Staying in Svalbard

Abandoned aerial tramway previously used for transporting coal. Image from wikipedia

Svalbard has an unusual status that makes it a flashpoint of an escalating face-off in the Arctic between Russia and the West.  Norway, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Russia subsidize unprofitable mines to keep a strategic footprint on an icy group of islands where Oslo and Moscow have been the main players since a 1920 treaty among multiple nations recognized Norwegian sovereignty but allowed other nations to develop some commercial interests. (pdf).

 Russia has upgraded its northern fleet, conducted large military exercises in the region, and opened a revamped military base on the archipelago closest to Svalbard….  NATO has described its lack of maritime resources in the region as a weakness.  “Svalbard is part of Norway and therefore it’s part of NATO,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. “So, of course, all the NATO security guarantees apply to Svalbard. When it comes to the question of coal mining, that’s for the Norwegian authorities to decide.”…

Oslo is planning to buy new submarines and has increased the number of troops on its border with Russia.  But Norway, one of the world’s richest countries on a per capita basis, is debating whether to keep financing coal mining on Svalbard. A renewed commitment to mining would be controversial, not just for the cost but also because of Norwegians’ vision of themselves as champions of environmental causes…

“It’s a question of how much are we going to spend doing something irrational versus how great do we feel the need to counter Russian Arctic activity,” said Indra Overland, head of energy at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, a think tank that is partially funded by the state…

Some 800 miles from the North Pole, the islands are barren, with temperatures that dip to minus-20 degrees Celsius (minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit) in winter months when the sun doesn’t rise.  Miners on both sides are attracted by relatively high salaries. Barentsburg’s 400 inhabitants are also provided with health care, a school and low-cost housing.Russia, which started mining here in the 1930s, focused on Barentsburg and another settlement called Pyramiden. The towns housed swimming pools, 24-hour canteens and food products that were then largely unavailable elsewhere in the Soviet Union…

Russia’s government has ordered coal production to slow to stretch reserves out until 2032, and will then face a decision similar to Norway’s on whether to invest in a new mine…

Both countries are turning to tourism.  In Russia’s settlements, visitor numbers have doubled in the past four years, and income from tourism stood at $2.4 million last year, more than from mining. Arktikugol received $8 million in government subsidies in 2016….Norway has opened a university, and one closed coal mine has become a museum and film archive. Old miners’ cabins have been renovated for holiday accommodation and a warehouse is now a restaurant.

But Norwegian politicians and academics admit that without a coal mine, their country’s presence will diminish, in part because tourism is so seasonal.  “To put it bluntly, the purpose of the Norwegian settlements is to assert Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard,” said Torbjørn Pedersen, a political scientist at Nord University in Bodø, Norway

Excerpts from A New Cold War Grip Arctic Enclave, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 11, 2017

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