Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani (SNSK), owner of the former coal mining settlement of Sveagruva, has got permission from the Sysselmannen to break the fjord ice in Van Mijenfjord to the harbour of Svea.
Van Mijenfjord is sheltered from the open sea by the island of Akseløya, which is almost blocking the entrance. Hence, the fjord is is settling earlier and getting more extensive there than in any other fjord on the west coast of Spitsbergen. The fjord ice in Van Mijenfjord is an important habitat which is not available anymore elsewhere as widely as earlier, due to the warming climate. Ringed seals need fjord ice in spring to rest and to give birth and polar bears frequent the ice to hunt.
Usually, the authorities consider the fjord ice environmentally very important and will not give permission for ice breaking. Even non-destructive traffic with snow mobiles is now restricted: snow mobiles are not allowed anymore on large parts of the fjord ice in Tempelfjord, to avoid disturbance of wildlife which only occur in cases of reckless behaviour. Such traffic bans were also considered for Rindersbukta which is part of Van Mijenfjord, but not (yet) implemented.
Other rules seem to apply for breaking the ice, or at least the same rules are given a different interpretation. The Sysselmannen emphasizes in a press release that traffic in Spitsbergen is supposed to happen in a way that does not harm the environment or disturbs animals or people unnecessarily. But in this case, the economical interests of Store Norske were given more weight than the protection of the wildlife that needs the ice in times when it has become rare in Spitsbergen.
The background: Sveagruva is running out of diesel. Stocks were supposed to last until summer 2019, but consumption during the winter was higher than expected. Diesel is not just used for vehicles, but also to run the power plant in Svea, which is supplying the settlement with electricity and warmth. The current stock would now last “probably until May, approximately”, according to the Sysselmannen’s press release. And not until the summer, when the fjord ice would be gone anyway.
Without diesel for the power station, Svea would have to be evacuated. The consequence would not only be a temporary stop of the clean-up that has recently begun, but possibly also damage to the infrastructure. This would involve serious economical consequences for Store Norske. This is the reason why the company has got permission to break the ice and take a ship to Kapp Amsterdam, the harbour of Sveagruva. Technically, an overland transport from Longyearbyen would be possible, but this would involve approximately 60 tours. The total strain on the environment and the risk of pollution is considered higher and hence transport by ship was given priority.
In earlier times, when Sveagruva was still an active mining settlement, it was not unusual to break the ice in spring to ship coal. But times are different now. No coal is mined anymore in Sveagruva, and there is much less ice in the other fjords in Spitsbergen and this ice may not even be used for snow mobile traffic in certain fjords, opposed to the wishes and economical interests of many. It is not surprising that the permission to break more than 30 kilometres of solid fjord is is met with public criticism.
The weather in the days after breaking the ice will be important: if it remains cold and calm for a while, the fjord will quickly freeze again. But a storm might break up large areas of weakened ice.
The days are getting longer, and time is just flying! Now we have already had this year’s spring equinox. The equatorial plane of the Earth passed through the centre of the sun on Wednesday (20 March) at 21.58 hours (UT = universal time = GMT). From now on, the days are longer again than the nights on the northern hemisphere, and the further north you are, the more light and the less darkness.
This means that the current northern light season in Spitsbergen is now slowly coming to an end. On Saturday (16 March) we had another amazing celestial performance. A stunning aurora borealis, intense, vibrant, fast.
Auroa boralis above Operafjellet.
The northern light season in Spitsbergen is now coming to an end.
This northern light was definitely above average! To capture the very fast movement, I used shutter times of up (or, rather, down) to 0.3 seconds, and even that was probably too slow to capture the filigrane, but very lively structures (click here to read more about northern lights and how to photograph them).
Aureole (or dome) of northern light above Adventdalen.
The last days were full, there was just no time to write new blog entries … there will be more soon.
Sola e’ tilbake! That was the motto of the day last Friday (several day ago already, time is running!), which was THE big day: solfest – sun fest – in Longyearbyen!
As mentioned, the sun has actually returned to the lower part of Longyearbyen, near Adventfjord, several days before …
Sun in lower Longyearbyen, Friday (8.3.) morning.
… but as those parts of Longyearbyen did not exist back then, the solfest is traditionally and duly celebrated on 08 March, shortly after 12.30 hours, as the sun returns to the stairs of the old hospital. This old hospital building is long gone, but the stairs from the back door are still there. Actually, the stairs are said to be a reconstruction so people know where to celebrate, but anyway … they are next to the kindergarten close to the Svalbard church. So that is where everybody meets on solfest-day at 12.30 hours. Hundreds of people gather to welcome and celebrate the sun! Especially the children, dressed as little suns, really sweet. Everybody is singing and cheering the sun up, who is doing her best to climb above the mountain: Sol! Sol! Komm igjen! Sola er min beste venn! – Sun! Sun! Come on! The sun is my best friend! The rhyme does not really work in English, well.
Sunrise above Lars Hiertafjellet during the solfest in Longyearbyen,
Friday noon (8.3.).
And finally, here she is! The sun, bright as ever, climbs over the rim of Lars Hiertafellet, behind Larsbreen, and there is great cheering and jubilation. It is really an emotional moment! There has not been any direct sunlight in Longyearbyen during 5 months, due to the mountains around the settlement.
Sunny view towards Gipshuken and Billefjord.
Yes, the sun is back. It is great to be outside, to enjoy the light-flooded landscape and to feel the sun on the skin.
Sun over Nordenskiöld Land.
But, it is and remains icy cold, the thermometer is rather constantly somewhere near minus 20 degrees centigrade. There is fresh ice near the shore of Adventfjord, but a solid ice cover just does not want to form in spite of the cold. The warm water supply coming with the West Spitsbergen Current (“Gulf Stream”) is inexhaustible, I guess. Unfortunately. A frozen Adventfjord, that would be great. We have not had that for quite a few years.
Fresh ice forming near the shore of Adventfjord, in Hiorthhamn.
The winter keeps showing off with cold, stable weather and the sun is climbing a tiny little bit higher every day. We make use of such grand conditions as often as possible to enjoy the outdoors in this amazing country, to which the light is now returning with might.
Here, we are in Sassendalen. It is big and wide, one of Spitsbergen’s largest valleys. At this time of year, it is one of the most frequently used snow mobile routes, to the east coast or to Tempelfjord. But it is so big that it is easy to find a silent corner without traffic.
Hiking in Sassendalen.
We park our snow mobiles in such a silent corner and start hiking up a gentle, but endless slope. You could hike a whole, long day here without really getting somewhere, but getting somewhere is not the point here. Just being here is the point. It seems a bit otherworldly. The light, the landscape … the wind has blown the snow away from many surfaces. The country appears very barren. Nevertheless, many reindeer roam here, trying to find some food.
Reindeer in polar-desert-like landscape, looking for food.
Later, we drive north, towards Tempelfjord. We have been here some weeks ago already. Today, the landscape shines in completely different light, the intensity of which is impossible to grasp with a few words unless you are Sheakespeare.
View from the mountain Fjordnibba into Tempelfjord.
Even under “normal” light conditions, the view from the little mountain Fjordnibba over Sassenfjord and Tempelfjord is stunningly beautiful. Whoever created this landscape must have been in excellent mood that day. Amazing.
You just can’t spend enough time in such places! I just have to return as often as I can.
And the timing is just perfect right now. It is just before 4 p.m., the sun is about to disappear behind the mountains, casting the last direct light of day in fire-red colour over mountains, fjords and glaciers.
Sunset over Sassenfjord and Nordenskiöld Land.
Inner Tempelfjord is largely frozen solid – only at Fredheim, the ice has broken up recently – and now there is a fresh ice cover forming also further out in Sassenfjord. Let’s see how far far the development goes this season. Here, we have the view towards Diabasodden in outer Sassenfjord.
View from Fjordnibba to Sassenfjord and Diabasodden.
A final little excursion takes us from the mountain down to sea level at Fredheim. It is icy cold today, air temperatures are around -25 degrees centigrade. The cold becomes visible in the colours, which range from pink through purple to blue. Colours of frost and ice.
Finally, a last view into Tempelfjord. As I said, colours of the cold! A picture can give you an idea of the colours – just an idea, but at least – but it does not deliver the sounds. The silence is one thing, the sound of the ice yet another. The ice is constantly working on the shore, being moved by the tides and possibly by some waves further out, in open water. The ice is groaning and moaning, squeaking and squealing. Not load, but constantly.
Finally, my current ceterum censeo: I have made a new photo book, focussing on aerial photography and thus showing the Arctic from a very unsual perspective. In theory, the book is in German, but in practice, it does hardly have text. 134 out of 137 pages do just have stunning photos, placenames and a little map.
Spitsbergen was under full control of the polar night just a few weeks ago, but now the light is returning with full force. The sun is getting higher up on the sky every day, and around mid-day, the mighty Hiorthfjellet is already fully exposed to the sun.
The return of the sun is celebrated for one week in Longyearbyen with the traditional “Solfestuke” (sun festival week) with a range of events. The first one was a firework on the night sky 🙂
The sun, herself obviously not visible, had clearly in pretty good mood, letting off steam towards us out here in space. The whole spectacle lasted for a while, so we could change posotion and perspective.
The “Spitsbergenrevye” is the traditional opener of the Solfestuke. The revye brings events and people on the scene of old Huset in Longyearbyen which have moved people here in one or another way in the year that has passed. Satire, humour and music are definitely part of the event. Good fun, especially if you understand Norwegian with a northern colouration and you have done your homework and followed Svalbardposten (or this blog!).
Spitsbergenrevye in Huset. Sun festival week, Longyearbyen.
Polar bears and coal mining are always part of the show.
Another traditional part of the Sun festival week is a church service – outdoors at Telelinken on the slope of Hiorthfjellet, where you see the sun earlier than in Longyearbyen. Weather permitting, that is. And it was clear and sunny! But cold … below -20 degrees centigrade, and windy. Cold.
Open air church service at Telelinken (I). Sun festival week, Longyearbyen.
Open air church service at Telelinken (I). Sun festival week, Longyearbyen.
In Longyearbyen, the sun will shine “officially” again on 08 March. Practically, it is actually a bit earlier as you can see on the next photo.
Svalbard Snøskuterutleie in the sun – on 05 March.
The sun was shining on Svalbard Snøskuterutleie, lowermost in Longyearbyen near Adventfjord and Adventdalen, on Tuesday, 05 March!
Nevertheless, 08 March is the correct date for historical/traditional reasons (unless it is a leap year). The lowermost part of Longyearbyen, where the sun is shining a few days earlier, did not exist back then. As soon as the sun is seen from in Skjæringa, the oldest part of Longyearbyen where amongst others Svalbard Kirke (the church) is located, it is time to celebrate – that will be on Friday!
February can be a beautiful month in Spitsbergen. Especially if it is nice and cold and not as battered by climate change as last year, when warm air incursions brought several periods of thawing and rain. This year, we have had good frost for most of the time in February. Cold, clear weather and not too much wind. The sun is still largely behind the horizon and hidden by mountains, but the mountain tops started glowing a good week ago and we have had the first rays of sunshine on our frozen noses! You still have to do a little trip to enjoy that pleasure, the sun won’t reach Longyearbyen before 08 March.
Longyearbyen Camping is still a quiet place.
The average temperature in February was -11.1°C, “only” 5.1 degrees above the long-term average which is defined as the average from 1961-1990. Five degrees above a “normal” temperature that is impossible to reach now! That is still a lot. Nevertheless, a monthly average of -11.1°C involves a lot of fine frost. Even the fjord, Adventfjord, seems to consider freezing over again, just for a change. This has not happened in many years. It is unlikely to happen this year either, but there is at least some initial ice formation in protected in-shore corners.
Ice in Adventfjord and sun on Hiorthfjellet and Adventtoppen.
You still have to make sure you get out around mid-day to catch some direct sunrays. An afternoon trip does not bring anything but twilight. Which can of course also be beautiful, but if you want the see the sun, then this is not the real thing.
Out with ski and dogs: “rope skiing” (snørekjøring) in Adventdalen.
Hiorthfjellet, the characteristic mountain opposite of Longyearbyen, is a very popular place these days. Half-way up the slope, there is a hut with some large antennas, which is locally known as Telelinken. Perfectly placed on a slope facing south with a fantastic view over Adventfjord and a good place to catch some first sunrays!
First sun over Adventfjord.
The air temperature is minus 20 degrees centigrade, but we enjoy the first direct sunrays on those few square centimetres of exposed skin that we have had for some time …
Arctic sun worshipper.
… and the amazing light that the low sun brings back to this cold island.
Sunny views of some mountain tops in Nordenskiöld Land.
There is not yet much wildlife beyond those species that spend the winter here, arctic fox and reindeer. Recently, still in dark time, there was a common eider near the shore in Longyearbyen. That one has probably spent the winter in Adventfjord, something that is not common but not unheard of either. A kittywake has been seen some days ago.