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.
These cases shed a different kind of light on the desire of the Norwegian military to control high-resolution mapping of the Norwegian sea floor including Svalbard and Jan Mayen.