For visitors, the Russian town on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago combines the contrasts of pristine Arctic beauty and Soviet style industry. Nowadays, however, Barentsburg is reshaping its business-focus to become a modern Russian hub for explorer travellers.
Walking the wooden, steep stairway from the port to new hotel is a ten minutes tour-de-divergence. If you look north, the midnight sunset colours the fjord and the glacier in the horizon in Arctic bright orange. Look south, and the far-away glacier is partly hidden by smoke stacks polluting the horizon with the same blackish colour as the coal piles covering the permafrost.
In times of climate changes, the view couldn’t be more contradictory; a coalmine with a smoky coal power plant in front of a melting glacier. In recent years, the Arctic, and especially Svalbard, has warmed twice as much as the rest of the planet. Presumably owing to warming, most of the glacier retreat rates on Svalbard have increased several folds in recent decades. That includes the Grønfjord glacier just south of Barentsburg.
Barentsburg is the only remaining Russian permanent settlement on Spitsbergen, the largest island on the archipelago. Svalbard is under full Norwegian sovereignty, but according to a 1925 treaty, all signatory countries are granted non-discriminatory rights to fishing, hunting and exploring mineral resources. For Russia, that means coal mining.
The Svalbard Treaty says no military bases should be established, but still, the cold coasts here on the northern edge of the Barents Sea are of huge geopolitical importance. Both during the Cold War, and nowadays with increased militarization of the Arctic, Svalbard plays a potentially important role in case of conflict. The one controlling Svalbard is likely to control voyages in the Barents Sea, the main route for Russia’s nuclear submarines and surface warships based on the Kola Peninsula.
Being present with activity at Svalbard is key for both Moscow and Oslo. For Norway, whose coal mining activity in Svea is being shut down, science and tourism have risen as two new pillars to maintain Longyearbyen settlement with a population of more than 2,000 people.
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