LONGYEARBYEN, Norway (Reuters) - Working down a coal mine on an Arctic island does not sound like a dream job for anyone, let alone a 21-year-old woman.
But Norwegian Guro Oydgard says she enjoys the life despite long shifts, choking dust and bone-numbing cold on the archipelago of Svalbard where Norway and Russia have mines in a former Cold War outpost that has outlived the Soviet Union.
“It’s exciting. It’s a physical job, not just sitting in an office,” Oydgard told Reuters in her apartment in Longyearbyen, the world’s most northerly village with 1,800 inhabitants and founded by an American miner a century ago.
“Of course the risks are greater than working in an office but it’s not as dangerous as people think,” she said. Oydgard is one of six women working in the modern Svea mine, operated by Store Norske, alongside about 300 men.
The Russian and Norwegian miners and their families live on the same island 40 km (25 miles) apart, separated by a snow-covered mountain range that marks one of the greatest wage divides in the world for doing the same job.
Norwegian miners can earn up to $100,000 a year, more than 10 times the pay of a Russian miner, according to Norwegian officials. Norway administers Svalbard but other nations can exploit natural resources under a 1920 treaty.
Russian miners in the village of Barentsburg, which boasts a big heated indoor swimming pool and a bust of Lenin in the main square, declined to say precisely how much they earned.
Still, miners in Barentsburg, operated by state firm Arktikugol, say they also enjoy Arctic life, even if expectations are lower. The islands are bathed in the midnight sun for almost half the year with darkness for most of the rest.
“The pay is higher here than at home. I can make twice what I could in Almaty. Here you can save money,” said Vitaly Steganov, 43, a miner from Kazakhstan who worked in the Russian mine.
“It was my childhood dream to live in the north,” said another man, who declined to give his name.
“You get used to everything. Life always has problems — you can’t live without problems.”
Several hundred people live in Barentsburg, where some Soviet-era buildings lie abandoned with snow piled up outside. Some snow is blackened by soot from a coal-fired power plant.
And mine accidents happen — in the worst recent accident about 20 Russian miners died in an explosion in 1997.
Away from the mines, little is normal on Svalbard, which is no place for babies or the elderly.
Pregnant women in Longyearbyen are encouraged to leave for the mainland because there is no maternity ward. There are no facilities to care for the aged.
A giant mural on one building in Barentsburg shows two polar bears shaking hands with a bearded miner holding the Norwegian and Russian flags. No roads join Barentsburg and Longyearbyen — it is a two-hour snowscooter trip, or a boat ride in the summer.
The islands have lost strategic importance for the Soviet Union and the United States since the Cold War. But global warming might make the region more attractive for oil and gas exploration, shipping and tourism.
Still, everything in the economies of both Barentsburg and Longyearbyen is built on coal. Wooden pit props for the Barentsburg mine are imported — no trees grow on Svalbard.
Oydgard lived in Longyearbyen as a teenager when her parents worked at the local hospital. She liked it so much she decided to take a job on the archipelago.
“It’s easy to make friends here,” she said. “I couldn’t care less about the money. All I want is enough to live on.”
She does everything at the mine — operating digging machines at the coal face, driving bolts into the roof to stop collapses or driving other miners in and out. She said she may go back to the mainland later this year to study.
The Svea mine is a short plane flight away, where miners work 10-and-a-half hour shifts seven days in a row, then have a week off. In Barentsburg, where the mine is under the town, miners work six-hour shifts five days a week.
The Svea mine produces about three million tonnes of coal, mostly for export to Germany and Denmark. Barentsburg’s mine produces about 100,000 tonnes, according to Norwegian estimates.
To most people it would be a hardship posting but it seems many miners like it that way.
“Life is good here,” said one Russian man in Barentsburg walking with his wife, whose smile flashed several gold teeth.