There are a few Arctic locations where disputes over coal have already surfaced and caused a lot of ill feeling between rival claimants before they were settled. Chief among them is the Svalbard archipelago, where the question of who has a right to mine the land, as well as who owns its surrounding waters, was hotly disputed until the advent of an international agreement in 1920.21
This issue had its origins in the nineteenth century, when hunting crews searching for seals and whales came ashore and started to dig out underground coal, initially just to keep themselves warm, but later to stoke the boilers of their newly pioneered steamships. But it was not until 1899 that anyone made a serious attempt to exploit Svalbard's coal on a commercial scale, when a Norwegian, Soeren Zachariassen, mined the northern shores of Isfjorden. In 1901, an American industrialist, John Munro Longyear, visited the region and made an immediate decision to invest there. Others tried to follow his example. A British company set up a mining operation at the same time, although on a much smaller scale, while a succession of Russians also started prospecting, including the great explorer, Vladimir Rusanov, who investigated the coal seams at Grumant, along the shores of Isfjorden, in 1912. When Norwegian investors bought out Longyear's Svalbard operation in 1916, the rivalry between Norway and Russia for the island's resources really began in earnest, each vying to keep one step ahead of the other. The Soviet Union opened an extensive mine at Barentsburg in the 1930s and another at the very remote location of Pyramiden on Billefjorden, which came into production in the 1940s, while a number of separate Soviet and Norwegian communities also flourished in different mining locations.
In one respect at least, those who worked on these collieries may have been somewhat surprised by the strength of commercial and political rivalry that surrounded them. For even by the dire standards of the day, conditions were almost intolerably tough. The main coal seams were often located high on the valley sides, forcing miners to trek up a steep track along slopes that were frequently covered with snow and ice. This would have been difficult enough even in daylight, but in the long winter months the journey usually had to be undertaken in almost complete darkness. Once they got to work, things were not much better since the coal seams were generally less than a few feet high, forcing them to work in cramped conditions, and the temperature in the mines was constantly below freezing. Even today the area retains its reputation as a particularly harsh environment: in 1996 a Russian plane carrying 141 people, including miners'
families from the Ukraine, crashed in a blizzard, and the following year 23 miners died in a mine fire at Barentsburg.
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