mine 3 in 1971. Mine 7, the furthest away at 10 kilometres from the city limits, is now the company’s only mine in operation, producing coal for the town’s power plant as well as a relatively small amount for export. It is estimated there is enough coal in the mine to continue extractions for another decade.
Mining in Pyramiden, which was in decline by the 1980s, came to a sudden halt after 141 residents of the settlement were killed in a plane crash during the final approach to Svalbard Airport on Aug. 29, 1996. It remains Norway’s deadliest plane crash and was a factor in Russia’s decision two years later to cease mining operations and abandon the settlement within a few months. Today the settlement, with less than 10 occupants, is a tourist destination known as the world’s northernmost ghost town, complete with the world's northernmost statue of Lenin.
Barentsburg, which saw its population steadily decline to less than 400 residents by the turn of the century, is home to the only other mine still operating in Svalbard – and all indications are it will be the final survivor after Store Norske's Mine 7 shuts down. Arktikugol is deliberately keeping production at levels that may allow it to remain open for decades in order to maintain Russia's strategic geopolitical presence in Svalbard.
The scattered relics of a largely-vanquished industry remain present in the areas where mining occurred and have become a key element of the tourism industry. Ecotourism is now seen as a cornerstone for establishing a new sustainable economic base. Employment statistics show just how quickly this has been happening. In 2012, about 40 percent of Svalbard’s workforce was employed in mining, while about 15 percent worked in tourism. In 2017 the situation was nearly reversed – tourism jobs were nearly 40 percent of the workforce, while mining jobs shrank to less than 10 percent.
Transitions: The changes occurring in Svalbard reflected in one image. The old coal ship loading arm at Hotellneset sitting idle outside of Longyearbyen on the right. The Swedish polar research ship Oden pressing forward with its work on the left. Photo courtesy Erlend Bjørtvedt.
LOOKING TO THE SPIRIT OF THE PAST FOR THE IDEAS OF THE FUTURE
There are also hopes Longyearbyen in particular can increase its education and research activities. Among those goals is doubling enrollment at The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), founded 25 years ago and offering a variety of Arctic science study programs. Among the area’s other facilities are the Svalbard Satellite Station (SvalSat) which is the world’s largest commercial ground station and provides a significant percentage of the world’s weather and atmospheric data. And of course the Svalbard Global Seed Vault which acts as the world’s ultimate facility for crop preservation in the face of global warming.
Arctic knowledge: The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) is a growing centre for both research and education on the Arctic. Biology, geology, geophysics, technology, and glaciology are all subjects covered as students and faculty work on understanding the dynamics of global warming so the world can seek solutions.
But there is also a strong effort to encourage entrepreneurs willing to risk new ventures – a return to the daring (if not always as dangerous) mentality of the early explorers and expeditions. That spirit of daring is also aimed at goals on the opposite end of the spectrum: efforts to “normalize” the community away from a company town and into a typical Norwegian family community. Those efforts began in the 1980s and have picked up considerable speed in recent years.
Among the most notable of the individual entrepreneurial efforts is Polar Permaculture. Run by American Benjamin Vidmar who built Longyearbyen’s first outdoor greenhouse and has expanded the concept into a full-scale sustainable foods program that supplies local restaurants and the supermarket with herbs and vegetables. This has also added an ecotourism element via tours for people fascinated with the success of arctic agriculture.
Another individual pioneered the idea of the Arctic World Archive “data vault” utilizing abandoned coal mines that will store critical information on special film that will be readable long after today’s computer technology is obsolete.
Providing a clean and renewable source of energy to replace coal is a pursuit of many, as is designing housing and other infrastructure that can withstand climate change. Which, with Longyearbyen experiencing warming twice as fast as most of the planet, makes the town an ideal testing ground. And ecotourism is rapidly gaining popularity – not just in opting for dog sledding instead of snowmobiling for instance, but in boat tours that make cleaning up rubbish that has washed in from far south in the Atlantic a common shore excursion.
We started Svalbarði with the goal of being a part of the transition to a sustainable economy that protects the arctic islands we love. We have gained carbon neutral certification by offsetting all our carbon admissions via support for clean water infrastructure projects in Uganda and Malawi, as well as wind energy in China. We also give back to protect against the risks of climate change by donating to the Global Seed Vault's biodiversity preservation work which has already saved crops threatened by Syria's civil war. And while media reports often focus on how we – like many in Svalbard – are somewhat adventurous and eccentric, we always put education about Svalbard and the critical work to combat climate change being done here as a key goal. As a family business that heads out into the wilderness to gather iceberg pieces in the last few days before they melt into the sea and exacerbate sea level rise, we are all too familiar with the rapidly changing elements of the environment. We want to spread the message of how the people who live here are actively embracing perhaps the most daring and important polar adventure ever in keeping the area pure for the future of mankind. As the coal industry and the stories of those who toiled in the mines for a century fade into memory, the people who now live in the last community before the North Pole are driving the transition to make this Norwegian moon colony a sustainable forward outpost in the world's efforts to combat climate change.
Arlov, Thor B., "A short history of Svalbard"
Hisdal, Vidar, "Svalbard: nature and history"
Kings Bay AS - www.kingsbay.no
Norwegian Polar Institute - www.npolar.no
Statistics Norway - www.ssb.no
Store Norske Spitsbergen Coal Company - www.snsk.no
Svalbard Museum - www.svalbardmuseum.no
The Governor of Svalbard - www.sysselmannen.no
Trust Arktikugol - www.arcticugol.ru
NRK - tv.nrk.no