Sea Monsters of the North: Day 6–Mountain vs. Chainsaw

NG Emerging Explorer Jørn Hurum is currently on Spitsbergen Island in the Arctic Circle excavating the remains of ancient marine reptiles worthy of the most fantastic Norse legends. Follow the expedition here on Explorers Journal through updates from him and his team, and catch up on his previous expedition for more.


By Erik Tunstad

To us, Svalbard has a year zero. We call it Dorsoplanites, an easily recognizable layer in the rocks dating from the upper Jurassic. Relative to this layer you can date and place everything else. A find is located ten meters under Dorsoplanites for example, or another is five meters above.

Dorsoplanites’ distinguishing characteristics are probably the result of some storm, or rather a series of storms, much much stronger than anything we know today, that occurred 145 million years ago. They killed both the sea-floor-dwelling animals which in this case appear to be mostly buchia-molluscs, and the open-ocean-swimming life forms, mainly squid and ammonites–spiral shaped, fossilized motor snakes. Stig found an exceptionally nice one yesterday.

Ammonites–spiral shaped, fossilized motor snakes–are some of the most common fossils found in these layers. Photo by Erik Tunstad.
A larger rock slab reveals just how numerous the ammonites are, and how many of them must have died in the storms that deposited these rock layers. Photo by Erik Tunstad.

The Jurassic was generally warmer than today, Pat explains, and the storms probably a lot more common, and much more violent.

As we look at the Jurassic, below Dorsoplanites, as a rule of thumb we can say that a centimeter of deposits correspond to 5000 years, Jørn says. It must have been quite a calm period, where lots of the same happened, millennia after millennia.

“With that rate, two meters represent one million years,” he adds. “When we know that the entire span of existence for a species is someplace between one and two million years, it means that this is an amazing opportunity to study how these animals changed through time.”

Above the Dorsoplanites layer, into the Cretaceous rocks, the rate varies more. At times it seems like nothing’s deposited at all, in other layers a lot has been deposited over a short period of time. In other words, it was a very unstable environment.

Five meters above Dorsoplanites, a little into the Cretaceous that is, lies the long necked plesiosaur that Julie and Oyvind have been working on the last couple of days. The dig site is more or less pure mud, and the specimen has already got the nickname Britney – presumably because of the song “Dirty Girl.”

She’s laying butt out, with her neck disappearing into the mountain. There could be a skull here somewhere – a real treasure. The Spitsbergen Jurassic Research Group has found many plesiosaurs, but so far, no skulls.

“Why?” Jørn thinks aloud. “The plesiosaurs had big and heavy bodies, a long thin neck and a relatively small head at the end of this. When they died, they would have hit bottom with the heavy body first – and with great force. The head would be lying higher up than the rest, more exposed to scavengers and erosion. Could that be the reason why we never find them?”

But Britney has potential. At least the head hasn’t been destroyed by the last years of rain and wind. What we have of the rest of the specimen is now covered in plaster. But the neck can be up to three meters long, and it disappears under a massive block of permafrost. All that dirt has to go, before we get the answer.

With the main body of the animal protected by plaster in the foreground, steps in the rock and dirt reveal the direction in which its neck extends into the mountainside. Photo by Erik Tunstad.


Julie, Oyvind, Stig and yours truly drag the necessary equipment up. Oyvind carries the chainsaw.

Chainsaw in rock and permafrost: the stone bursts into a million pieces all over the place, the frost and the mud give it the consistency of caramel – or frozen nougat, but even harder.

It will be a long haul. Stone splinters fly, the motor roars and smokes from the cutting edge. Oyvind uses all his muscle power to push the blade down, cutting as deeply as possible. A few minutes pass, then the machine has to be stopped and the chain has to be tightened. The mechanism is covered in sludge. The muck is scraped off, and it’s ready for another round. The motor starts reluctantly and the chain goes round slowly, but picks up speed after a while – and Oyvind is ready for yet another exertion.

As Oyvind cuts into the permafrost with the chainsaw stone splinters fly and the motor roars and smokes from the cutting edge. Photo by Erik Tunstad.

The clock is getting close to eleven p.m., and the machine stops yet again. Out come the screwdrivers—but they’re no use—there’s no more chain to tighten. It is all used up.

It’s a bit of a pain, because there are a few hundred kilos of permafrost left to remove before we have dug out enough to continue detailed excavating tomorrow. We are starting to get tired now. We are wading in caramel sludge and it is clotting under our boot soles, making our feet weigh 20 kilos a piece. It is cold, our muscles buzz and our bodies ache.

The next weapons are chisels; meter-long metal chisels. And pickaxes. And raw muscle power.

The next weapons are chisels; meter-long metal chisels. And pickaxes. And raw muscle power. Photo by Erik Tunstad.

An hour later the rest of the team members come climbing up from their own quarries.

“This is our last and only chance, ever, to find the head of a plesiosaur,” Jørn says. Tomorrow could be really exciting. This day is over. (Even though the girls just have to have a sledging competition on the way to the mess tent.)

While Oyvind struggles in an epic battle with the Earth itself, team leader Jørn and the others look on gleefully empty-handed. Photo by Erik Tunstad..

Dinner is served after midnight. It’s a tired gang sitting around the fire place. I put on some relaxing music–Iron and Wine. Not even Jørn is nagging for heavy rock.

About half past one, most of us creep into our sleeping bags. But I can hear deep male voices from the mess tent as I drift into unconsciousness. Stig and Oyvind, I presume…



Read More From the Expedition

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 1

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 2

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 3

Sea Monsters of the North: Day 4

All Posts From Jørn Hurum


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Jørn Harald Hurum was born in Drammen, a city on southeastern Norway. Since childhood he has collected fossils and minerals in the Oslo region. Since 2000 he has been employed at the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo where he works as an associate professor in vertebrate paleontology. At the University he teaches paleontology and evolutionary biology and supervises masters and Ph.D. students. One recent outreach effort brought him on stage before a general audience interested in his Arctic island project excavating fossils of ancient sea monsters. “There was a four-year-old in the front row and he couldn’t stop asking questions, really good questions” Hurum remembers. “This little boy was so excited to know there was somebody else who understood the things he was wondering about. He made my whole day! As a child, I felt very alone with my interest in fossils. Finally at age 13, I discovered there was a museum in Norway that actually employed people to study paleontology. I started corresponding with those scientists and it was such a relief, such an inspiration. I hope I can give some of that spirit back to the next generation.” Learn More About Jørn and His Work