It has been more than a week since there came a breach on one out of two subsea fiberoptic cables supplying internet to Svalbard. “We will not know more until later this week”, Dag H. Stølan of Space Norway says.
The breach happened on Friday 7 January on one of the cables connecting Svalbard to the mainland. Head of Infrastructure at Space Norway Dag H. Stølan says to High North News that the company is waiting for equipment to set up power feed on the cable from Longyearbyen. The equipment is expected to arrive in the middle of this week.
“This is to narrow down the damage area”, Stølan says.
He explains that the equipment consists of a power cap providing power to the signal reinforcers, which are located at 100 kilometers’ distance from one another.
“In this way we will find the potential breach place, as the error lies in breach of the power supply. We can then narrow down the damage to within a few kilometers.”
Will not speculate
Space Norway owns and is responsible for the fiberoptic connection between the mainland and Svalbard.
In addition to supplying the town of Longyearbyen with internet, the fiberoptic cables serve Svalbard Satellite Station, a ground station for satellite communication in Svalbard, with its more than 100 satellite antennas on a nearby mountain plateau. These download data from satellites orbiting over the poles.
What do you think is the reason for this breach? There are speculations about sabotage?
“We will not speculate as to the cause until we know more”, Stølan says.
Norwegian authorities must communicate clearer than they have done so far
There is some seismic activity in the area. Can that be a reason?
“We have no basis for knowing that. However, the cable lies in a steep terrain, so natural forces may have played a role”, Stølan says.
The Svalbard Fiber consists of two subsea cables between Longyearbyen and Harstad. The cable is thus still functioning if one out of the two connections were to fail, as the case is here. But then, it will operate without reserve capacity.
Seven years’ life span
There has been talk about a third cable to secure connections should anything happen to one or two of the existing cables.
“When the life expectancy of our two current cables is reached in 2029, a new solution should be in place. We must by then have done an assessment about a potential third cable, though that will depend on funding”, Stølan says.
He adds that Space Norway is continually in touch with its Svalbard customers, who depend on the fiber cables.
“But we will not know more until later this week”, Dag H. Stølan says.
Hints at sabotage
In an op-ed in High North News (Norwegian only), three Conservative politicians argue that the cable breach should be seen in a larger context and warrant more government interest.
“Is it just a coincidental series of damages and accidents happening to digital infrastructure in the North, or is this a reminder from outsiders about our vulnerability at the same time as dark security political clouds loom large over the European sky?”, asked MP Bård Ludvig Thorheim, County Conservative group leader Beate Bø Nilsen and Head of Sortland Høyre Grete Ellingsen.
Thorheim says to High North News that he warrants clearer communication from the government when incidents like this occur.
How do you think the government should have handled such breaches in the digital infrastructure?
“When a series of incidents challenging our digital infrastructure in the North occur at the same time as there is increased security policy tension, Norwegian authorities should communicate clearer about this than what they have done so far. If there is low probability for sabotage being a cause, they should say so”, the Conservatives politician argues.
In your op-ed you indicate that this and other recent incidents may be sabotage. On what foundation do you base that?
“I never said I believe it to be sabotage, but I am assuming that national capacities are involved to exclude that possibility and that such investigations are a priority”, Thorheim says, arguing that nothing would be better than the cable breach’s having a natural explanation.
“In our op-ed, we want to highlight the vulnerability of the digital infrastructure here in the North, and the need for authorities to pay close attention to development and communicating this clearly. Many people have contacted me to say that this is something they think about a lot”, the MP says in closing.
According to Professor Jan Sverre Laberg at the Institute for Geoscience at UiT Norway’s Arctic University, it is not unusual for cable breaches at sea to come from natural causes. This also goes for fiber cables.
Laberg points out that he is not familiar with the details of the Svalbard fiberoptic cable case, but he speaks on basis of his general knowledge.
“Breaches on one of the many subsea cables laying on the seabed in one of the world oceans is not unusual. This is so because they can be wholly or partly torn off when there are seabed sediment slides”, Laberg says.
“These slides, be they large or small, are triggered where the seabed descends steeply into the dep ocean, such as is the case west of Svalbard. Here, we find a rather steep descent from the continental shelf at the opening of the Ice Fjord and down into the deep ocean, in this case; in the Fram Strait between Svalbard and Greenland”, the professor explains.
He continues to say that another thing that might help explain a slide in this area is that this part of Svalbard has seismic activity.
“Earthquakes happen more frequently here, even powerful quakes, than in the rest of Norway. And earthquakes may trigger underwater slides. If we assume that these cables follow a straight line from Svalbard and south to Harstad, it means hat they probably re-emerge from the deep ocean north of Vesterålen archipelago, another area in which there is a steep descent and where similar slides may occur”, Jan Sverre Laberg at the University of Tromsø says in closing.
So far, there are no indications that there is sabotage on the cable between Svalbard and the mainland, however, the matter is subject of investigation for Troms police district.
Updated contingency plans
The Svalbard fiber connections was laid down in 2004 and as everywhere else, the community in Svalbard in 2022 is largely based on good internet connection. However, on an Arctic Ocean island in the High North, contingency plans must be in place in case the last cable were also to be broken.
This is what Svalbard Governor Lars Fause and the Svalbard Preparedness Council has worked on since last Saturday. The council was gathered last Sunday to map potential consequences if an error were to occur on the second fiber cable between Svalbard and the mainland.
“Without Svalbard Satellite Station, we may not have had internet here at all. However, the one functioning cable makes sure the Svalbard community works as normal. And we have updated our contingency plans in case the second cable were to go down too”, Fause says to High North News.
Different everyday life
The Preparedness Council has assessed risk and vulnerability as well as consequences and options.
“The basics are all about power, food and shelter. This will work as usual regardless, as we have power supply. The second it data traffic. Of course, we would have a different everyday life if the fiber cable were not there”, the Svalbard Governor says.
Without the cable, there will be limited options for communication with the mainland using satellite and 2G. However, there is also some internal capacity in the Governor’s vessel, Polarsyssel, both when it comes to transporting equipment and people, as well as for communication.
Close to normal
“If the last cable were to be broken, another consequence would be limited air traffic. Everything that has to do with flights to and from the archipelago functions via internet. But ambulance and military planes would work anyway”, Fause explains.
“So, exept for internet connectivity, we would be able to work more or less as usual if cable two were to fail. Even when it comes to search and rescue, and preparedness.”
What do you believe to be the reason for the cable breach?
“The matter is currently investigated by Troms police district. I will not speculate as to the cause of it”, Fause says and adds that they all know where they live.
“We are realists here in Svalbard; it is an island far north. Now, we have daily situation reports and good control over the situation”, Svalbard Governor Lars Fause say sin closing.
High North News has repreatedly requested a comment from Justice, Preparedness and Svalbard Minister Emilie Enger Mehl, but had not received any by the time of publishing this article.
This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.