As a last stop before the North Pole, formerly an Arctic outpost, now an exotic tourist destination - here are some quick facts about Svalbard.
Svalbard is home to about 2650 people, and most of these live in Longyearbyen, the administration centre for the archipelago. There is also a Russian community in Barentsburg, a research station in Ny-Ålesund, and a few people living in Pyramiden. Svea, in Hornsund, and on Bjørnøya and Hopen. All of the settlements are on Spitsbergen, with the exception of the meteorological stations on Bjørnøya and Hopen. Approximately 2100 people live in Longyearbyen, representing over 50 nationalities. Most of the inhabitants are from Norway, and the foreign nations with the highest number of people on Svalbard are Thailand, Sweden and Russia. The average time for someone to live on Svalbard is seven years, and at the start of 2016, one in four of the inhabitants had lived here more than ten years. The people living on Svalbard are young, and compared with the mainland there is a much higher number of people between 25 - 49 years old. Very few inhabitants are over 70 here.
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic, located approximately half way between mainland Norway and the North Pole, between 74° and 81° North. The archipelago is made up of islands, islets and reefs, with Spitsbergen as the largest island. The glaciers of Svalbard cover 36 502 km² or around 60% of the archipelago, while 30% is covered with bare mountains and 10% with vegetation. The largest glacier is Austfonna (8 412 km²) on Nordaustlandet. The landscape of Svalbard has been formed by a series of ice ages, when great glaciers cut the original plateau up into fjords, valleys and mountains. The two highest mountains on Svalbard are Newtontoppen (1713m) and Perriertoppen (1712m). The longest fjord is Wijdefjorden (108km).
The archipelago has an Arctic climate, but with a much higher average temperature than other areas at the same latitude, due to regular low pressure systems and the warm Atlantic Ocean currents. Today, the fjords on the west of Spitsbergen are ice free during much of the winter, but if you meet people who were here back in the day, they may tell stories of reaching Pyramiden and Barentsburg on foot over the ice. The average temperature is -16 degrees Celsius in January, and +6 in July, and there is generally little precipitation in Longyearbyen, although we can get a fair bit of stormy weather. At the coast, the permafrost layer reaches 100 metres below ground, and during the summer, its is only the first metre of so that melts. The polar night and the midnight sun rule the skies for much of the year, adding an exotic touch to your wilderness experiences.Longyearbyen experiences midnight sun from April 20 to August 23, and the dark season between October 26 and February 15.
Polar bears are probably the animal that most people connect with Svalbard, but there are many other animals that call Svalbard home, including walrus, harp seals, ring seals, bearded seals, beluga, bowhead whales, narwhals, Svalbard grouse, polar fox and Svalbard reindeer. The Svalbard reindeer is genetically distinct from other species of reindeer, with short legs and a fat layer that can be 10cm thick. The sea around Svalbard is nutrient-rich, and during the summer large numbers of sea birds flock to the archipelago. There are seven national parks and 23 nature reserves, which combined cover two thirds of the archipelago, and this helps to protect the untouched and incredibly fragile ecosystem found on Svalbard.
The first written mention of the name, Svalbard, was in 1194, but it wasn't before 1596 that Willem Barentz officially discovered the archipelago. He was looking for an alternate route to the Far East, but after drifting in thick fog arrived of the coast of Svalbard. He saw an archipelago with countless mountains, glaciers and long, deep fjords that were teeming with whales. While these riches were not of the same worth as the spice markets in the Far East, whales were an important resource in Europe, which needed oil for lamps. In the beginning of the 1600s, an intense whale hunt began, with up to 200 vessels present in the summer season. During the winter, however, Svalbard was an inhospitable icy desert, and it would be over 30 years between its discovery and the first successful over-wintering. In 1630, eight Englishmen were left behind due to a misunderstanding, but managed to survive on old whale meat and leftover blubber, opening people’s eyes to the possibility of a year-round presence on Svalbard.
Norwegian hunters intensified their presence on Svalbard from around 1850, and towards the end of the 1800s over-wintering had become commonplace. The hunters trapped foxes and polar bears during the winter, seals in the spring, and birds, as well as eggs and down, in the summer. In the autumn, grouse and reindeer were important prey. The hunters travelled over large areas, and made use of a network of hunting cabins. Much of what they took was for their own use, but they sold pelts, down and reindeer meat to earn money for supplies. At the height of its popularity, more than fifty hunters over-wintered on Svalbard, which was hard on the local wildlife. The invention of the self-shooting trap for polar bears made hunting brutally efficient, and had a particularly negative effect on their numbers. One of the greatest polar bear hunters was Henry Rudi, who during the course of his years on Svalbard, killed around 750 bears, with 115 in a record year. Another well-known hunter was Hilmar Nøis, known as ‘The King of Sassen’. He spent 38 winters on Svalbard between 1909 and 1973, many together with his wife, Helfrid Nøis.
In 1610, coal was discovered on Svalbard, but it wasn’t before 1899 that Søren Zachariassen dug out 60 tonnes of coal on Bohemannsflya and sold it on the streets of Tromsø for 1 kroner per barrel. He wasn’t able to raise the capital required to start commercial mining, but in 1906 the American, John Munro Longyear, open Mine 1 in Longyearbyen, known today as the American mine. The year after, the first coal was sent down to the mainland, and with that the mining period which was to last over 100 years had begun. However, it was not easy to run a coal mine on Svalbard from North America, especially given Svalbard is completely isolated from the rest of the world half of the year. In 1916, Longyear sold his coal company to Store Norske Spitsbergen Kullkompani A/S. Of all the mining projects on Svalbard, only coal mining has been long term and profitable. Store Norske still runs Mine 7 today.
Tourism has been on Svalbard at least as long as the mining industry. The first tourists who came to Svalbard were rich Europeans who came to hunt, and often wrote books about their experiences. These reports created interest, and paved the way for cruise tourism to the archipelago. In 1896, three years after he established Vesteraalens Dampskibselskap (which later became Hurtigruten), Richard With started the Sportsman’s Route, which was a voyage from Hammerfest to Svalbard. The same year, the company built a hotel with accommodations for 30 guests. This building was burnt down by the Germans in 1943, but had already laid the foundations for tourism in Longyearbyen. Commercial tourism began in the beginning of the 1900s, and since its small beginnings the industry has been growing over 100 years. Today, 450 - 500 people work in the travel industry, and it is one of the three main industries on Svalbard. In 2015 there were 130,000 guest nights of Svalbard, with over a third of these from foreign visitors.