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Tuesday, 13 April 2021 00:00

Spitsbergen (Svalbard). Doomsday vault and ghost towns.

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Stocks for Doomsday, ghost towns ... all this is not a description of horror films or fantasy novels, these are parts of the vast Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.

Spitsbergen ("Sharp Mountains"), also known as Svalbard, is located in the Arctic Ocean. It is located between the northern shores of Norway and the North Pole. Between Greenland and Franz Josef Land.

The area of the archipelago is 61,022 km2.

The territory of Svalbard consists of:

-three large islands: West Svalbard, Northeastern Land and Edge Island;

-seven smaller islands: Barents Island, Bely Island, Prince Karl Land, Kongseia (Royal Island), Bear Island, Svenskeya, Wilhelm Island;

-groups of islands, small islets and skerries, with a total area of 621 km2.

The archipelago and coastal waters are a demilitarized zone.

Apart from Norway, only Russia carries out significant economic activity in the archipelago. On the island of Western Svalbard there are Russian settlements: the village of Barentsburg, as well as the preserved settlements of Pyramid and Grumant.

At the beginning of the XX century, people from Norway, Russia, Sweden, Canada and the USA began to come to Svalbard because of coal deposits, they founded the cities of Longyearbyen, Barentsburg, Pyramid, Grumant, Sveagruva and Nu-Aalesund. Throughout the XX century, coal mining was the main engine of the economy here, but at the end of 2016, fuel prices fell and the focus shifted to the development of tourism.

By the mid-1990s, it became obvious that Russia, which became the successor of the Soviet Union in Svalbard, simply did not need local coal. The reasons are simple and obvious: high logistical costs, the exhaustion of easily accessible deposits at the surface of the earth, which forced miners to "dig" deeper into the mountain, as well as an underground fire in the mine of the village, which arose in the early 1970s, made coal mining here categorically unprofitable.

The last tons of coal in the Pyramid were mined on March 31, 1998, which is dedicated to the memorial trolley installed at the stele with the name of the village. After that, the settlement was mothballed, it is considered a Soviet ghost town.

Photo: Pyramid village nowadays (renovated

However, in recent years Norway has begun to develop Arctic tourism in the archipelago, Russia has decided not to lag behind. A hotel was renovated in the Pyramid, the engineering infrastructure was restored, and several guest houses were built. But even these unexpected incomes that have fallen on the head of the coal trust, which is engaged in the development of the village today, cannot yet recoup the costs of maintaining the village in a more or less decent form.

The Soviet settlements of Grumant and Kolesbukhta were less fortunate. The miners left here in the 1960s, the villages did not have time to get a full-fledged infrastructure, and they were much smaller in size. Now these settlements resemble typical abandoned towns in the Far North of the USSR, they look really frighteningly devastated.

Photo: Grumant village (preserved)

But the preserved Grumant and Kolesbukhta can boast of the remains of a railway with a 900 mm gauge unique for the Soviet Union . The length of the section along which coal was delivered from the Grumant mine to the deep-water port of Kolesbukhty is 8 kilometers

The only year-round inhabited Russian settlement on Svalbard currently remains Barentsburg. After the conservation of the mines in Grumant and Pyramid and the evacuation of most of the Soviet population to the Mainland, coal mining has been preserved only here, but it satisfies only the needs of the local CHP.

It is tourism (along with scientific activity) that becomes the basis of the island economy. Tourists go to Svalbard to see the polar bear, the Northern lights and the Russian ghost town Pyramid. There are also snowmobile safaris, dog sledding, wildlife, ship cruises, hiking and skiing tours.

Residents of the countries that signed the Svalbard Treaty - and there are more than 50 of them — have the right to stay and work in the archipelago without a visa. Russia is one of them.

It is also interesting to note that this archipelago is a crime-free zone, life here is really calm: doors and cars are left open, crimes are not committed - apparently the matter is remoteness from the mainland, heavy transport accessibility. Most of the residents work here, receive enough funds, do not live here "from paycheck to paycheck" even despite the high prices (relative to mainland prices).

The neighborhood of residential settlements with polar bears may seem frightening to many, but locals are not afraid of them, weapons are taken only on excursions to uninhabited parts of the islands.

Also, Svalbard has become a major polar scientific center. Polish and Chinese research stations work here, there are NASA bases and a dozen other scientific institutions.

In addition, a unique facility, the World Seed Storage Facility, was opened near Longyearbyen in 2006. On the basis of an old mine turned into a mining bunker, a bank of planting material was created, where about 900 thousand samples of seeds of agricultural plants were collected at a depth of 120 meters in permafrost. Svalbard was chosen for the seed storage bank because of permafrost and small tectonic activity in the archipelago area.

Photo: World Seed Storage (diagram; view from outside and inside)

Each country received its own compartment in this plant bank. The task of such a seed repository is to prevent their destruction as a result of possible global catastrophes, such as an asteroid fall, nuclear war or global warming. There is enough space inside for 4.5 million seed samples.

It is possible to take duplicate seeds from the World Seed Storage only if the seeds stored in the original funds are lost. In 2015, seeds were taken from the World Seed Storage Facility at the request of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Arid Areas, which was located in the Aleppo area and lost part of its collection due to the fighting. Work with the taken seeds was carried out in Morocco and Lebanon. By 2020, some of the seeds taken were returned to the World Seed Storage.

For some, Svalbard is isolation, a test of harsh climate, polar night and high cost, a dull look of abandoned ghost towns and a gray life. For locals and active tourists, it is a calm, confident life in an eco-friendly environment with the opportunity to engage in any activities right outside the doorstep of the house.

Svalbard is an object with undiscovered potential, which already plays the role of a platform for international scientific cooperation and the development of Arctic tourism. The dynamics of recent years shows that life, science and the interest of many states in this territory are returning here.


1. Nazilya Zemdikhanova, Life on Svalbard // Tinkoff Journal, 03/2018 URL: https://journal.tinkoff.ru/spitzbergen/ (date accessed: 12.04.2021)

2. Ministry of Agriculture and Food. Svalbard Global Seed Vault: The seeds of the world are on their way. Stoltenberg's 2nd Government, 02/2008 URL: https: //www.regjeringen.no/en/historical-archive/Stoltenbergs-2nd-Government/Ministry-of-Agriculture-and-Food/Nyheter-og-pressemeldinger/nyheter/2008 / svalbard-global-seed-vault-the-seeds-of- / id499567 / (date accessed: 13.04.2021)

3. The Russian Federation will continue its presence in the Norwegian Spitsbergen // Delovaya Gazeta Vzglyad, 03/2009 URL: https://vz.ru/news/2009/3/24/268367.html (date accessed: 12.04.2021)

4. Zinger EM Country of mountains and glaciers // Nature: journal. - Science, 1997. - No. 8.

5. Zinger EM Spitsbergen - ice archipelago. - M .: Penta, 2006 .-302 p.

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