Dinosaur Footprints on the Roof… Of the World!

Alongside Jørn Hurum, many other intrepid paleontologists ply the frigid winds and waters of Svalbard searching for fossils and other ancient remains. The islands of Svalbard, located far to the north of Scandinavia in the Arctic Circle, are as remote and breathtaking as a fossil survey gets. Here is an excerpt from a trip into the teeth of the “Ice Dragon.”

Patrick Drickenmiller studying a dinosaur track close up. (Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum)
Patrick Drickenmiller studying a dinosaur track up close. (Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum)

Written By Jørn Hurum

Wednesday, 30th of July: After a short wait we got a helicopter lift towards the east side of Spitsbergen. The weather turned worse during the trip and when we reached the area just east of the Svea coal mine, the snow got too dense to fly through and we had to return.

Waiting until 9:00 p.m. and making a new flight out was our second chance and this time it worked. We got to Kvalvågen at 22:30 and started the mapping of the dinosaur tracks.

The first tracks were found in 1976 and described in 1978, but until 2012 it was believed that there were only three tracks preserved at the site. In 2012 we discovered several more tracks. However, due to the logistics involved we were not able to visit this remote site again until this year.

Hans Arne Nakrem, Øyvind Hammer, Jørn Hurum, Patrick Druckenmiller and Snorre Olaussen. (Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum)

We are five scientists: The head of the short expedition was Snorre Olaussen, a sedimentology professor at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), and part of the LoCra group; Øyvind Hammer, a paleontologist and computer wiz from the Natural History Museum in Oslo, where Hans Arne Nakrem (also a paleontologist) and myself work. The last participant was paleontologist Patrick Druckenmiller from The University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he has the same position as I have in Norway (head of vertebrate paleontology collections).

The site was spectacular, remote and cold, with the Barents Sea lapping onto a booming glacier across the bay. To see dinosaur footprints on a fossilized beach, itself now a new beach along the same ocean as in the Cretaceous, only colder, was an experience we will always remember.

We mapped 36 tracks in 3D using a total station and photogrammetry methods. At least two different track makers were found including one trackway (several tracks in sequence). The tracks date to the early Cretaceous, about 125-million years ago, and are among the northernmost dinosaur tracks discovered in the world to date. Although weather threatened to delay our trip at first, it ended up beautiful, albeit cold and windy.

And… finished at 5:30 a.m. The midnight sun is a fabulous thing.

After our work was done, we found a sheltered spot in the sun and slept until the helicopter picked us up at 10:00.

Getting an "aerial view" of dinosaur tracks. (Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum)
Getting an “aerial view” of dinosaur tracks. (Photo courtesy Jørn Hurum)

Read More By Jørn Hurum and His Associates



Meet the Author
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