In late August 2020, Sten-Andreas Grundvåg and Jan Sverre Laberg went to eastern Finnmark on a teaching-related reconnaissance trip. Here is a narrative of their journey.

Text and Photos by Sten-Andreas Grundvåg, Department of Geosciences, UiT The Arctic University of Norway.

Born and raised in northern Norway implies that you know nothing about good weather, thinking that 5 degrees with a cold northern breeze, a little bit of fog and rain, and some fresh white precipitation on the surrounding summits is the summer normal. Anything else is a sign of bad omen or inevitably climate change.

However, this summer we have had too much of the normal. After a good start with the snow melting just prior to transitioning into July, succeeded by two weeks of bluebird, the following months have been a weather disaster. Long gone are our shorts and shirts, now replaced by wool and more wool, underneath five layers of waterproofs.

Are we about to enter a new ice-age?’. It is a recurrent thought of mine as we drive by the remains of old glacial landforms dating back to the last ice age that ended some 15.000 years ago. Me and Prof. Jan Sverre Laberg are on our way from Tromsø to the Varanger peninsula in eastern Finnmark, a back-breaking 12-hour journey by car. We are on a reconnaissance trip and our mission is to check out some new localities for one of our geology field courses (GEO-3113 ‘field course in exogene geology’) at the Department of Geosciences at UiT The Arctic University of Norway. The course, which has run for decades at an annual basis, focuses on Quaternary mapping, modern process-based sedimentology along the Tana River, and the stratigraphy and sedimentology of the Late Precambrian succession of the Varanger peninsula. So, a little bit of everything.

Some people say that the journey itself is the destination. And I admit, the journey to Finnmark is a quite spectacular one, travelling through the dramatic coastal landscape with fiords and steep, rugged mountains in the west, passing eastward into the gentle hills of the alpine plateau (known as ‘vidda’), which extends large parts of Finnmark. The coastal landscape is an undisputable evidence of the raw, destructive force that glaciers possess. However, traversing ‘vidda’ give you a sense of inner peace and forgiveness. The landscape is very smooth with rounded hills covered by shrubs. Here and there, a lake, a small creek, or a larger river cutting through the gently curved slopes. Further east, on the Varanger peninsula, the shrubs gradually disappear, giving way to tundra, a naked, and stripped landscape reminding you more of Spitsbergen than anything else. Here, the land eventually contends with the sea.

Our focus on this trip is Late Precambrian rocks, which outcrop along the southern and eastern coastlines of the Varanger peninsula. As a geologist, there is one mandatory stop when visiting this part of Finnmark: Biggánjárga in Karlebotn, in the innermost part of Varangerfjorden. No other locality in Norway has fostered more academic debate than the so-called Biggánjárga tillite, or the Reusch’s moraine, if you do like. The locality was made famous by Hans Reusch in 1891 and his classical sketch adorn the front cover of the Norwegian geological dictionary. Later efforts by many well-known names of Norwegian geology, as well as international renowned geologists, has surely put Biggánjárga on the geological World map.

The location, which is protected by law, is the home of a Late Precambrian boulder-bearing sandstone body known as the Biggánjárga tillite (till is unsorted sediments deposited directly by a glacier). Below the tillite, there is an exposed sandstone surface exhibiting striations, which seems to continue underneath the main tillite body. Striations like these are typically attributed to glacial abrasion of a consolidated substratum, and are commonly observed at exposed bedrock surfaces in front of active glaciers. Thus, because of the striations, a glacial origin has been indicated for the Biggánjárga deposit, suggesting that ice-house climates prevailed some 600 million years ago. Similar-aged tillites occur elsewhere in Finnmark and is wide-spread in other parts of the World, giving rise to the idea of a fully ice-covered planet at these times (i.e. the Snowball-Earth theory). The tillites in Finnmark have given name to the Varangerian ice age (590-580 million years ago), although the interval hosting the Biggánjárga tillite are assigned to the much older Marinoan glaciation (645-635 million years ago). However, there have been heated debates on whether or not the Biggánjárga tillite is a true glacial deposit, as some of the reported features may also be consistent with deposition from a subaqueous debris flow.

Despite our main objective of visiting new localities, a stop at this classical location was deemed necessary before we could continue our voyage across the peninsula. There is a sense of growing anticipation walking out there, following in the footsteps of the pioneers of Norwegian geology. At the location itself, there is an aura usually not associated with rocks. Perhaps more like the feeling of entering the gates of a gothic cathedral or kneeling at the very foot of the tall peaks of Himalaya. Could it be that your mind is biased by the tranquility of the place, the calm air and the reflection of a passing sea eagle on the fiord? No, there simply is no other place like this elsewhere in Norway. Thus, I conform to the following writings of Halvor Rosendahl of 1945 who wrote about the Finnish geology professor Jakob J. Sederholm, who he joined at Biggánjárga in 1928.

Of all the geological occurrences he had seen, this was the most remarkable and revealing. For him it was a spiritual place, and the journey was a pilgrimage; he used this word himself. This was now the seventh time he was making this journey” – H. Rosendahl, 1945 (translated by M.B. Edwards in his 1997 publication).

After some hours strolling around, you may think that leaving Biggánjárga and breaking free from its obsessive spell should be an easy task, especially when food and freshly brewed coffee awaits back at the car. Well, easier said than done, but eventually we agreed that to unravel the mysteries of Biggánjárga, more time is needed. Thus, yet another pilgrimage to this sacred place will have to take place next year. For me, the eighth time, and for Prof. Laberg, his ninth time.

NB! Later in the week, we also visited other locations such as the type locality of the Mortensnes tillite at Handelsneset (of undisputable glacial origin), colorful tidal flat deposits in Persfjorden, shallow marine deposits just east of Berlevåg (belonging to the Skjærgårdneset and Stordalselva formations), and deep-water turbidites of the Kongsfjorden Formation, both on the way to Hamningberg (in a landscape similar to the Moon), and at Veidnesodden in Kongsfjorden. To conclude, the Late Precambrian succession in eastern Finnmark host deposits from a wide range of depositional environments, with many spectacular locations perfectly suitable for excursions, field courses or just some peace in mind.

The Biggánjárga tillite should only be approached with the greatest respect. The Sami name for the location is Geađgefális, meaning the stone whale, referring the oval, whale-like shape of the tillite body.
The grey tillite to the left of the picture, with the striated sandstone surface underneath (where the hammer is placed).
A 2020-remake of the iconic motif of the classical 1891 sketch – selfie taken with a drone.
Jan Sverre admiring a true tillite within the Mortensnes Formation at the type locality of the unit, Mortensnes, Varangerfjorden. Note the big, rounded boulders to the right of the hammer.
Jan Sverre pointing out some thrust faults at a debated location containing some questionable interglacial cycles. Quarry at Návccabákti, Hammernes, Varangerfjorden.
Some deformed sandstones at Krampenes 15 km east of Vadsø.
Tidal flat deposits of the Båtsfjord Formation, picture from Vesterelvhaugen in the innermost part of western Persfjorden. The varying colors are due different oxidation states of iron within the sediments.
Desiccation cracks within the tidal flat deposits, indicating that the sediments once were subaerially exposed. Vesterelvhaugen, western Persfjorden.
Algal lamination in the tidal flat deposits, indicating that some early lifeforms existed in Late Precambrian times. Molla, eastern Persfjorden.
The road to Hamningberg meanders its way through a moon-like landscape formed by folded and vertically tilted sandstone successions.
Tilted turbidite beds of the Kongsfjorden Formation south of Hamningberg.
An old house at Hamningberg, the official end of the easterly road.
The lighthouse at Kjølneset east of Berlevåg is located on top of vertically-tilted, shallow marine deposits of the Skjærgardsneset Formation. Be aware of this being a weather-exposed location.
Details of the shallow marine deposits of the Skjærgardsneset Formation at Kjølneset.
Nature’s own art. Details of a 10 cm thick heterolithic sandstone bed displaying delicate sets of climbing current-ripple cross-lamination. Skjærgardsneset Formation, Kjølneset.
A dolerite dyke penetrating a thick succession of turbidite beds of the Kongsfjorden Formation, Veidnesodden, Kongsfjorden.
Stacked turbidite beds at Veinesodden, Kongsfjorden.
Details of the cross-laminated top of a turbidite bed. Veinesodden, Kongsfjorden.