A different Arctic: Report on a field trip to Svalbard

August 5th, 2013 | Posted by Lize-Marié van der Watt in News

Vast glaciers with names of polar explorers, cliffs crowded with sea birds, and a chance to see polar bears are some of the attractions that feature in tourist brochures about Spitsbergen/Svalbard. However, as I arrive in Longyearbyen with Mistra’s Assessing Arctic Futures: Voices, Resources and Governance project (part of the Mistra Arctic Futures in a Global Context programme), at the end of June it is something different that captures my attention – the remains of a ropeway system for transporting coal from the mines to the harbour. On almost every mountain around the central village of this group of islands in the far north, we see the remains of coal mining; old structures of wood, debris from the mining activity, and changes in colour of gravel along the slopes below the mines. Guided by the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology (KTH)  historian and project colleague Dag Avango, the industrial and political history comes to life and places the current Arctic hype into a longer and larger geopolitical context of both past and present. It includes interest in energy resources since the early 1900s and later their strategic role during World War II when most of the mines were burned to keep them from falling into German hands, but also how Spitsbergen/Svalbard has figured in nation building efforts of Norway and the Soviet Union. The Spitsbergen Treaty of 1920 gives the archipelago a special status. Though part of Norway, other signatories have the right to carry out economic activities, while militarization is forbidden. Today, Norway and Russia prepare for keeping a presence in spite of the unprofitability of coal mining in remote northern location. Tourism is on the rise and is seen by some as an alternative source of income. Svalbard as a platform for science is also prominent in visions of Svalbard’s future, where many nations use research as a way to establish stakeholdership in the Arctic – science as parts of Arctic geopolitics. It is all according to the rules, even if interpretations of the treaty text are still debated, including what Norway and other actors are allowed to do. When researchers want free reign to work here, it can be seen as part of a rhetorical challenging of Norway’s interpretations, and vice versa.

Following directly on the Assessing Arctic Futures project meeting is the field part of a course on environment and society in a changing Arctic for undergraduate students, which KTH has arranged together with University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with logistical support from the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat.  A tourist vessel drops us off in Petunia Bay. On the map it looks like a remote location and at first sight it displays many of the features that have made Svalbard attractive for nature tourism. We awe at the landscape and study the actions of permafrost and past climate changes, make note of the plant life and are lucky to see a polar bear with two cubs come walking along the beach at just the right distance to allow a view without posing any real danger. But the camp site is also situated on an industrial property connected to the mining settlement Pyramiden where the Russia mined coal until 1998. It is now an abandoned town and tourist attraction but was once “a model communist society outpost in capitalist Europe” as described by the guide employed by the Russian company that operated the coal mine and is still mining coal in Barentsburg. This is a different Arctic, one of industrial and ideological activity, as well as an example of how human presence alters the landscape. The leftovers from geological mapping extend quite far from the central mining settlement, with piles of drilling cores and rusty constructions. As we do excursion with the students it becomes clear how the landscape can be read with different eyes: What is cultural heritage? What is politics? What is a valuable environment? How have past visions of the future been inscribed in governance regimes and how do different visions of the future affect Arctic politics and governance today?

Annika E. Nilsson, Stockholm Environment Institute

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