I will never forget Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian mining town on Svalbard that I visited last year. Walking over green grass unheard of in the Arctic and passing by building complexes that could be the homes of hundreds of people. The feeling that those who lived there had just gone out on a day-trip and would be coming back soon.
The citizens of Pyramiden won’t be coming back, they haven’t been on a day-trip and no children will be playing in the playground. Miners are no longer walking back from their shifts and no more ships load coal. The last coal miners and their families left Pyramiden in 1998 and it seems they left in a rush without bringing their belongings, as though they were threatened by a disaster and had very little time to pack. The town was a Soviet dream, food was for free, and the cultural palace provided workers and their families with entertainment. They had a cinema, a library, several music rooms and even a grand piano - said to be the most northern in the world. They also had a swimming pool, sports hall and a football field, along with greenhouses and cattle.
The coal in Pyramiden is difficult and costly to mine and it was decided to close it for good by the state owner Trust Arktikugol in 1998. Running the town was expensive for a government in transition to a new economy. An Arctic dream town fell off the priority list. In the time between 1955 and 1998 the mine at Pyramiden produced 9 million tons of coal, one million of which was used to support the town.
Today Svalbard is associated with science, wildlife and a seed vault, but throughout history, hunting, trapping and mining have been the main activities on the islands. The European superpowers of the 17th and 18th century came to Svalbard to conduct large scale whaling and the remains from that time can still be seen. The intensive coastal whaling, Svalbard’s first large scale industry, led to whale populations nearing extinction; causing whalers to sail to other hunting grounds. The focus shifted to trapping and overwintering and trappers caught walruses, reindeer, arctic foxes, polar bears, seals and collected eggs and down.
The development of more effective equipment almost led to the extinction of some animals. In 1925 the Svalbard reindeer was protected and the International polar bear treaty of 1973 put an end to hunting for polar bears. Lonely cabins from this time can still be found all over the islands. With the industrial revolution rolling out in Europe in the 20th century, the new European industries craved for coal and a new era of development dawned on the islands. Before the Svalbard treaty in 1921 almost all land on Svalbard was annexed for mining operations and a Klondike-like atmosphere dominated.
Today there are only two countries involved in mining on Svalbard. The Russians run a coal mine in Barentsburg and the Norwegians operate both a small coal mine in Longyearbyen and a larger coal mine, Svea, in Van Miljenfjorden. As I write, the Norwegians are planning to open a new coal mine in Luncknefjell. It’s a bitter irony, that a fossil fuel which accelerates both the melt of the Svalbard glaciers and the Arctic sea ice, is mined at the very place where climate change impacts most of all. For me coal mining on Svalbard should follow the footsteps of other industrial activities on the islands; it should be ended and frozen in time.