The new is already nearly 4 weeks old. Not too much has happened in Spitsbergen that has really shaken the world, but nevertheless it is time to have a look at the state of affairs.
C & O in Longyearbyen
C as in corona, O as in Omikron – I guess there is hardly anyone who can still hear it without getting turned off. And who will be surprised that C & O are now well established also locally in Longyearbyen? Probably nobody. The numbers of positive tests is well up in two-digit numbers – within a population somewhere near 2500. And it is definitely not just about travellers who just came up with „importsmitte“ (imported infection). The virus is circulating locally, including the school.
Nearly everybody travelling up to Svalbard is obliged to take a negative test done in Norway within 24 hours before departure (and another one after arrival), something that locals – population, economy, politicians – are not amused about at all, also considering that this is not the case elsewhere in Norway. And there are those who ask why Svalbard gets a different treatment than the rest of the country. The tourism industry is getting more and more nervous about the important winter season, which has already been largely lost in to consecutive years.
No sabotage on the cables
No, this is not about the deep sea cable that connects Svalbard to the rest of the world which was damaged a few weeks ago. It is still uncertain what has actually happened to it and it will take some time until the damage is located, let alone repaired. But the functionality has at least been restored, so there is redundancy in the communication again and the whole pressure isn’t just resting on the second cable alone anymore.
In this context, the initially mysterious case of a damaged cable on the sea floor off north Norway was also discussed. Sabotage was at least not excluded in either of these cases, and one had to exercise a bit of self discipline in order not to think of Norway’s big and currently rather ill-tempered neighbour in the east (no, not Sweden). But at least for the case near the islands of Vesterålen in north Norway, sabotage seems rather unlikely now, as NRK reports: the still „missing“ bit of the cable was „found“ – indeed it turned out that the part of the cable that was torn off and later found in a distance of 11 kilometres from the original location, was actually complete, so nothing was missing anymore. This was established after the length of the cable could be measured more precisely.
An investigation of the ship traffic in the area at the time in question has resulted in information that points to a fishing vessel as the cause for the cable clutter. This had initially been considered unlikely as it was believed that such an incidence could not have happened unnoticed and that the crew would have reported it, but this has apparently not been the case. As unpleasant as the whole affair still is for everybody involved including those who don’t get the data they need for their scientific work, at least this is one potential strain off from international relations which are difficult enough as they are.
And as mentioned above, it remains to be seen if there is an equally harmless (at least from a point of international politics) explanation for the case of the Svalbard cable.
Polar Permaculture: neither perma nor culture
The business was neither perma(nent) nor was there sufficient culture in it, at least looking at the formal side of affairs: Polar permaculture was an eco-friendly horticulture business growing for example kitchen herbs in a dome in Nybyen. Local and environmentally friendly food production was and still is an idea that many will sympathise with (including this author). But in this case, the attempt, which seemed to work successfully for a couple of years, came to a rather sad end as the company went bankrupt during the corona crisis in spite of public aid. So far so understandable. But the problem is that the whereabouts of substantial amounts of money, from public and private sources, could not be traced – and 2 million Norwegian kroner (about 200,000 Euro) are not small change, obviously. It turned out that „chaotic“ seems to be a rather mild description of the accounting within Polar Permaculture. The Sysselmester is investigating the case according to Svalbardposten, considering to open a legal case against the former company.
Many, many years ago, ships were needed to send messages from Spitsbergen to the world and vice versa. The wireless telegraph station built in 1911 at Finneset made communication considerably more efficient. Further techical upgrades followed throughout the 20th century.
But this kind of connection, although perfectly fine for the everyday needs of mining companies, expeditions and fishing and other ships, was far from good enough for the traffic that arose when SvalSat was established in 1997: a station with a collection of satellite antennas to send data to satellites and receive data traveling the opposite way. The number of antennas at SvalSat has increased ever since and is now amounting to something near 100.
Satellite antennas of SvalSat on Platåberg near Longyearbyen.
As customers like NASA and ESA don’t like to wait until a data DVD or USB stick is shipped out to them, a fibre cable was laid to the mainland in 2004 to transport large volumes of data in real time. It is actually a set of two indipendent cables to create redundancy and thus a robust structure. Since these cables exist, Longyearbyen has super-fast internet (although the user experience of more mertals may occasionally be different).
The two cables on the sea floor are a very important and sensitive bit of infrastructure. Almost all communication of all of Spitsbergen’s settlements depends on them, as well as the data traffic that is going through SvalSat: controlling satellites in polar orbits and receiving their data when they are needed. Navigation, communication, science, weather – the whole lot, everything that satellites do these days. Obviously an important bit of global infrastructure.
Last Friday, one of the cables was damaged in the early morning, as the operating company Space Norway notified in a press release. A sea-going cable laying vessel is needed to repair the damage, and it will take time until this is done.
The second cable is enough to cater for all data traffic and there are no restrictions as long as it is operative. But there is no further redundance, and a loss of the second cable would have huge consequences. A crisis management group had a first meeting in Longyearbyen to discuss scenarios “in case”. Officials emphasise, however, that there is no reason to believe that a loss of the second cable is likely to happen.
The damage seems to have occured at a distance between 120-130 km from Longyearbyen, in an area where depth is falling from the shallower shelf to the deep sea. The continental shelf is an area where huge mass movements naturally occur from time to time, so the damage may have been caused by a natural event. But no further details are known so far, and authorities do not exclude criminally relevant action of third parties, according to NRK.
The case reminds of the mysterious loss of a cable connection of research installations on the sea floor off north Norway. Last year, the “Lofoten-Vesterålen Meeresobservatorium”, or short: “LoVe” suddenly turned black. LoVe is a civilian research facility designed to collect a rather comprehensive set of high-resolution data of various sorts, including acoustic data. LoVe is, in other words, capable of recording submarine traffic at least to some degree. It turned out that no less than 4 kilometres of cable were removed. 3 out of these 4 km of cable were later found in a distance of a good 10 km from the original site. A natural cause for the event can, as of now, not be excluded, although all options considered (including currents, giant squid or whales) sound more or less bizarre. Bottom trawling can not be ruled out either, but it is hard to imagine that this would have happened unnoticed.
There is a lot of submarine traffic off Norway. Not all of them operate as much in public as this submarine that is here seen being towed in the harbour of Tromsø.
In this context, remarks have been made that Russia is technically capable of operations on the sea floor at relevant depths. Norwegian authorities including the secret service are involved in the investigations, as was reported by NRK and international media such as German SPIEGEL Online.