Travel Trivia: 14 facts about Svalbard + a history crash course

Every time I plan a trip I always read a bit about the place I’m visiting and learn some interesting facts, which is what my Travel Trivia posts are about. This one is going to be all about Svalbard, the Arctic realm of polar bears and its history, so let’s dive in:

  • The largest island is called Spitsbergen, i.e. pointy mountains. It was so named by the Dutch explorer William Barents, the Barents sea guy, who discovered the island in 1596 and did not realise that he had in fact discovered a whole archipelago.
  • Svalbard boasts the world’s northernmost permanent settlement with more than a 1000 people, the town of Longyearbyn, located 78° north on Spitsbergen. The total population of the town is around 2000 people of about 40 different nationalities.
  • Even though Svalbard was officially assigned to Norway with the Svalbard treaty in 1925, it is considered an independent administrative province with its own governor and is NOT part of the Schengen area. Similarly, Svalbard is visa free and anyone from the countries who signed the treaty is allowed to come live and work there tax-free, in an effort to encourage migration. Lots of people I met came to work there for a few years to experience the wilderness and save up some cash, as the wages are very good.
  • Under the treaty Norway is obligated to protect the environment in Svalbard and prohibited from collecting taxes or using the land for military purposes. It is also forced to acknowledge the rights of the Russian mining company to coal mining in certain areas of Svalbard, like Barentsburg, the second largest town in Svalbard, controlled by Russia.
The true natives of Svalbard.
  • There are more polar bears living in Svalbard than people: the total population of Svalbard is about 2700 people altogether, while the number of polar bears is estimated to be up to 3500.
  • Because of that you are required to carry a rifle or a flare gun when leaving the town area. Even though polar bears mostly stick to the East coast of Spitsbergen, they can venture anywhere on the island, particularly when hungry. There are a few polar bear attacks every year, mostly due to human stupidity, so carrying a firearm to protect yourself is a must. Since the bears are considered internationally protected animals, you are not allowed to hunt or lure them, so if you do kill a polar bear, you must alert the governor of Svalbard and face an investigation.
  • You are however not allowed to carry a loaded firearm within the town area or enter any public buildings with it, so you must store it in the locker provided. Despite that a Russian man apparently rented a rifle at the sports store and robbed a bank with it a few years ago. No one knows what he was thinking though, as you can only leave Svalbard on a boat or through the airport, so he was caught immediately after.
  • Nobody dies or is born in Svalbard: due to an old law, all deaths occurring in Svalbard are recorded on the mainland, as people could not be buried in the frozen soil. All births must also occur on the mainland, as the hospital in Longyearbyn in not equipped for more than emergency care. Because of that, there are technically no natives of Svalbard.
  • Svalbard is considered to be an Arctic desert, due to the low humidity and precipitation. However, it is becoming wetter due to the climate change and has recently recorded 100 months with above average temperatures.
Nordenskiöld glacier in Svalbard.
  • About 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers and Spitsbergen even has its own type of glacier. The Svalbard reindeer are also a special sub-species of the regular reindeer found around Scandinavia.
  • You can see the Northern lights during the day in Svalbard, as the archipelago is so far north, it has an annual period of 100 days of total darkness and about 4 months of polar summer, when the sun does not set at all.
  • Such long periods of depressing darkness gave rise to rampant alcoholism in the past, so the sale of alcohol is restricted. The locals are allowed to buy 24 bottles of spirits and 12 cases of beer per year, which is enforced with an alcohol stamping card. However, since the law is so old, table wine can be bought in reasonable, unlimited quantities, as it was not readily available when the law was made, and the bars can also sell any amounts of alcohol. If you are just visiting and arriving by plane, you can buy alcohol using your boarding pass, but not if you arrive with a cruise ship.
  • The Global Seed Vault or Doomsday Vault, where all sorts of seeds are stored in case humanity were to face a disaster, is located in Longyearbyn. It can store a maximum of 2.5 billion seeds and has recently been used by Syrian scientists to safeguard the seeds threatened by the war there.

Bonus facts: a very brief crash course in Svalbard’s history

The early years: Svalbard was likely first discovered by the Vikings and had quite a turbulent history after its second discovery by Barents and his team, which can essentially be summarised as the Russians, Norwegians, Dutch, French and English hunting the local wildlife (Arctic foxes, walruses, seals and particularly whales) nearly to extinction up until the second half of the 19th century (you can read more about the early history here).

19th century: As the main island of Svalbard, Spitsbergen was at first populated only by trappers and hunters, but became the base for Arctic exploration towards the end of the 19th century and a coveted coal mining spot. The coal found in Svalbard is of premium quality, so primarily Americans, the British, Norwegians and Russians attempted to establish coal mines in various locations.

The closed coal mine in Longyearbyn.

20th century: The coal rush on Svalbard came to an end in the 1920s after the Svalbard treaty was signed and eventually Norwegians bought out the Americans, so only Norwegian and Russian coal miners remained, working for the rival coal companies of Store Norske and Arktikugol. Their efforts were interrupted by both World Wars, particularly by the Second World War, when the Germans bombed both major towns, the Russian Barentsburg and the Norwegian Longyearbyn, and established their own stations on Svalbard. After the end of the war both Russia and Norway drove out the Germans and resumed their coal mining operations, but were forced to close down some of the mines due to accidents and depletion, which resulted in one of today’s most popular tourist attractions, the Russian ghost town Pyramiden.

Today: Even though some coal mines are still active in company-owned industrial towns like Barentsburg and Svea, where almost all Norwegian mining operations stopped in 2017, most of Svalbard’s income nowadays comes from tourism and research, such as in Ny-Ålesund, which is primarily a research town. The only fully “normal” town in Svalbard right now is Longyearbyn. It became the central settlement in Svalbard in the 1990s, when it was sold to the government and normalised, i.e. provided with all the services and institutions needed for regular life. It is now a cultural, touristy town with a University centre, which organises the world’s northernmost blues festival called the Dark Season Blues, and also the seat of the governor of Svalbard.

The distance sign at Longyearbyn airport, taken at 3am during the polar summer.

As stated, this was a very short crash course in Svalbard’s history, just enough to get you started. The whole history of the archipelago is in fact quite interesting, so I encourage you to read all about it here. Otherwise, I hope you liked my second Travel Trivia post and let me know in the comments if I missed something or made a mistake somewhere. .)

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