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Pyramiden - Dickson Land - Billefjord

D = Dickson Land
P = Pyramiden
B = Brucebyen
L = Long-
yearbyen

General: Dickson Land is the name for the peninsula between Dicksonfjord and Billefjord. It is named after a Swedish industrial of the 19th century, who sponsored several Swedish expeditions. The Billefjord is very scenic, including the large calving glacier front of Nordenskiöldbreen. Because of this and because of the short distance to Longearbyen, the Russian mining settlement Pyramiden (closed in 1998), it is frequently visited especially in the summer, when boats do day trips into the Billefjord from Longyearbyen. Visits have become somewhat less frequent sinc Pyramiden is closed, but Dickson Land is still one one the most beautiful and easily accessible hiking and trekking areas of Spitsbergen. Long trekkings following the large, ice-free valleys and high plateaus are possible as well as some mountain climbing (not technical) and glacier hikes – provided safe stepping, good physical shape and relevant equipment and experience (see rules).

Geology: The area around the Billefjord belongs to the geologically most interesting regions of Svalbard. The pre-devonian basement is exposed only near the Nordenskiöld-glacier and to the north of the Billefjord. On both sides of the fjord, but especially in western and northern Dickson Land, reddish sandstones and conglomerates of the Devonian Old Red give the landscape an appereance with beautiful colours. Tree trunks found in these rocks are of truly respectable age, and together with the Devonian coal seams which were mined in Pyramiden, they belong to the oldest fossilised remains of large plants on Earth – most coal occurrences worldwide date to the younger Carboniferous or are even younger. Vegetation which could potentially be turned into coal later just started to cover the first land surfaces in the Devonian. In the Carboniferous and Permian, various sediments were deposited, among others evaporites such as gypsym and anhydrite. These multicoloured sediments give the landscape a colourful appareance, for example the slopes of the mountains near Brucebyen and north of the Billefjord. There is one mountain called Trikolorfjellet (‘Three colour mountain’). In the Permian, deposition continued mostly with carbonates, among others the hard, fossil-rich limestones of the Kapp Starostin Formation. In the Dickson Land, they often form prominent cliffs, over which sometimes waterfalls cascade down.

Almost horizontal layers of Carboniferous and Permian sediments, dissected by erosion to form protruding towers (Skansbukta).

After a break in the uppermost Permian, the typical Mesozoic ‘platform sediments’ were deposited in most parts of Svalbard, including Dickson Land, where they are preserved in the southern part, as the strata are gently dipping to the south. Lithologically, they are similar to the Triassic succession of Edgeøya, also including doleritic intrusions from the upper Jurassic and Cretaceous. Phosphoritic concretions within the Triassic sediments of southern Dickson Land were tought to be economically exploitable, which lead to investigations by Swedish expeditions, among others with Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld. The name ‘Saurierdalen’ points to fossils found in southern Dickson Land.

The lively history of regional tectonics gave rise to an interesting geological variety within a relatively small area. The rocks are partly aesthetically folded. The Billefjorden fault zone runs straight through the long Wijdefjord in the north and through the Billefjord. This is one of the most important tectonic lineaments in Svalbard, it has got a long and complex history starting well before the Caledonian orogeny in the Silurian and lasting at least into the Mesozoic. This structure has been decisive for regional erosion, sedimentation and later deformation: uplifted blocks on one side suffered erosion, whereas the subsiding block on the other side was covered with sediments. Actually, the Billefjorden fault zone is not only one straight fault, but rather a complex zone of a number of faults. This is nicely visible for example north of Hørbyebreen.

Another tectonic event happened in the uppermost Devonian, the so-called Svalbardian Phase, a very late and final stage of the Caledonian orogeny which is otherwise largely confined to the Silurian. The result of regional uplift and tilt is a discordance between the Devonian Old Red and the upperlying Carboniferous carbonates. This is nicely visible, as the relatively soft Devonian sandstones and conglomerates form soft, reddish slopes topped by steep cliffs of yellowbrown carbonates (Pyramiden, Triungen, Lykta, Kinamurfjellet etc.).

Also the Quaternary geology is quite interesting. Many glaciers have large, ice-cored moraines, and there are beautiful series of fossil beach-ridges for example at Brucebyen. Solution of sulfates and carbonates led to the formation of karst phenomena such as sink holes in Mathiesondalen and Gipsdalen (Bünsow Land), and fallout of dissolved minerals led to quick diagenesis of holocene sediments such as deltaic deposits and moraines in Mathiesondalen and north of the moraine of the Hørbyebreen.

Recommended book for further, well-digestable (really!) info about geology and landscape of Svalbard.

Landscape: According to the varied geology, there is a variety of different landscape impressions to be seen. Near the coast, there are often nice tundra areas with very evident beach ridges. The ‘hinterland’, the area east of Billefjord and Bünsow Land, is strongly glaciated, whereas Dickson Land is relatively ice-free. Around Billefjord, permocarboniferous carbonatic rocks form partly spectacular steep cliffs dissected by erosion, thus forming sometimes nicely regular towers, sometimes bizarre sculptures such as Tarantellen north of Billefjord. This rock tower (Tarantellen = ‘tarantula’) is worth seeing, but it takes a long and demanding day-trip to reach it from the northern end of the Billefjord through a steep, narrow valley. It is a double arch more than 20 metres high, which looks like a giant stone spider. Other, also spectacular and often regular cliffs are built up by the Permian Kapp Starostin Formation, for example on the northern side of Skansbukta. In inner parts of Dickson Land, these slopes often form steep canyons.

Waterfall cascading down hard carbonate layers of the Kapp Starostin Formation in western Dickson Land.

In southern Dickson Land, landscapes within the Triassic sediments remind one of similar places for example in eastern Nordenskiöld Land (east of Longyearbyen), Edgeøya etc. Here, doleritic intrusions sometimes form irregular ridges and cliffs in the slopes. Small ice caps cover parts of the high plateaus, which are dissected by steep canyons.

In central northern Dickson Land, the Old Red with its nicely reddish-brown sandstones and conglomerates dominates the appareance of the landscape; here you find large, ice-free valleys with warm colours on the soft lower and middle slopes (Hudindalen, Nathorstdalen). On top of these slopes, hard carbonates form steep cliffs, so it is often difficult to reach the summit.

Tundra in Nathorstdalen with slopes composed of Old Red sandstone with its warm colours.

Skansbukta.

Further north, around Ålandvatnet and Mittag-Lefflerbreen, metamorphic basement and sedimentary cover rocks form a mosaic because of the tectonics related to the Billefjorden fault zone (see above). In the area of cover rocks, you find some nice, colourful mountains, the slopes of which are sometimes nicely dissected by erosion to form regular towers. In contrast, the harder basement rocks form steeper mountain slopes with a more irregular, inpredictable appereance. Near Mittag Lefflerbreen, huge morains form chaotic, ever-changing landscapes (Ålandsvatnet, Hoglandvatnet).

Flora and Fauna: There is quite rich tundra near the coast and in some of the large, ice-free valleys of Dickson Land. On steep cliffs, there are colonies of seabirds, but otherwise, this part of central Spitsbergen does not have too much wildlife. Around the Billefjord, there are small numbers of reindeer, but despite of having been there quite often, I have seen them very few times only.

History: I do not know of any activities of 17th century whalers in the area. Pomors used the area as well as Norwegian trappers; especially Dickson Fjord which was home to the legendary Arthur Oxaas between the wars. The Billefjord was used for mining on a number of occasions in the 20th century. The SSS (Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate, with William Spierce Bruce) investigated Carboniferous coal seams east of the Billefjord in Brucebyen, which they built for this purpose. Another early attempt to explore minerals was done by the ‘Portland Cement Fabric’, which established mining facilities in Skansbukta, but here as well as in other places the occurrence turned out to be economically worthless. The entrance to the mine as well as someold machinery can still be seen. Large-scale mining was done in Pyramiden. Founded 1910 by a Swedish company, Russians to over the area in 1926. But mining did not seriously start until 1940 and was, with interruptions, continued until 1998, when the mine was finally abandoned.

Remains of a gypsym mine in Skansbukta.

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last modification: 2013-10-11 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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