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Yearly Archives: 2009 − News & Stories


Tough times in Barentsburg

The 400 inhabitants of the Russian mining settlement Barentsburg have to live with difficult work- and general conditions. After a fire in the mine in early 2008, when 2 people lost their lives, mining was stopped for a while; currently, 30,000 tons per year are mined to keep the local power plant running. Full production on a level of 120,000 tons per year, still low on a global scale, will not come before summer 2010 – one year later than originally hoped for. A miner has now complained through the press about bad conditions, such as insufficient work power and equipment and, as a result of this, more or less regularly occuring dangerous situations. Also the wages of about one Dollar per hour are not exactly reason for happiness.

The leadership of the mining Company Trust Arktikugol does not show any understanding for the complaints.

In November 2009, Trust Arktikugol has lost a Norwegian court case regarding use of helicopters in Spitsbergen. Norwegian authorities have denied the Russians to use helicopters for other purposes than those directly connected to the mining activities of Trust Arktikugol. This is, in practice, restricted to transport of personell between Longyearben and Barentsburg. The Russians want to offer commercial flights for scientists and tourists, in the case of the latter at least to offer transportation from Longyearben to Barentsburg also during the winter. They refer to the Spitsbergen Treaty, which makes clear that all signatory powers and their citizens have equal rights for commercial activities in Spitsbergen.

Mining in Barentsburg: Currently a diffcult affair.

Tough times in Barentsburg

Source: Svalbardposten (46/2009)

Wintering areas of ptarmigans

The ptarmigan is the only bird that stays in Spitsbergen year-round. Scientists have now equipped some ptarmigans with satellite trackers to follow them digitally through the polar night. So far, they seem to remain in the general area, migrating locally while searching for food. The Norwegian Polar Institute is publishing and updating the results Backhere.

Ptarmigans in Spitsbergen

Wintering areas of ptarmigans

Source: Norwegisches Polarinstitut

Danger of alien plant species

Introduced plant and animal species can create ecological desasters. Alien species have already been found in many parts of the polar regions, including Antarctica. In more recent times, the highest risk of introduction is use of contaminated boots that have been used elsewhere, possibly in climatically comparable high mountain or polar areas.

In 2008, scientists have tested boots of 260 visitors at the airport in Longyearbyen and found 500 moss fragments and 1000 seeds of 52 plant species, including many birch seeds.

Not just a rubber boot, but a potentially dangerous source of contamination

Danger of alien plant species - Buchananhalvoya

Source: UNIS

CO2-storage in Adventdalen

The idea to run Spitsbergen “carbon-free” is based on CCS: capturing and consequent storage of carbon dioxide in sandstone layers in the ground. After three scientific drillings had to be aborted due to technical difficulties, a fourth one has successfully reached promising sandstone layers at a depth of up to 870 metres. Less than 1000 metres that had been hoped for, but enough in case further testing shows the layers to be capable of long-term storage of CO2-emissions from, for example, Longyearbyen’s coal power plant.

Techniques thus developed by UNIS (the university in Longyearben) might in the future be used elsewhere in the world.

Successful: drilling project near the old airstrip in Adventdalen

CO2-storage in Adventdalen

Source: Unis

Beginning of the polar night

Since approximately 24 October, the sun can not be seen anymore above the horizon. There will still be twilight at noon for another couple of weeks, until the polar night comes for real. It is safe to expect the sun back above the horizon near the end of February.

Moonlight in Borebukta on the north side of Isfjord in October.

Beginning of the polar night

Source: not needed. This is just how it is.

New regulations: Historical sites declared off limits, ban on heavy oil in National Parks

After a long and rather controversial discussion, Norwegian authorities have decided to declare 8 historical sites in the Spitsbergen archipelago off limits, starting 01 January 2010.

The sites are:

  • Ebeltofthamna (Krossfjord): The remains of the whaling station south of the lagoon.
  • Likneset (Smeerenburgfjord): Spitsbergen’s largest graveyard from the whaling period.
  • Ytre Norskøya: the  graveyard and the blubber ovn foudations near the south coast. The rest of the island remains accessible.
  • Haudegen (Rijpfjord, Nordaustland): The WWII weather station and a safety zone around it may not be intered.
  • Habenichtbukta (Edgeøya): The combined Whaling/Pomor site
  • Zieglerøya, Delitschøya, Spekkholmen (near Edgeøya): These small islands with their many historical sites will be completely off limits.
  • Halvmåneøya (near Edgeøya): Only the famous old trapper station Bjørneborg can be visited, the rest of the island is off limits.
  • Midterhukhamna (Bellsund): No access to the small hut (built in 1898) and the near-by remains of the 17th century whaling station.

For more details such as a map of the sites, see, Sysselmannen.

It has also been decided to ban the use of heavy (crude) oil in the three largest National Parks in Spitsbergen. Heavy oil is a common fuel type for large ships, but is very dangerous for the environment in case of accidents.

As exceptions, it can still be used until 01 January 2015 on the shortest safe routes to Sveagruva, Ny Ålesund and into Magdalenefjord.

A similar ban is in force since 2007 in the large Nature Reserves in eastern parts of the archipelago.

This part of the new regulations is welcomed by conservation groups.

Tourists carefully visit a whaler’s grave from the 17th century at Likneset in northwestern Spitsbergen.
This will not be possible anymore in the future, starting 01 January 2010.

New regulations: Historical sites declared off limits, ban on heavy oil in National Parks

Source: Sysselmannen

CO2-storage underground in Adventdalen

The idea to manage a »CO2-free« Spitsbergen in the not too far future has suffered several setbacks already, but is still being followed. So far, three research drillings to search for sandstone layers suitable for CO2-storage in depths of several hundred meters under terrain had to be abandoned because of technical problems. A fourth attempt will be started soon near the old airstrip in Adventdalen.

BThe next drilling will take place near the old northern light observatory in Adventdalen.

CO2-storage underground in Adventdalen

Source: Svalbardposten

Arctic Ocean possibly seasonally ice-free as early as 2030

There has been a year-round ice-cover on the Arctic Ocean since approximately 15 million years. New research results indicate that this relatively young, but for the Arctic extremely important ecosystem might get lost again as soon as around 2030. It has to be expected that the Arctic Ocean will be completely ice-free during the summer and that sea ice is reduced to a seasonal cover during the winter and spring.

The tooth of climate change is nagging on arctic sea ice.

Arctic Ocean possibly seasonally ice-free as early as 2030

Source: Nalân Koç, norwegisches Polarinstitut

Ban on entering carst cave

Karst caves exist due to water that circulates through water-soluble rock types such as limestone. DN (Norwegian directorate for nature administration), that has recently gained a reputation for various attempts to forbid pretty much anything that other people might enjoy in arctic nature, has made a proposal to put a ban on entering karst caves. The fact that there are no karst caves known in Spitsbergen is of no hinder. If there were any, they would certainly be interesting, so why not forbid entering them, just in case…

Old mine for marble, a crystalline carbonate rock, in Kongsfjord.
Could be a cave, who knows?

Ban on entering carst cave

Source: Svalbardposten

Grounding of Russian ship at Bjørnøya IV

All oil derivates (diesel, lubrication oil) has been removed from the Rusian freezing ship Petrozavodsk, that ran aground near the southern tip of Bjørnøya on 11 May. Operations were completed on 05 August. Smaller spills of oil from the wreck did not cause any environmental damage, according to field biologists.

The Russian owner company is theoretically obliged to remove the wreck, but is unlikely to do so as actual costs are expected to exceed those that the company legally has cover. The future of the wreck is therefor unclear, but at least it does not impose any major environmental hazard anymore.

Pumping operation at the wreck of Petrozavodsk. Foto © Kystverket

Grounding of Russian ship at Bjørnøya IV

Source: Kystverket

Russian ship Petrozavodsk grounded at Bjørnøya

The Russian fishery support vessel that ran aground at Bjørnøya on 11 May is still in the same position. So far, it has only been possible to remove smaller amount of dangerous liquids (oil, diesel, paint), but the major part of the diesel volume is still on board. Minor spills have already occured, and small numbers of birds covered with diesel oil have been observed. Norwegian authorities have made preparations to remove all remaining dangerous substances from the ship and have announced that everything will be done to complete the operations before the Guillemot chicks that are currently sitting in very large numbers on adjacent cliffs jump into the water (they leave the nesting site before they can fly). So far, bad weather and rough seas have made these operations impossible.

Bird cliff at the southern tip of Bjørnøya, near the site of the Russian wreck.

Russian ship Petrozavodsk grounded at Bjørnøya

Source: Svalbardposten

Change of marine ecosystem poses potential threat on Little auks 

First results of a new research project “Arctic Tipping Points” (ATP) show that high-arctic zooplankton species such as Calanus glacialis have started to change their distribution areas, migrating towards colder waters, most likely due to recent warming within their traditional range. This may for example endanger food supply for species such as the Little auk, Spitsbergen’s most abundant bird. Changes of the marine food chain are in any case very likely to have dramatic consequences for the whole regional ecosystem.

Arctic zooplankton at the north coast of Spitsbergen.

Change of marine ecosystem poses potential threat on Little auks

Little auks at northwestern Spitsbergen.

Little auks at northwestern Spitsbergen

Source: Svalbard Science Forum

Large nature reserves in Eastern Svalbard: “no entry”

The ongoing discussion concerning possible closure of most of eastern Svalbard has been reported repeatedly on these pages (see for example December 2008). After a public hearing period in late 2008, the Sysselmannen gave a negative vote to the strong restrictions that had been proposed by DN (Norwegian directorate for nature administration). Following the motto “we vote until we get the result that we want”, DN puts the same proposal forward again for another public hearing period. Opinions can be sent to the Sysselmannen (contact the Sysselmannen) until 01 September 2009. A new Sysselmannen will ascend the “throne” in Longyearbyen in September 2009. Evil to him who evil thinks…

According to DN’s proposal, landings in the large nature reserves in eastern Svalbard can only be made at 16 dedicated locations/smaller areas, effectively closing many hundred kilometres of coastline and thus something like 40 % of the archipelago to the interested public.

Today, tourists can access most of the area in question with very few exceptions (Kong Karls Land). During a conference organized by AECO in Longyearbyen in October 2008, leading Norwegian scientists expressed that they did not consider tourism to present any serious environmental concerns or conflicts with scientific work, not excluding the need for recommendations or stricter regulations when it comes, for example, to individual sites.

“No entry” to the red areas, according to DN’s old and new proposal
(click here for a larger version of this map)

Large nature reserves in Eastern Svalbard: no entry

Source: Svalbardposten

Search-and-rescue (SAR) operations can be expensive

…or, rather: they ARE expensive, but in the future you are more likely to pay yourself. So far, there have already been 52 helicopter SAR operations, compared to a total of 72 in 2008 and 60 in 2007, a significant increase. The most spectacular case was a long-distance helicopter flight from Spitsbergen to northermost Greenland and back to evacuate a Dane with acute health problems. In a large number of cases, snow-mobile or ski tourists have been evacuated in Spitsbergen, when frost or bad weather started to take a toll. The Sysselmannen sees an increased readiness to use the satellite phone or emergency locator beacon. Aditionally, too many tourists (including locals) seem not to be well enough prepared with equipment adequate for all possible high arctic conditions and willingness to spend a couple of days in a self-built snow cave, a common and usually safe method to sustain during extreme weather conditions seems to decrease.

The Sysselmannen considers to use the “polluter pays principle” in the future.

Expensive: the Sysselmannen helicopter
(here seen during an exercise)

Source: Svalbardposten

Grounded ship at Bjørnøya: Captain and officer sentenced

Captain and first officer of the Russian freezing ship Petrozavodsk, grounded 11 May near the southern tip of Bjørnøya, have been sentenced by the North-Norwegian “tingrett” to 15 respectively 40 days in prison. They have been accused of being under influence of alcohol. The officer has additionally been accused for having caused the grounding by falling asleep while on duty and entering the protected zone near the southern coast of Bjørnøya, which must not be entered between 15 May and 31 August by vessels larger than 40 feet.

The Captain was sent back home to Russia after the sentence had been passed, as both had already spent 15 days under arrest. 

The wreck of the Petrozavodsk.
Image © Kystverket

The wreck of the Petrozavodsk

Source: Sysselmannen

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