About 252 million years ago, Earth was a miserable place to be. Between 92 and 97 percent of all life died suddenly out in what is the largest known mass extinction ever.
Now paleontologist Jørn Hurum is in Flowerdalen at Vindodden trying to find out how a few lifeforms managed to get to their feet in the subsequent Triassic period.
"Svalbard is unique," said Hurum, a professor at the Natural History Museum at the University of Oslo. "In the mountains here there are four layers of fossils from soon after the disaster. Together, they tell us something about how life arose again."
On Monday, Hurum and his so-called reptile miners – a group consisting of researchers, students and volunteers – set out on his 10th Spitsbergen expedition. On-site inspections were conducted at Flowerdalen last summer to find places to excavate this year.
"Now we have three sites to work with," Hurum said. "Two of them are quite simple 'bone layers' with bones from different kinds of animals. The final one is a place where last year they last found seven skeletons located consecutively. That will be the team's main excavation."
Going for the jackpot
Hurum said he believes they will find gold inside the granite mountainside.
"What we really hope to find a beast known as an omphalosaurus," he said. "These we know very little about. Most people think it's a 'fish lizard' with a very strange and primitive form, but nobody knows for sure. We have found many pieces of it here up and hope to find out more about the anatomy of them."
"Also, we have a few bones from an animal that we have no idea what it is," Hurum said. "We hope that they are simply an ancestor of plesiosaurs, which has never before been found here."
The "fish lizards" and plesiosaurs were reptiles that ruled the seas while dinosaurs walked on land. "Fish lizards" (also known as ichthyosaurs) were comparable to dolphins, while a long neck was characteristic of many plesiosaurs.
The reptile miners have mostly concentrated on the Jurassic era which occurred about 150 million years ago. But now they're going back a further 100 million years in time and searching for the very earliest forms of these enigmatic animals.
"We're sure to find something new," Hurum said. "There's really no one who has dug out here before."
It was Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, a baronial botanist and explorer, who in 1864 first stumbled upon these fossils. Paleontologist Carl Wiman explored the area around 1910, and since then mostly only hikers and cabin dwellers have left footprints on the mountainsides.
"So we're going into unexplored areas, although there were some Swedes here 100 years ago," Hurum said.
The group will also use the trip to plan next year's expedition, which will probably be over Marierfjellet and into Sassen.
Although Hurum previously announced a halt to the annual excavations ("we already have so much material collected that's awaiting"), there is now no indication he now plans to give up.
"We obviously can never stop with" he laughs.