Svalbard, an archipelago about 650 miles from the North Pole, has a very rich and varied geological history. Its lands have been inundated with shallow tropical seas, covered in deserts and sub-tropical forests, and even roamed by dinosaurs. 600 million years ago, the landscape of Svalbard was dominated by large glaciers of an ancient Ice Age – but Svalbard wasn’t at the North Pole yet! It was actually located in the Southern Hemisphere, at the equivalent latitude of the tip of Antarctica in the modern-day. As the continents shifted and drifted apart over millions of years, Svalbard eventually crossed the equator and made its way to its current location in the North.
Near Longyearbyen, the main town in Svalbard, outcroppings dating back to Jurassic and Cretaceous times, from 65 – 175 million years ago, are on-display in this stark and treeless landscape. Scientists have found fossils of marine dinosaurs, like Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus in the region, as well as land-dwelling dinosaurs like the Iguanodon which used to graze in the Cretaceous forests (the photo is of me in Barentsburg, Svalbard, with a footprint of an Iguanodon). Before the North Atlantic Ocean opened, Greenland and Svalbard actually were attached to each other. Fossils of a pantodont, a mammal about the size of a hippopotamus (at its biggest) and herbivore (plant-eater), had only been found in North America. 15 years ago, a lucky find of pantodont footprints in a coal mine in Svalbard confirmed that Greenland and Svalbard were still connected by land millions of years ago, allowing the creatures to roam an extensive swath of warm and mild land in the Arctic. It’s amazing how we can craft a story of the past from secrets long locked away in layers of rocks and fossils. Who knows what else is still out there to discover?