Hopp til innhold

This is what the damaged Svalbard cable looked like when it came up from the depths

Exclusive photos show the damage in detail. They may explain what happened, but the question of guilt remains.

Politiets bilde nummer 8. av viser trolig tydeligst skadepunktet. Her er det en glippe i stålarmeringen, og selve kabelen kommer til syne. Dermed er det kort veg til den strømførende delen av kabelen, som ledet til jordfeilen som oppsto.

THIS IS THE PROBLEM: The police images show that the Svalbard fiber probably sustained crushing damage, says experts NRK has spoken to. A gap in the steel armoring exposed the cable itself. The weakened protection of the current bearing layer of the cable led to the ground fault that occurred.

Foto: Politiet

The outermost layer is peeled off. The reinforcement is broken.

For the first time in public, NRK can reveal what the Svalbard cable looked like after it was damaged on the night of 7 January 2022.

Norsk Les en norsk versjon av denne artikkelen her.

Politiets bilde nummer 8. av viser trolig tydeligst skadepunktet. Her er det en glippe i stålarmeringen, og selve kabelen kommer til syne. Dermed er det kort veg til den strømførende delen av kabelen, som ledet til jordfeilen som oppsto.

The tear enabled seawater to come into contact with a copper layer carrying electrical current in one of the two cables that together make up the Svalbard fiber. The current is used to amplify the fibre optic signals that flow through the 1300km long cables between the peninsula and the Norwegian mainland. Because of the breakage, the current went straight to ground, and the cable stopped working.

It has not been previously established how the cable was damaged. Now, the photos might provide some clues.

Initially, the police stated that they believed the damages were caused by human activity. Later on, the investigation was dropped, due to lack of evidence.

The unique photos from the police investigation are now published for the first time.

Bildet viser Svalbardkabelen og punktet der kabelen er skadet. Det ytterste laget er skadet, slik at stålarmeringen synes. Denne er spunnet rundt den strømførende fiberkabelen, og er brutt slik at det oppsto en jordfeil.

After an inital investigation, the police dropped the case due to lack of evidence, and inadequate legislation.

Foto: Politiet

Several experts with extensive experience with submarine cables and installations have assessed the images for NRK. Their judgement is that the damage to the Svalbard fiber was due to the cables being crushed.

One of them is a manager in one of the larger companies in Norway that owns and operates communication cables on the seabed. He does not want to be identified, out of concern for the safety of his company's seabed cables.

«It looks like there is damage to the outer jacket of the cable. This can happen if an anchor or a trawl is dragged across it. What does not seem to be present in the pictures, is a clear break or sharp deformation of the reinforcement around the cable, which could happen if you get stuck on a cable with a trawl or an anchor».

Over the years, he has seen a number of cable incidents. He says it is difficult to determine the exact cause of the damage based on photos alone, but notes that there are no signs of it having been hooked by a dragged anchor, for instance.

Bildet viser hvordan den ytterste beskyttelsen på Svalbardkabelen er skadet.

The police images shed light on what happened to the Svalbard cable on the night of January 7, 2022. The outermost layer is a protective coating made of nylon yarn impregnated with tar. It appears to have been peeled off.

Foto: Politiet

«By that reasoning, one might say that the pictures show damage after scraping or pinching by an object that has passed over or along the cable. This could typically be a trawl door or something that is towed along the sea floor.»

Police prosecutor Ronny Jørgensen confirms that the police's technical report also identifies «pinching damage» as a possible cause of the malfunction.

The area where the cable was repaired last year.

Heavy trawling in the area when the cable damage occured

Periodically, there is significant trawling activity in the area where the cable was damaged. If a vessel happens to trawl across a section of the cable that is not sufficiently buried, it is conceivable that the trawl doors, which weigh several tons, could pinch the cable against rocks or hard seabed.

The Svalbard fibre is buried deep into the bottom sediments, ideally up to two meters. However, if the seabed is too hard, it may lie much more shallow, potentially at risk from bottom trawl activity.

NRK has previously reported how a Russian trawler crossed the Svalbard cable more than 140 times, and more than a dozen times before the damage occurred in January 2022. The shipowners have denied having anything to do with the damage.

The police questioned the crew was questioned by the police, and used underwater drones to film the seabed in the surrounding area. A recording shared with NRK shows deep tracks on the seabed that might originate from a trawler door.

Dette er politiets bilder fra havbunnen ved Svalbard, filmet med undervannsdrone, i området der skaden ble funnet. Bildet er hentet fra dokumentarserien «Skyggekrigen».

Police images from the seabed near Svalbard, filmed with an underwater drone, show the area where the damage occurred. The image is taken from the documentary series "Putins Shadow War."

Foto: Politiet

The vulnerability of seabed cables

The critically important cable that connects Svalbard to the mainland is no thicker than a pinkie finger. A steel wire reinforcement is spun around it for protection. The outermost layer is a nylon yarn inserted with tar.

Cable damages occur many times each year, across the globe. This fiber link is one of many subsea cables worldwide that are crucial in their role to connect the world, but at the same time highly vulnerable.

Where it might be possible to re-route traffic to another cable in well-connected parts of the underwater world, the incident outside in the remote Arctic peninsula revealed the fragility of the cable.

It is critical for Svalbard's communication with the mainland, and a particularly important part of the Norwegian space infrastructure. The cable is also critical for Norway's international obligations, according to the Office of the Auditor General.

Fiberkabel Svalbard

The subsea cable surfaces just outside Longyearbyen on Svalbard.

Foto: Jannicke Mikkelsen / NRK

The damage to this cable is also one of the first well known incident in recent years where experts are drawing a possible connection to Russian hybrid warfare at sea.

Compared to other cable damages

Since that January night in February 2022, several other cable incidents have received significant international attention.

On October 8, 2023, both a communication cable and a gas pipeline running between Finland and Estonia were torn off.

Balticonnector: Finske myndigheter undersøker fortsatt skaden på gassrørledningen Balticconnector og estiske myndigheter skaden på de estisk-finske og estisk-svenske kommunikasjonskablene.

Finnish authorities are still investigating the damage to the Balticconnector gas pipeline, while Estonian authorities are examining the damage to the Estonian-Finnish and Estonian-Swedish communication cables. They have concluded that the damage was caused by an anchor.

Foto: Estonian Internal Security Service

The cable break was investigated by Estonian authorities. They have concluded that the cable was torn off by a dragging anchor.

«According to the main investigative version, the damage to the communications cables is connected to the vessel Newnew Polar Bear belonging to a Chinese company,» writes state attorney Triinu Olev in a statement to Estonian ERR and NRK.

He writes that a joint Estonian and Finnish investigation has been investigating whether the damage was an accident or an intentional act. NewNew Polar Bear is currently in China. The same vessel has also been linked to similar cable breaks between Estonia and Sweden, and between the Russian cities of St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad.

«We submitted a legal aid request to the Chinese authorities to gather evidence from the vessel and its crew. They have not provided a response as of yet,» he writes.

Many damages to cables also occur without it becoming known to the general public.

NRK has been in contact with several people involved with laying or repairing sea cables, in order to understand how the damage might occur.

An owner of a large cable company, who does not want attention that can identify the damage or damage sites, says that fishing is the biggest cause of their cable problems.

Her har en trål sannsynligvis dratt med seg kabel og forårsaket skade på det ytre laget, armering og det indre røret der selve fibrene ligger.

This is another instance of cable damage, occurring in 2017 and involving a Norwegian company. Experts consulted by NRK suggest that it is likely a trawl dragged the cable, causing damage to the outer layer, the armoring, and the inner tube where the actual fibers are located.

«The typical damage we see on our marine fiber cables, is mechanical stress due to hooks from fishing. This probably accounts for more than 80 per cent of all damages we have seen. Not all damages have been possible to determine, but damage from bottom trawling and scallop fishing are the most common,» the technical director writes to NRK.

Roughly speaking, the external damage to cables can be divided into three categories, explains Alaisdair Wilkie, chairman of the ACMA. The first is the influence of an external third party, such as anchors, trawls et cetera. The second category is natural impact, such as an earthquake, volcanic eruption or a tsunami. The third is wear and tear, or failure of the equipment itself.

Dette bildet viser hvordan en tilsvarende kabel typisk er bygget opp. Fibrene ligger inne i et rør i midten av kabel, og så er det armering rundt.

This image shows how such cables are constructed. The fibers are housed inside a tube in the center of the cable, which is then surrounded by armoring.

«Anchor damage is very similar to trawl damage and it is really only the circumstances that tell us whether it was one or the other», writes Wilkie in an e-mail to NRK.

Most often, it is hard to tell if cables have been damaged by intention. An example to the contrary is from 2021, when a research cable outside Vesterålen bore clear signs of being cut.

Kabelen bærer preg av å være kuttet etter at den er revet løs, sier Troms politidistrikt. Kabelbrudd ved Lofoten-Vesterålen havobservatorium (LoVe).

The police has stated that this cable appears to have been cut, after it had been hooked. The marks on the cable resemble that of an angle grinder.

Foto: Troms politidistrikt

A 40 hour long operation

Jens Olav Frorud is a consultant at Space Norway, the company that owns and operates the fiber connection. He will not speculate on how the damage to the Svalbard fiber occurred. However, Frorud will speak about how they found and repaired the damaged cable in June of last year.

Jens Olav Frorud, Space Norway under reparasjon av Svalbardfiberen juni 2023.

Jens Olav Frorud, aboard the "Cable Vigilance," was one of the first to closely inspect the damage.

Foto: Dave/ASN

He was on board the «Cable Vigilance» during the month-long and complicated cruise that retrieved the cable from the depths, and repaired it in an extensive operation.

After 40 hours they had found the damage. There was no doubt, says Frorud.

How so?

«One could easily see the signs of this. It was about the area where the damage was. So, it was obvious. You could see the external damage.»

Fiberkabel Svalbard

The subsea cable surfaces just outside Longyearbyen on Svalbard.

Foto: Jannicke Mikkelsen / NRK

Executive Director Rune Jensen of Space Norway says the damage to the Svalbard cable shows how vulnerable fiber connections on the seabed are.

«There has been given greater attention to underwater infrastructure, in particular after the events that have taken place in our neighbouring regions. The Svalbard cable is also part of that picture. Not only in Norway, but also in Europe and on several other continents.»

Bildet viser kabelen om bord på "Cable Vigilance" for reparasjon.

The cable is hauled aboard for repair. Two shifts totaling fifty individuals worked day and night to replace the damaged section. They also brought along remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs) and equipment for splicing the fiber.

Foto: Jens Olav Frorud, Space Norway

Should something similar happen again, Space Norway has now joined ASN, an organization that gives rapid access to cable repair ships, crew and equipment.

«Space Norway acknowledges the conclusion of the investigation. The police cannot prove that this was as a result of human activity. So, we have taken note of that conclusion, and we are not speculating further,» says Jensen.

Additional reporting by Anna Pihl from Estonian National Broadcasting Company.

Translation into English by Arnstein Friling and Håvard Gulldahl