The climate cracked coal investment in Svalbard

HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY. A Swedish coal mine on Spitsbergen would secure our need for coal for all time to come – and against the Norwegians in the struggle for no man’s land. But Sveagruvan fought in climate, economic and finally also political headwinds.

Svalbard was a “terra nullius” – one of the last places not yet occupied by any colonial power at the end of the 19th century. Geologists reported huge amounts of coal, but it was not until 1905 that Americans began mining coal, while Swedes and others arrived a few years later.

In 1910, an expedition was arranged by the steel industry’s co-operation organization Jernkontoret, which saw an opportunity to convert ironworks from charcoal to hard coal, without imported coal. With the First World War, prices soared. The company Spetsbergens svenska kolfält AB was formed and attracted a number of financiers, led by Jernkontoret and the steel group Gränges.

“Spitsbergen, when the traffic has really started, should be able to supply our entire country with coal for the foreseeable future”, wrote Svenska Dagbladet in 1918 about “the outermost outpost of Swedish entrepreneurship in the high north”. But that did not happen.

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The first contingent came in 1917 to build a mining village in Braganza Bay on western Spitsbergen. The workers had been lured with wages two and a half times higher than at home and every conceivable convenience.

The mining village at Sveagruvan 1920, with power station, workshop and workers’ barracks. Photo: SPETSBERGEN’S SWEDISH COAL FIELD / TECHNICAL MUSEUM

Housing was built for white-collar workers and workers, a trade fair and a market center, storage, hospital and power station. A shaft was taken up horizontally into the rock to the floats, the coal storage, and one could then let gravity roll wagons with coal on rails down to the harbor.

What was not known was that heavily packed snow in huge quantities gathered at the site during the winter. A lot of time was spent digging tunnels in the snow to get the mining wagons down.

The war had also made it difficult to get hold of machines and other things – furniture, household utensils and even provisions. It also became expensive and difficult to get it in place.

“Copied Americans’ Layout”

Just over a dozen workers chose to go home. When the work started, it had to be done manually, without machine drills and scaring machines, which cut off pieces of carbon. There was also not enough dynamite. To top it all, the power station burned. Everything contributed to the fact that the first season 1917–1918 only produced 4,000 tons, one tenth of what was expected.

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The company made a new share issue to raise more money – but this time it was harder to attract financiers. It worked, but with an emergency call. Now the quay could be expanded, as well as a new power station plus cable car from the mine down to the harbor and the quay.

– The copied Americans’ layout with a cable car, where the baskets hovered over the snow cover. It worked better than the rails, but when there were strong storms, the baskets came loose, says Dag Avango, professor of history at Luleå University of Technology, who wrote his dissertation on the Svea mine in 2005.

– During the snowmelt, an ice barrier could be built higher up. When it finally released, an avalanche of ice, snow and water swept away the entire line. This type of climate-related technology problem is one of the reasons why it was difficult for them to become profitable.

Workers transport away large masses of snow packed at the coal depot in the port. Photo: SPETSBERGEN’S SWEDISH COAL FIELD / TECHNICAL MUSEUM

The pressure on the workers was hard. Many came from coal mines in Skåne. They worked shifts for ten hours, but could not always enjoy daylight above ground. In the winter there was nothing at all.

Another problem was the food, where only dull canned food remained at the end of the season.

This led to conflicts, with a number of strikes. The workers were able to push up wages, aware that they could not be replaced until the summer. They usually got through their demands, which contributed to the company’s high costs.

The mine was loaded with ruins

All difficulties led to the state, reluctantly, entering as a majority owner in 1923. Thanks to that, capacity could be increased. The largest customer from the beginning was SJ, which needed steam coal. In 1925, the volumes were so large that the mine would finally make a profit.

But in an irony of fate, a fire broke out and the mine was laid in ruins.

– The Riksdag got enough. A fire can be extinguished, but all difficulties and financial losses would have contributed to both investors and the state losing interest, says Dag Avango.

The mine was sold to the Norwegians, who occasionally operated it until 2015. Now the site will be cleaned from traces of mining, except for remains older than from 1946. Among them are house foundations and the coal pocket where the cable car started.

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