Sea, mountains, ice. Everything on Svalbard is bare and open. That is why geologists like the place: you can see the long geological history at one glimpse. Even the coal has been easily detectable. On the slopes of this mountain is Pyramiden, an abandoned mining village from the Soviet era. 

Amid the scree we come across a fossilised leaf. The visible plant fossils are a memory of the distant history of the islands. During hundreds of millions of years, the continents have transformed and moved and when this leaf was swishing in the wind, it happened much further south of its current location. 

Over millennia, the ancient woods have transformed into coal, and the modern era on Svalbard began with coal. Mr. Longyear came from America in the beginning of the 1900’s and founded a mine. Around the mine a village was born, and so the capital of the archipelago got its name: Longyearbyen. 

There was a time when there were several coal mines. You can see their structures and remains in many places on the islands. The number of working mines has decreased, but coal is still mined on Svalbard.  

Even Barentsburg, the still active Russian mining town depends on coal. It is like an outdoor museum for the Soviet Union. Our aim is communism, says the poster behind the Lenin statue. 

The coal is taken away. Everything in this world has been built on coal and other fossil fuels. The result is the greenhouse effect, as a result of which the glaciers of the Svalbard are melting to small streams running into the sea. 

Even the permafrost is melting. The soil that used to be always frozen is softening. As this gets repeated throughout the Arctic region, even more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. In Longyearbyen roads have been closed because of landslides. 

It is widely understood that something is happening to the glaciers. So, you must see them while they are still there. Svalbard tourism is booming and needs workers. They come from Thailand and the Philippines. 

As the Svalbard was supposed to be far from everything, a vault for the seeds of all crops in the world was dug into the permafrost. In the autumn of 2018, the vault had to be repaired: warming had caused water damage. 

Today, the plants of the Svalbard are small and fragile. No new fossils form from them. If the islands near the North Pole start becoming green and get covered with bushes, as they were in the days when the coal layers emerged, warming on this planet will have got completely out of control.  

Fossils are the beginning and the end of Svalbard

Photos and text Markku Heikkilä
Translation Maija Myllylä


Mining communities were established on Svalbard when people wanted to mine coal, a fossil fuel. The ice fields of Svalbard are melting, and the future is changing because the use of fossil fuels warms the climate. On Svalbard fossils are at the core of everything, the beginning and the end.

Markku Heikkilä is the Head of Science Communications in the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland, with a background in journalism. He visited Svalbard in August 2018 on a study trip organised by the Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists.