Svalbard, Norway – Introduction & Arrival
Trust me, when you’re this high, latitudinally speaking of course, geodetics is so much fun. Cold fun, but fun nonetheless. I’m nigh-on 80°N. 78.2°N to be exact, 78.2 degrees north of the equator that is, the highest I’ve ever been and likely ever will be. I’m on a distant & shivering archipelago called Svalbard () that’s well inside the Arctic Circle, the most northerly of the earth’s five major circles of latitude that’s sitting (and slowly drifting) at only 66°N. I’ve been close to the Arctic Circle before when in Anchorage, Alaska (61.2°N). Even closer still when in southern Iceland (tantalisingly close at 64.1°N). This time, however, I’ve crossed the line and I’m in the Arctic proper. The High Arctic even. Yes I’m still in Europe – Norway to be percise – but I’m closer to Alaska than Athens by being here half way between mainland Europe and the North Pole, that northernmost point of the Earth’s axis that’s only 1,338 kilometres (831 miles) away. Indeed, being here in the quirky town of Longyearbyen, Svalbard’s largest settlement and the northernmost real town on earth, makes me one of the most northerly 3,000 people on the face of the planet. In fact, there’s a rather high probability that right now I’m the northernmost Irishman alive, and conceivably the coldest too considering it’s -19 °C (-2 °F) outside, or -28 °C (-18 °F) with the windchill. Brrr! But at least there’s daylight this time of year to accompany the mordacious frigidity. It – the light – will allow me explore some of the 62,000 km² of unrivaled & pristine Arctic wilderness that I find myself in the midst of; as a visitor there’s very little else to do up here, positively no other reason to swing by should you, like me, decide to do so.
Svalbard - Titbits
Suffice it to say, Svalbard is a bit off the beaten track, not your typical getaway location. It’s an inhospitable, strange & unique land, one governed by some equally strange and unique rules and regulations and all shaped, like everything else around here, by the archipelago’s extreme everything. Here are a few fun fast-facts I discovered researching the place, choice morsels of information, some of which are elaborated on throughout the posting with typical dMb verbosity.
LOCATION & EXTREMES – CLIMATE, THE LONG POLAR NIGHT & THE MIDNIGHT SUN || The Svalbard archipelago, comprising three main islands and numerous smaller islands, sits frozen at the northernmost tip of Europe… Located between the 74° and 81° parallels North, Svalbard’s settlements are the northernmost permanently inhabited places on earth… The archipelago is far higher than anywhere in Alaska and Arctic Russia with only a handful of islands in the extreme north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and the extreme northern tip of Greenland being higher… Svalbard, however, wasn’t always this high. The archipelago’s abundant coal deposits, fossilised remains of a tropical forest and the reason humans settled here in the first place, are remnants of a time many millions of years ago when present-day Svalbard was situated much further south… Although the archipelago features a typically severe Arctic climate, Svalbard’s climate is milder when compared with other regions at this latitude. Indeed, the so-called ‘tropical’ Arctic Archipelago would be icebound 365 days of the year if not for the West Spitsbergen Current, the northernmost branch of the North Atlantic Current system, its comparative warmth making the west of the archipelago both habitable & accessible… Much like Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere, Svalbard receives little precipitation (plenty of snow, however) and is thus classified as ‘arctic desert’… The higher air pressure on Svalbard makes it more difficult to breath here than on the mainland… The Svalbard ground is perennially frozen – permafrost – to a depth of 500 metres & only the very top layer, the 1-metre-wide upper active layer, defrosts at all, and even then for only the 3-4 months of so-called summer. Outside of the summer months, or around about now, everyone is freezing, everything frozen solid. Below freezing for 8 months of the year, the average winter low is -15 °C (5 °F) with a record low of -46 °C (-51 °F) (a domestic deep freeze chills out at about -19 °C (-2 °F))… From the setting sun of late October until the rising sun of mid-February, there’s constant darkness, the so-called Long Polar Night, & the sun never sets, the so-called Midnight Sun, between mid-April and late August… Svalbard’s location in the far north means it feels the impact of climate change most acutely – temperatures here have risen 6 degrees over the course of the past 3 decades. That’s global warming for you.
FORMATION, LANDSCAPE (60% ICE, 27% ROCK, 13% VEGETATION) & RESERVES || A frozen land of glaciers, peaks & fjords, the landforms of Svalbard were created through repeated ice ages, when glaciers cut the former plateau into fjords, valleys and mountains… Two-thirds of the 62,000 km² archipelago, corresponding to approximately 20% of the area of mainland Norway, is permanently covered by snow & ice (60% of Svalbard is covered in glaciers), and approximately 65% of this largely untouched yet fragile natural environment, an area roughly the size of Denmark, is protected in the form of seven national parks, twenty-three nature reserves, numerous plant & bird reserves and a lone geotropic reserve (Svalbard is on Norway’s tentative list for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site)… If not blanketed in snow & ice, Svalbard would be barren, rugged and desolate, a landscape resembling a time harking back to the Ice Age. Its mountains, the tallest of which is Newtontoppen (1,717 metres / 5,633 feet), are crumbling heaps of rapidly disintegrating sedimentary rock… The landscape, 27% of which is barren rock, has no trees, there is no arable land (nothing of note grows here) & only 13% of Svalbard is vegetated.
THE SVALBARD TREATY || Svalbard is officially part of Norway as per article 1 of the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, a unique set of articles, 10 in total, giving unique rights to a unique land. Upheld by The Governor of Svalbard (Sysselmannen på Svalbard in Norwegian), the administrative team responsible for public services and the Norwegian Government’s highest-ranking representative on Svalbard, the treaty ensures the archipelago remains demilitarised (and natural, article 9); ensures the citizens of the 40 Treaty signatories (as of late 2010) are afforded equal rights to entry and residence while allowing signatory nations rights to engage in research or commercial activities, mostly mining; while article 8 ensures taxes collected can only benefit Svalbard (in reality not only are taxes collected not siphoned off to the mainland but the Norwegian state greatly subsidises Svalbard’s budget).
ENVIRONMENTAL & CULTURAL PROTECTION || Entrusted, as per the Svalbard Treaty, with preserving the natural & cultural environment, Norway takes the task very seriously – environmental & tourism regulations means large swaths of the archipelago are off-limits (you must seek permission from the Governor’s Office to strike out independently into the wilderness outside the so-called Management Area 10, the central parts of the island of Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest and only permanently inhabited island) and anything on the island dated pre-1946 is protected as a cultural monument or artefact, however nondescript it may appear. Thread carefully.
– From The Governor of Svalbard’s Experience Svalbard on Nature’s own terms pamphlet
– Nord for det øde hav, Liv Balstad, 1956
INHABITANTS WORK & TRANSPORT || There are no indigenous inhabitants – anyone who lives here chooses to do so and only the best in their field get the available jobs, something that creates a sense of enthusiasm and vested interest among the population that probably does not exist anywhere else on earth… While slowly changing, settlements on Svalbard are still essentially company towns, the Norwegian state-owned coal company employing nearly 60% of the Norwegian population on the archipelago and the Russian state-owned Arktikugol (Arctic Coal) the majority of Russians & Ukrainians. Almost all housing is owned by the various employers and institutions and rented to their employees (there are only a few privately-owned houses, most of which are recreational cabins). Because of this, it is rather unusual to live on Svalbard without working for an established institution… Approximately 25% of the population changes every year, the average residence period being 7 years (it seems this place, and/or its harsh environment, has a residential shelf life)… The average income is higher than on the mainland, income tax for those who work here is set at 8% and most goods are sold tax-free, a good thing given the high prices… Although the same laws apply in Svalbard as they do on the mainland, and unlike mainland Norwegians, residents of Svalbard are not entitled to social security benefits (everyone must be self-sufficient), and nor are they automatically entitled to residency on the mainland… There are more registered snowmobiles than residents, more polar bears than snowmobiles… There are less than 50 kilometres of roads on the whole archipelago, mostly in the vicinity of Longyearbyen and other settlements, and there are no roads or arranged transport between settlements – it’s boat or a stiff walk in summer, snowmobile or a dogsled in winter.
CONNECTED || It may be remote, but Svalbard is very much connected thanks to the 1,440-kilometre-long (890 mile) Svalbard Undersea Cable System, a dual fibre optic line from Svalbard to Harstad on the Norwegian mainland. It was installed in 2004 and aside from providing the high-speed internet access enjoyed by the residences & businesses of Longyearbyen today, it also provided sufficient bandwidth for SvalSat, the Svalbard Satellite Station. Opened in 1997 and consisting of 31 multi-mission and customer-dedicated antennas, today SvalSat is the world’s largest commercial download station for satellite data, its location at 78°N making it one of only two ground satellite stations (the other is in Antarctica) that can cover all 14 of the orbits that a polar satellite flies in a single 24-hour period.
(STRANGE) LAWS || It’s as easy to hire a gun as it is a snowmobile (licences are required for both) as Svalbard’s law states that everyone of age must carry a firearm, or to travel with an armed escort, anywhere outside of settlement safe zones as protection against polar bears who can appear anywhere and at any time (although it is illegal to carry a loaded firearm within the settlements & shops provide lockers for the storage of (unloaded) guns)…
Unnconditionally protected since 1973, it is strictly prohibited – not to mention a probable Darwin Award-worthy act of suicide – to seek out, stalk or disturb a polar bear (they can quickly overheat and die of stress) and they can only be killed in an extreme emergency situation (and if you kill a bear, or even find one dead, you must report this to the Governor of Svalbard)…
Maybe because of the need to bear arms (bear… arms…), there’s a monthly limit, a quota, on the purchase of alcohol in Longyearbyen – 24 cans of beer & the equivalent in spirits (and in true company town fashion, all profit from alcohol sales, called ‘cork money’, is supposedly distributed to clubs and organisations in the town). This applies to all – locals have an alcohol quota card and visitors must show their arrival boarding pass to liquor up (a holdover from Longyearbyen’s company town coal mining days, & in a bid to keep the miners sober, it’s only a matter of time before this law is abolished in present-day, tourist-orientated Longyearbyen)… There are no cats allowed on Svalbard, they being a menace to the birds that flock here in the summer months (Svalbard is something of a birdwatchers paradise with no less than fifteen bird sanctuaries).
NO SICKNESS, NO DEATH (PLEASE) || People on Svalbard struggle to catch a cold/ the flu – the virus can’t survive here. It’s only the newly arrived who bring infections to the island, hence a period of quarantine is required for those arriving with the intentions of residing here for a period of time, especially children…… Svalbard has an obvious aversion to death, somewhat ironic given that the most common protected cultural monument on the archipelago today are human graves. A place for the fit & young, there’s a dearth of middle age residents; no one is born here (pregnant women must go to the mainland); it’s illegal to kill things (flora, fauna and yourself, notwithstanding the ease at which you could accomplish the latter); and while some say it’s illegal to die here, a law that is hardly enforceable, it is at the very least against regulations and highly frowned upon to end your days on Svalbard (honest – the permafrost ensures there’s nowhere these days to be buried). Oh and there’s a USD $9M Global Seed Vault, a crop doomsday bank, dug deep into the permafrost high inside a mountain that’s designed to survive the melting of the polar icecaps and preserve the earth’s agricultural diversity in the case of Armageddon.
Svalbard - History & Tourism
Svalbard History – Discovery, Whaling, Hunting, Trapping & Coal
Probably discovered in the 1100’s by hardy Icelandic seamen and meaning ‘land with the cold coast’ in Old Norse, Svalbard lay largely ignored until June 17 of 1596 when Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, on a third unsuccessful quest to find the Northeast Passage, named the main island of the archipelago Spitsbergen after the island’s craggy, needle-like peaks (Spitsbergen roughly translates to ‘pointed mountains’).
– Willem Barentsz, Dutch discoverer of Svalbard.
Uninviting, hostile & just a little removed by stretching to cross the 81st parallel north, the archipelago was used as a hunting and fishing and whaling base by the Dutch, British & Germans through most of the 17th & 18th centuries (during this time the great bowhead whale was tragically eradicated from Svalbard waters). A further two centuries of hunting & trapping (first by the Russians, between 1700 & 1850, & then the Norwegians, in the latter half of the 19th century) predictability wreaked havoc on Svalbard wildlife populations, primarily walrus, seals, arctic fox & the polar bear – one lone Norwegian trapper, Henri Rudi (1889–1970), killed 115 polar bears in a single year and over 700 over the course of a 4-decade career as a legendary arctic huntsman.
The 1899 discovery of rich coal deposits, the geological residue of a prehistoric tropical forest (Savlbard wasn’t always this far north and nor was it always as unforgivably cold), signalled an early 20th century boom in unregulated coal mining that necessitated the need for governance, something that was eventually provided by The Svalbard Treaty of the post-World War I Versailles negotiations. After centuries of the archipelago being called Terra nullius, a Latin expression meaning ‘nobody’s land’, the treaty, which was ratified in February 1920 but which didn’t come into force until August 1925, firmly established Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard. It also granted “absolute equality” to any one of the treaty’s 46 original signatories (as of late 2010 there were 40 signatories) that wish to exploit mineral deposits, and it also allowed the Russians and the Swedes, who already had well-established coal mining operations on Svalbard prior to 1920, to stay put and to conduct business as usual.
Although the Svalbard coal reserves are still abundant (and likely always will be), mining in the 21st century is neither economically or socially viable. That said, there is still mining activity on Svalbard, although only Russia & Norway have a mining operations in 2 unprofitable mines on life support – to mine here in 2018 is nothing more than a matter of principle, a presence here a political imperative for Russia in particular.
While the very first tourists to Svalbard were wealthy Europeans who arrived to hunt in the early 1800’s aboard their own vessels, big cruise ships have been visiting the archipelago with some regularity since the 1890’s; it was in 1896 that the first piece of tourism infrastructure, a wooden tourist cabin/hotel with space for 30, was built at what was to become today’s Hotellneset, about three kilometres along Advent Fjord from Longyearbyen proper and the location for the archipelago’s airport & present-day Longyearbyen’s main harbour.
– Léonie d’Aunet, La Recherche: An Expedition To The North, 1893
Tourists continued to come to Svalbard by ship right up until the airport was opened in 1975. Numbers were not high and very few who came ashore lingered – as a coal mining company town, a place of work, Longyearbyen had no tourist infrastructure whatsoever. As mining activity has dwindled, tourism has become increasingly important and now powers the economy of Longyearbyen, changing it significantly in the process. Nonetheless, and as one might imagine, the place is not exactly awash with tourists – Svalbard was rather restrictive with respect to the development of tourism and Longyearbyen itself has only been officially open to visitors since the 1990’s with the establishment of ‘places to stay the night’, mostly resulting from the 1995 opening of the towns Svalbard Polar Hotel, parts of which were shipped to the archipelago after being used as accommodations in the Olympic Village of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer on the Norwegian mainland. With what tourism there is here focused on the amazing surrounds & environment, and with numbers increasing, the inevitable happened with the passing of legislation in early 2014 severely restricting the size of cruise ships that may ply the archipelago’s waters. Today cruise ships bring about 30,000 tourists a year to Longyearbyen (still less than 1% of the numbers that visit the northernmost reaches of mainland Europe, the so-called Cap of the North, the Arctic region covering the extreme north of Norway, Sweden, Finland & Russia) while its hotels claim over 100,000 overnight stays a year.
– Excerpt from the ‘Experience Svalbard on Nature’s own terms’ pamphlet as published by The Governor of Svalbard, the authority entrusted with ensuring Svalbard remains one of the world’s best preserved wilderness areas while trying to balance growth & profit with environmental awareness.
Both a shivering remnant of hard & oft-tragic times past and a unique & forlorn outpost for Arctic research it may be, Svalbard today is also an exotic travel hotbed for the adventurous types, a boast-worthy bucket list travel destination par excellence – it’s the most accessible area in the largely inaccessible High Arctic, one of the outermost regions of the planet, providing an unparalleled opportunity for mere mortals to experience life and the majesty of the unforgiving arctic wilderness, if only for as long as those mere mortals can tolerate it.
– A moral-sapping quote on display in the Svalbard Museum, Longyearbyen
Towards the very top of the Northern Hemisphere, about as human as the High Arctic gets and one of the world’s most adventurous places to travel according to Rough Guides, this is realistically as far north as one can venture without being a scientist and the furthest north man has managed to settle permanent communities inhabited year-round. And while pack ice impedes access to the rest of the Arctic, the Gulf Stream keeps some of Svalbard continually ice-free enabling year-round settlement and tourism. People can live the Arctic here. They can experience it, understand it. Yes of course it’s out of the way, and no it’s not a location for the dilettante traveller, but it’s (relatively) straightforward to get here (just get yourself to mainland Norway, itself hardly a reserve of the avant-garde adventurer, for the onward flight) and, with a bit of savvy planning, not as expensive as you might think.
The locals say there are 3 seasons here – day, night & snowmobile season. Below freezing for 8 months of the year, the average low temperatures during the winter (November to February, the Dark winter, and March to mid-May, the Light/Sunny Winter) routinely drop below -15 °C (5 °F) and in no month does the average monthly temperature exceed 10 °C (50 °F).
The Long Polar Night & Midnight Sun
Svalbard is one location that doesn’t take the atmospheric phenomena that is the setting & rising of the sun for granted. It can’t possibly. From sunset in late October until the sunrise in mid-February, there’s constant darkness, the so-called Long Polar Night where the sun remains stubbornly a full 8° below the horizon. And the sun never sets over Longyearbyen, the so-called Midnight Sun, between April 20th & August 23rd. That, if you’re counting, is 126 days of continuous light.
– A quote on display in the Svalbard Museum, Longyearbyen
I’d have a hard time imagining that wilderness experiences when visiting Svalbard, and regardless of the time of year, are anything but otherworldly (yes, even during the Long Polar Night, the obvious best time of year to be dazzled by the Aurora Borealis, a.k.a. the Northern Lights). That said, visiting now, in late March during the so-called Sunny Winter, ensures the best of both Arctic worlds; the landscape is still an Arctic winter wonderland and the light has returned from its winter hibernation to allow you appreciate the wondrous environs (and there’s a full 12+ hours of light to boot, the sun rising today at 05:52 and setting at 18:21). Spring energy levels are up and everyone wants to get outside (this is prime snowmobile & dogsledding season) as Svalbard warms up for its annual party piece, its astonishing transformation from a dark, silent & frozen winter wasteland to a land of rich tundra where small flowers blossom, winsome wildlife wander & a rush of bird life returns. It’s a natural ugly duckling act matched nowhere else on earth, a transformation highlighted in this BBC documentary the viewing of which some months ago saw me booking this trip to Svlabard on something of a whim, obviously enticed by what I saw. I couldn’t think of a better time to visit (but I would say that). I timed my visit well, and not coincidentally of course.
– Hans Engebretsen
For obvious reasons, the majority of the few travellers who venture up to Svalbard base themselves in Longyearbyen, me included. I’ll get back to highlighting Longyearbyen anon; its position, resting in a valley on the shores of Advent Fjord & hemmed in by snow-capped craggy peaks, goes someway to compensate for its industrial forlorn look & feel. It’s unique location yes, but unique can be ugly too (although, and as it always does, a blanket of snow helps with the town’s aesthetics this time of year). Of course Longyearbyen’s biggest plus is its gateway status to the surrounding wilderness of the High Arctic environment, one of Europe’s very last pure wilderness areas where you can experience Arctic nature at its rawest and most powerful. And needless to say with tourism in full swing here, the options for arctic exploration are legion – snowmobiling, ice cave exploration, glacier hikes, dogsledding, boat trips/cruises, wildlife safaris, tours of abandoned coal mines etc. Any one of these activities will likely induce cryopathy while all will put a noticeable dint in your pocket, but they’ll also get you out amongst all that will awe while also helping to stave off ‘island fever’, as the locals call being stuck in Longyearbyen. And who knows, in the process you might even sight a resident polar bear (preferably from afar, of course), arctic fox, Svalbard reindeer (a peculiar short-legged species unique to the archipelago), seal or walrus. Regardless of what you do in and see of the Svalbard wilderness, you gotta do and see it. Experiencing the untouched Arctic. It’s what being here is all about.
– From The Governor of Svalbard’s ‘Safety In Svalbard’ pamphlet.
So yeah, you really gotta love wilderness to come here, not to mention the cold (outside of the summer). There’s little else. It’s 62,000 km² of nothingness. The vast emptiness, the blinding whiteness, the calming soundlessness & the biting cold. They all emphasise the absolute nothingness of this shivering land, as does the realisation, always in the back of your mind, that humans, weak in such an environment, probably shouldn’t be meddling here. Wilderness rules on Svalbard and no mistake, even here among the modern comforts of Longyearbyen – an avalanche in December 2015 in the town killed two and a February 2017 avalanche required the evacuation of some 200, both events demolishing numerous buildings.
– From The Governor of Svalbard’s ‘Safety In Svalbard’ pamphlet.
I’ve a busy itinerary here on Svalbard in a bid to soak it all up and get an appreciation for what’s out there. It starts in earnest tomorrow, Day 2, and tentatively looks as follows:
Day 1 – Arrival
DAY 2 – Dogsledding to an Ice cave
DAY 3 – Snowmobile to Barentsburg
DAY 4 – The Longyear Valley & Longyearbyen
DAY 5 – Longyearbyen Surrounds (Mine 3; Global Seed Vault; Mine 7, Adventdalen & EISCAT; Hotellneset; Svalbard Bryggeri (Brewery))
Day 6 – Departure
Best get some sleep. I’ve a busy few days ahead.
dMb's (Kingdom of) Norway Overview
(Kingdom of) Norway
Region – Scandinavia & The Arctic (dMb tags: Scandinavia & The Arctic). Capital – Oslo. Population – 5.2 million. Official Language – Norwegian. Currency – Norwegian Krone (NOK). GDP (nominal) per capita – US$73,000 (world’s 3rd highest). Political System – Unitary parliamentary constitutional monarchy. EU Member? – No (but thanks for the offer, twice). UN Member? – Yes (founding member admitted November 1945). G20 Member? – No. Size – 385,000 km² (Europe’s sixth-largest country is slightly smaller than neighbouring Sweden, approximately twice the size of Syria & half the size of Chile). Topography – Largely mountainous high terrain with an extensive rugged coastline on the western edge of the Scandinavian Peninsula liberally dotted with massive Ice Age-era fjords, not forgetting the High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. Climate – Mild summers, bone-chillingly cold & dark winters. Brief History & Today – There is evidence of occupation along coastal Norway stretching back to the 11th millennia BC. The Vikings, those raiding & trading Norse seafarers, spread out from Scandinavia to terrorise much of northern Europe between the 8th & 10th centuries, the Viking Age. The Black Death of 1349, the epidemic form of bubonic plague that killed nearly half of the population of Western Europe, killed an estimated 60% of Norway’s population & plunged the country into a period of economic & social decline. Weakened Norway eventually entered into a union, the Kalmar Union, in 1397 with Sweden & Denmark, the three Scandinavian kingdoms first ruled by a single monarch, Eric of Pomerania. Sweden left the union in 1521 and although Norway tried to follow suit, it didn’t succeed in breaking from the union with Denmark until 1814 when the Danes were forced to cede Norway to Sweden as a result of defeat in the Napoleonic Wars. Following this Norway promptly tried to declare independence, a move resisted by Sweden. Independence eventually came in 1905. Neutral in principle during both World Wars, the country was nevertheless invaded by the Germans in April 1940. Oil was first discovered in the mid-1960’s marking the start of a decades-long state investment in the country’s petroleum industry, the economic benefits of which the country enjoys today and which makes Norway one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Rejecting EU membership not once but twice (in 1972 & 1974), today Norway is a progressive society with one of the world’s highest standards of living and with possibly the most developed and stable democracy and state of justice in the world. UNESCO World Heritage sites – 8. Tourism Catchphrase/Slogans – Powered by Nature. Famous For – Fjords; glaciers; having an abundance of natural resources; wilderness; winter sports; being rich & a shockingly expensive destination in which to live and visit; being political stability & for topping many international socio wellbeing indices (Human Development Index, the Better Life Index, World Happiness Report, Index of Public Integrity, Democracy Index, Press Freedom Index etc.). Highlights – The outdoors & the wondrous wilderness – dramatic jaw-dropping landscapes abound with the fjords of coastal mainland Norway considered one of the world’s top tourist attractions and the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard the planet’s most accessible region for exploring the majestic but unforgivable High Arctic. Norway Titbits – Boasting extensive reserves in oil & gas, Norway is the world’s largest per-capita oil & natural gas producer outside of the Middle East, the petroleum industry accounting for one-quarter of the country’s vast GDP; not short of a krone or two, the country boasts the world’s largest sovereign wealth/rainy day fund, an estimated USD $1 trillion; stretching from 57° to 81° N (north of the equator), Norway’s jagged & fjord-infused mainland, together with its thousands of islands, boasts a coastline of over 25,000 kilometres; the high latitude and large latitudinal range of the country also means it has a vast variation in topography, climate and large seasonal variations in daylight – for 2+ months in the summer in the High Arctic the sun never completely descends beneath the horizon, hence Norway’s tag as the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’.
Visits – November 2012 (Oslo) & March 2018 (Svalbard).
– Lonely Planet
Day 2 – Dogsledding
Dogs have been used to pull sledges in certain regions of North America for at least a thousand years, and even further back in regions such as modern-day Siberia where it’s thought they were using dogs for this purpose as much as three millennia ago. The environmentally friendly rival to snowmobiling and an iconic Arctic must-do, the soundtrack of huskies barking as I mushed through the crisp stillness of the pristine Arctic wilderness will be both the highlight of today, day 2, and an abiding memory of my time on Svalbard.
Mushing is fun. The hardest part is probably fending off frostbite at the extremities, especially the fingers, while trying to remain on the sledge, the most important part counteracting huskie eagerness by 1) feathering the break to keep the line taut and avoid rear-ending them & 2) remembering to apply the break when stationary (to prevent them taking off). Obviously the huskies do all the work, the progress of the dogsled altered if need be by shrill cries from the musher, to which the huskies seem to react instinctively. The musher has no need to crack a whip (doesn’t even carry one), and nor do they need to holler “Mush, mush!!” to get the dogs going. Very little encouragement is needed – the amazingly tough little Alaskan huskies, working in unison, are chomping at the bit and never seem to tire of the task at hand, although they obviously toil when encountering a hill. As always, the descents are much easier (& a lot more fun), but either way the dogs earn their snacks.
While multi-day sledding trips are available, most seem content with a 4-hour or day-long dogsledding excursion. It’s a competitive business among sledding providers, all of which seem based on the edge of Adventdalen (Advent Valley) on the outskirts of Longyearbyen. I lost my mushing virginity to Huskey Travellers, a small family-based operation with both a personal touch and personable guides. Having free reign of the yard, I was afforded plenty of time with the friendly dogs, including pre-mush when they were still snug in their raised kennels.
‘Real Taste – Real Energy’ Lunch & Ice Cave
We mushed (uphill) to the end of a valley. The dogs had a well-earned rest (& snack) while we had a DryTech ‘Real Taste – Real Energy’ just-add-boiling-water lunch out of a foil packet while sitting in a snow hole cum outdoor Arctic diner. I opted for the Chilli con carne, doubtless my spicy freeze-dried stew & coffee would have tasted as good if not for the novelty of the moment &/or the surrounds. We then explored an ice cave. Its tight confines were warm, so much so that cameras fogged up. Thus memories of walking inside a massive age-old ice cube are cranial ones now, not digital (while a memorable endeavour, it was far from a photogenic one). Exiting the cave, some had to answer the call of nature. Thankfully I didn’t.
We mushed home, the dogs not sparing any horses on the mostly downhill return, seemingly their favourite part of the day. It was probably mine too, although trying to capture pictures & video while sporting bulky gloves and while simultaneously trying to remain precariously perched on the back of a speeding sledge and keep acceleration in check is, I suspect, not how I was supposed to pass the time.
Day 2 Gallery
The complete gallery of captures from today.
Baggage Arrival & COOP Grocery Shopping
Mercifully, my bag arrived while I was out mushing meaning I was reacquainted with my winter warmers and sufficiently wrapped up when embarking on a trip to the grocery store this evening to pick up a few essentials.
Day 3 – Snowmobiling & Barentsburg
Svalbard is one of the last remaining areas of unspoiled wilderness in Europe. There are huge tracts of relatively pristine nature outside the few human settlements. And with no roads connecting them, the snowmobile, called snow scooters on Svalbard and Skidoos in North America, is the de facto way to hied from A to B. And doing so is a whole lot of bombilating fun.
– From The Governor of Svalbard’s ‘Animal safety is your responsibility’ pamphlet
– From The Governor of Svalbard’s ‘Help Preserve Svalbard’s Wilderness’ pamphlet
One needs a driver’s license to operate a snowmobile (it’ll be checked), can’t be under the influence and must wear a helmet and be properly suited up – skin shouldn’t be exposed as frostbite is a real concern when speeding through -14 °C (7 °F) temperatures at 70 km/h, the most I could get out of my 600cc BRP Lynx Adventure LX ride, a whole 10 km/h shy of the 80 km/h speed limit in force outside of Svalbard settlements.
– Excerpt from The Governor of Svalbard’s Safety in Svalbard pamphlet
Barentsburg – Little Russia
Our destination for today was the Soviet-era Russian coal mining settlement of Barentsburg, 55 kilometres west of Longyearbyen and now the only Russian coal mining interest left on Svalbard following the 1998 closure and abandonment of the Russian mining settlement of Pyramiden, my first choice as a snowmobiling destination but somewhere that is presently not accessible – there’s not enough ice/snow to access Pyramiden via snowmobile but still too much ice to allow access by boat, or so I’ve been told. First settled as a Dutch mining town in the 1920’s and named after Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, Barentsberg is Svalbard’s second-largest settlement with a population of about 420 (down from over 1,000 in its heyday), almost all of which are young & healthy male Russians and Ukrainians on 6-month to 2-year mining contracts – the average residency in Barentsburg is 4-5 years, although stays are getting longer, especially for those miners who have their families with them.
Barentsberg – History & Mining
The Russians bought Barentsburg from the Dutch in the early 1930’s with the Russian state-owned Arktikugol (Arctic Coal), a company formed in 1931 to administer all Soviet mining interests on Svalbard, taking over the Barentsburg mine in 1932. Kept in state hands following the early 1990’s post-USSR privatisation of the rest of Russia’s coal mining industry, there really is no economically viable reason for Barentsburg to exist in its present form as a mining town (it only exports some 100,000 tons of coal yearly). Low on reserves since the 1990’s, producing poor quality coal and continuing the dodge the fate that befell Pyramiden (although only just – Barentsburg ceased mining between 2006-2010 citing mine safety issues), to continue mining on Svalbard these days is nothing more than a matter of principle and a presence here a political imperative for Russia.
Barentsburg – Company Town to Burgeoning Tourist Location
Barentsburg is a true company town, much like the Longyearbyen of old. Everything you see here, from the houses to the shops to the administrative buildings to the church, and be they crumbling or new, belong to Arktikugol; the present-day Barentsburg Hotel, recently renovated in 2012, resulted from the conversion of a residential apartment building in a failed attempt to diversify the economy. At least so far. Tourism is picking up the world over, forlorn Barentsburg on far-flung Svalbard being no exception. Tourism doesn’t yet generate enough income to revive the town, but they are making an effort to appease those who make the effort to visit and, it seems, people are coming. I’m here. Enough said.
Day 3 Gallery
The complete gallery of captures from today.
Day 4 – Longyearbyen & The Longyear Valley
I‘m well aware of the potentially fatal consequences, but still. Today I – shuuu! – broke the Svalbard rules. Well, one of them at least. I briefly exited the safe zone unarmed, foraging a bit too far up the Longyear Valley for an impressive overview of Longyearbyen (and to peak into an abandoned coal mine). And not counting long-since-dead ones stuffed & harmlessly on display in both the Svalbard Church and the impressive Svalbard Museum, or pictures of them in the town’s Wild Photo Galley, I didn’t encounter any polar bears on a cold day Day 4 (& freezing night), a day finally spent getting a closer look at Longyearbyen and its immediate surrounds.
Established as Longyear City (Longyearbyen in Norwegian) in 1906 by American John Munro Longyear as a coal mining town with a spattering of rudimentary wooden buildings and a handful of hardy souls, Longyearbyen is the capital of Norway’s Arctic Svalbard Archipelago and, with a population of 2,100+, by far its largest settlement. The only town to be incorporated in the Norwegian Arctic, the settlement is the seat of The Governor of Svalbard and the northernmost community on planet earth with 1,000+ inhabitants, or as some claim the northernmost ‘real’ town on earth. Whatever it may be, Longyearbyen, and no mistake, looks & feels every bit the forlorn outpost that it is.
– Peter Adams
Svalbard - Coal & Mining
There would have to be a good reason for man to settle here on forlorn, quivery Svalbard in the first place, that good reason proving to be coal, Svalbard’s very own black gold. The archipelago’s hills, and even after a century-plus of mining, are still rich in coal deposits, and even though only token mining operations persist to this day, remnants of the mining past remain – rusting & fallen aerial tramways no longer in use and abandoned mines high up on scared mountainsides are never far away & never out of eyeshot.
– From The Governor of Svalbard’s Experience Svalbard on Nature’s own terms pamphlet
Although coal was found here as far back as 1610, scientific advances led to the 1899 discovery of abundant coal in the mineral-rich mountains of the archipelago. The early days of mining on this remote Arctic no man’s land were tough (many ventures failed, fortunes lost), but an industry eventually thrived, helped by the appetite for coal from newly industrialised Europe. While once a cornerstone industry, reduced coal prices (the price of coal dropped from USD$160 to USD$45 per ton between 2008 & 2016 making it too expensive to mine on Svalbard) and a socio-shift away from mining towards tourism and research means that today only two mines remain operational on Svalbard, one Russian (in Barentsburg) & one Norwegian (Mine 7), the latter producing coal to power Longyearbyen’s power station, Norway’s only coal-powered power station which produces hot water, heat and electricity for the town.
– From The Governor of Svalbard’s Experience Svalbard on Nature’s own terms pamphlet
– From The Governor of Svalbard’s When Visiting Svalbard – Information for Non-Residents pamphlet
Illegal To Die?
It gets a lot of headlines (Google it), but I’m still not sure how accurate this titbit of Longyearbyen information is, that being that it’s illegal to die here (even if it were true it’s hardly enforceable – doubtless justice would be done, the perpetrator unlikely to be reprimanded). Illegal or no, it’s safe to say that giving up the ghost in Longyearbyen, a settlement displaying an entrenched fear of death and one with very few, if any, elderly residents or facilities to care for the old or frail, is frowned upon. And there’s seemingly a good reason for that, beyond the obvious fact that younger, fitter types would be more suited to living in such a harsh, challenging environment. It all stems from the permafrost, meaning there’s nowhere to bury people, not anymore; natural heaving of the permafrost gradually brings coffins (and bodies) to the surface, not to mention that, and as mentioned above, putting someone in the permanently frozen ground would not only preserve the body, but also any disease that took them down, a big no-no in any modern society, even a small society as this high in the High Arctic. As a result, there are no active graveyards in Longyearbyen, or anywhere on the Svalbard archipelago for that matter. And while the most commonly found cultural monuments on Svalbard are human graves, many of which have been opened and plundered, no one has been buried here for over 8 decades and anyone deemed close to the end must leave for mainland Norway to live out their days, never to return. And if you happen to die here? Well, the town rules say you’ll be flown to the mainland for burial.
Ursus Maritimus – Polar Bear
Ursus maritimus, the common, hungry polar bear is an icon of the Arctic and an animal dreaded by Svalbard residents. Found all over the archipelago year-round, the intimidating creatures measure about 2.5 metres long and can tip the scales at 600 kilos (females about half this), are great swimmers and can run more than 30 km/h over short distances (you won’t outrun one). Capable of living up to 30+ years in the wild, but with only a small percentage living beyond 15 years, they spend most of their life on sea ice and in the sea, feeding mainly on seals that it catches on the ice (for this reason the polar bear is considered a marine mammal as opposed to a land mammal). Of course, global warming is causing sea ice to retreat reducing the bears favoured territory and pushing them closer to human habitats in search of food. All of this means interactions between polar bears and humans are likely to increase, particularly as out of the estimated 3,500 polar bears that comprise the Barents Sea population roughly half live on or around Spitsbergen. It is prohibited to seek out, stalk or disturb a polar bear (they can quickly overheat and die of stress) and they can only be killed in an extreme emergency situation; children are thought from an early age how best to shoot a bear, the chest as opposed to the head, which is easy to miss, the preferred target. When killed, or found dead, The Governor of Svalbard must be notified (this also goes applies to arctic foxes, walruses and whales). Best viewed from afar with binoculars, advice for unenviable close encounters is to try to frighten them off, noise being the go-to tactic; shouting, acting confident & throwing mittens in the snow seemingly best practice for survival when in their presence.
– From The Governor of Svalbard’s Animal safety is your responsibility pamphlet
Day 4 Gallery
The complete gallery of captures from today.