Mesmerizing Photos of Abandoned Structures in the High Arctic

Old mining towns and research shacks lie in ruins in the Svalbard islands.

Abandoned research stations in Svalbard.  These old shacks at the Kinnvika Polar Research Station have locks to protect against polar bears.
Abandoned research stations in Svalbard. These old shacks at the Kinnvika Polar Research Station have locks to protect against polar bears. Christopher Michel

High above Norway, in the cold depths of the Arctic Ocean, lies the Svalbard archipelago. Located some 650 miles from the North Pole, Svalbard is a place of long, dark winters and breathtaking landscapes populated by Arctic foxes, reindeer and polar bears. But it’s also home to unexpected ruins, stark remnants of the places where people have lived on these unforgiving islands.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Svalbard was used as a base for whaling expeditions; by the early 20th century, its main industry was coal mining. Today, it’s still possible to glimpse some of this history in the abandoned mining operations that still exist around the largest settlement, Longyearbyen, which has a population of 2,162 people. Getting around is another matter: roads are limited, which restricts transport mainly to snowmobiles in winter and boats in summer. Air travelers to Svalbard land at the world’s northernmost public airport, which was built during WWII. 

Just north of Longyearbyen is the former Russian coal mining settlement known as Pyramiden. Purchased by the Soviet Union from Sweden in 1927, and once home to more than a thousand people, it was abandoned in 1998. Today the signs of its former inhabitants remain only in the guise of a decaying Olympic-sized swimming pool, a movie projector, and a room overflowing with rolls of film.

This isolated, frozen landscape held great appeal for photographer Christopher Michel. This was his second trip to the High Arctic, and, he says, “I am absolutely captivated by remote landscapes devoid of humans. A place where survival requires extraordinary adaptation.” This affinity runs through his photographs, which are a compelling account of this unique region and the remnants of the communities that lived there.

Below, Atlas Obscura has a selection of Michel’s images of Arctic ruins in Svalbard. 

The sign at the abandoned Soviet coal mining colony of Pyramiden. 

 The main square at Pyramiden with Soviet-era insignia — propaganda signs, hammer & sickle, and a bust of Lenin.

Although located some 650 miles from the North Pole, the town’s comforts included an Olympic-sized pool.  

 Pyramiden was abandoned rather quickly in 1998. There are many touching reminders of the families that spent their lives here.

Much of the old equipment still remains, including this vintage movie projector in the town’s recreational hall.

 In the projector room, countless reels of Soviet films litter the floor.

The town of Longyearbyen, where the snowmobiles outnumber the residents. It’s very common to see people walking around with rifles, as they are required for polar bear protection for anyone leaving the compound. 

Throughout Longyearbyen there are large-scale mining ruins. In this photo, you can see Mine 2B just above the town. 

Inside Mine 2B.

The best way to see all of Svalbard, says Michel, is by boat.  Charters leave Longyearbyen on a regular basis.

Old abandoned shacks at the Kinnvika Polar Research Station.

A Studebaker M29 Weasel at Kinnvika Polar Research Station.

The immense beauty of the High Arctic is something that you won’t soon forget, says Michel.