BRICS to join a new research station in Svalbard | Polarjournal
Although still active, coal production in Barentsburg is rather anecdotal, serving mainly to supply local consumption. However, the city may soon become an international scientific station. Image: Michael Wenger

An international scientific station in Svalbard should be developed by the Russian mining company Trust Arktikugol. This is at least what the Russian Minister of Development of the Far East and the Arctic, Alexey Chekunov, envisages, and he would like to include the countries that make up the BRICS group.

The company Trust Arktikugol (Arctic coal in Russian) will develop the international scientific station on the Svalbard archipelago, together with its BRICS counterparts, Alexey Chekunov, Russian Minister of Far East and Arctic Development, told Telegram on April 5, information that was picked up by the Russian news agency, TASS.

Russia has a research station in Barentsburg, a mining town managed by Arktikugol, which could become international in collaboration with other BRICS countries.

Considered as a counterweight to the power of the United States and its allies, BRICS stands for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This group has been meeting since 2011 in annual summits. As far as scientific research in Svalbard is concerned, China and India are already present there. China has a permanent station, the Yellow River Station, since 2003, where researches on aurora borealis, ice and atmosphere are conducted. As for India, it has its own permanent Arctic research station as well, Himadri, since 2008 where the country conducts research in the atmospheric, biological, marine and glaciological fields. Both are located within the Norwegian station of Ny-Ålesund.

Cooperation with other non-Arctic nations in the field of scientific research is probably desired by Russia, especially since the country is experiencing tensions with the Arctic Council, freezing scientific collaboration between nations.

Tourism sector also highlighted

A year earlier, the Russian government ordered the ministry to undertake management of the Arktikugol company, which has an area of nearly 251 km2 in Spitsbergen, providing a Russian presence in Spitsbergen since 1931. This coal mining company, owned by the Russian state, operated the Pyramiden mines, until their closure in 1998, along with those in Barentsburg.

For nearly a century, Arktikugol operated the mining towns of Pyramiden (pictured here) and Barentsburg. If the latter is still active, Pyramiden definitively ceased its activities in 1998, for lack of profitability. The city is now an almost ghost town, if not during tourist visits. Image : Heiner Kubny.

“The trust company’s future would be to slow down systematically the coal production, to develop tourism (our towns are the planet’s northernmost settlements), to develop the international Arctic scientific station, including with BRICS counterparts,” the minister wrote. The development of a museum complex to preserve Arktikugol’s “unique Soviet-Arctic heritage” is also considered.

Earlier, the minister said that coal is not the future of Spitsbergen. “For decades the company has been suffering losses, with antiquated infrastructure, with mainly Ukrainian staff. It produces poor quality coal, and now the company is caught in transport, financial and commercial blockades. No one was allowed, no coal was bought, the (tourist actors) announced a boycott. We changed the management team, […] allocated funds from the federal budget to modernize the infrastructure in Barentsburg and Pyramiden, attracted large Russian companies to buy Spitsbergen coal,” the minister added.

Arktikugol has often come under criticism for its crumbling management and facilities, as well as the working conditions its employees were subjected to.

Therefore, and for several years, Arktikugol has been seeking to renew itself in a more profitable sector than coal, namely tourism. Several investments were made in the 2010s to renovate the existing infrastructure to respond to the growing tourist interest in the archipelago.

It remains to be seen whether the infrastructure necessary for the development of tourism and scientific research on the Russian side will emerge from the ashes of the coal industry.

Featured image: Mirjana Binggeli

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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