Arriving in Longyearbyen in early November means the sun has already departed and won’t return until late February. A profound change is underway, polar night has arrived, and what little available light there is occurs when the sun makes it to a jaunty 6 degrees below the horizon, bathing everything in blue hues.
This is the civil twilight period, and by the third of November with clear skies and favourable weather, it lasts for a couple of hours in the late morning, before the dark returns again, a darkness that lengthens day by day, slowly extinguishing a wider sense of one’s surroundings. The twilight at least, allows for some perspective on the landscape and the place of the town within it, as well as reaffirming a sense of remote vulnerability, dramatised in the scale of the the mountains and Fjords when compared to the human settlement.
It is strikingly beautiful, precarious and wild, the warning signs of Polar Bears being a simple reminder of the requirement to carry firearms outside of the settlement, and the close proximity of true wilderness.
Change is a constant on Svalbard, alongside the ebb and flow of water and ice, and the rapid movement between light and darkness, the human community itself turns over at approximately twenty percent every year, most people staying for between four to six years at the most.
Continuity between past and present is most apparent in the reason people settled Svalbard originally. Founded in 1906 by the industrialist John Munro Longyear, a man who gave his name to the town but who never lived there, Longyearbyen was a company coal mining town until 1989. Originally under the control of Longyear’s Arctic Coal Company it gave way a decade late to Store Norske, a Norwegian state company that ran the community until the founding of local democracy in 2002.
However, Store Norske remains the de facto landlord for many of the towns residents and reminders of its influence are everywhere.
The remaining mine will close in the next two years and there’s an element of soul searching taking place as to the identity of the town post this transition, with the consolidation of research capacity and ‘adventure tourism’ the most obvious sources of community identity.
One reminder of company control is the Svalbard residents’ ‘alcohol card’, which limits the purchase of beer, cider or spirits, a legacy of the way miners were encouraged to avoid over consumption whilst undertaking such a dangerous occupation.
The only exception to these limits being the purchase of wine, the drink of the ‘middle class’ and preference of the mining management, meaning a life of refined drinking remained a possibility for those who were able to move on from manual labour.
The coal extracted here in Mine 7 is burned predominantly on the archipelago and is the most obvious source of power, but Svalbard is also amongst the fastest warming places in the world due to the burning of fossil fuels. The irony is not lost on residents, and the debate about transitioning from coal animates conversations across this small community that includes both miners and climate researchers amongst its number.
As nothing rots in this arctic desert, the mining infrastructure remains everywhere, an eerie reminder of the industrial past, redundant aerial towers stalking the mountains on their way to the port and town.
Historically in Longyearbyen there seems to have been little sympathy for sentimental description, so there are no street names, only numbers, with the mines being treated similarly. Some attribute this to the fact that for the early part of its history this was a town of men – an argument exemplified in the suggestion that ‘grown men do not build houses in streets that are named Blueberry Road or Teddy Bear Yard’ (Peter Adams in Nye Myter Fra Sas Braathens Magasin, 2005). A bus driver of Swedish heritage, commenting on this discussion and the fact that some street numbers are repeated, explained… ‘Yes, but the bastards who numbered these streets must have been pissed whilst doing it.’
This apparent lack of sentimentality is evident in Mine 3, which was closed by Store Norske without notice to its workers in 1996, and has been left as it was ever since, work boots on racks, newspapers and magazines in the mess hall, a ‘glamour’ calendar from 1995 on the wall, and a half finished jar of jam sitting on a side table, as edible now as it was then, thanks to the permafrost which coats everything in a cold glitter.
If anything epitomises this sudden change in the future of Longyearbyen it’s Mine 3.
This is not a museum then, but a mausoleum for the rudimentary technology employed with great physical effort to extract coal in such a harsh environment, and the attendant difficulties of doing this profitably.
Perhaps more interestingly it’s also a window in to the lives of those who worked the mines and who still do, as there are many family connections between workers from Mine 3 and those still employed in Mine 7 further down the valley in Adventdalen.
It also touches on the pride many feel in being associated with the mining industry. A sense of identity and comradeship that have long been a feature of mining communities throughout the world. It may also explain why there remains a reluctance amongst some here to dwell upon the causal role of coal in global heating, a process that is warming Longyearbyen faster than anywhere else on the planet.
These conflicts and the layering of industrial sediment amidst the ‘pristine’ environment of the High Arctic are reminders of the complexity of sustaining remote communities and the conflicts between historical legacy and the possibilities of transition in a location where change is a constant.
*…this is part one of a series of pieces which will document change in Longyearbyen and Svalbard over the coming year. This project results from the ‘Rising Star’ bursary awarded in 2020 by Amateur Photography Magazine and MPB.