There was something about the industrial rawness and practicality of Longyearbyen that really appealed to my engineering aesthetics and I got the feeling that humans are still really just temporary visitors in the far north.
Longyearbyen is the largest settlement and the tourist and administrative centre of Svalbard. Founded in 1906 by an American businessman named Longyear as a coal mine, today it’s a budding town of about 2500 people from over 50 different countries. In a way, Longyearbyen is the only true human outpost in the Arctic, if we don’t count small scientific and industrial communities, and it’s a place where people come and go, but leave a piece of themselves behind. Although some of them end up answering the call of the Arctic and stay, most people just come to work, experience something new and earn money for a few years, because although Svalbard is technically Norwegian, it is a duty free zone with very nice incentives for workers.
It is also a very interesting town – reindeer often roam the streets, which have numbers instead of names, and there are separate tracks for snowmobiles. Half the year it’s dark and freezing with Northern lights and a polar jazz festival, while the other half is relatively warmer and bathed in perpetual midnight sun. However, Longyearbyen is a proper town with a grocery store, a bank, a post office, several shops, bars, restaurants and hotels, as well as a cinema, a hospital, a brewery, a chocolaterie and a greenhouse for fresh fruit and vegetables. There’s also a university with about 300 students who all need to learn to use firearms, because there are still more polar bears than people on Svalbard.
In fact, if you wish to leave the city limits, you’re legally obliged to wear a firearm and know how to use it. When I was there on a solo trip in 2019, I had to book organised, guided activities and the guides would always carry a rifle just in case of a bear attack. You can read more about the history and peculiarities of Svalbard in my post here, but suffice it to say that it’s a very unusual and an absolutely amazing place.
There’s actually quite a lot to do in the town itself, because there’s a church, three galleries and two museums you can visit, as well as an old coal mine no 3. I went to the Svalbard Museum, where they have a great exhibition about the history of life in the Arctic, but there’s also the North Pole Exhibition Museum, which is more focused on the journeys of the early Arctic explorers.
The town is heavily marked by its coal mining history and you’ll see remnants of the coal mines everywhere, Although there is still one active coal mining community on Svalbard, the Russian town of Barentsburg, Longyearbyen relies on tourism these days. There’s an airport with daily commercial flights from Norway and lots of passengers arrive on cruise ships as well. Cruises to the North Pole are especially popular and although all Svalbard residents are extremely conscious of their environmental impact and are rather more in touch with nature than most Europeans, I can’t help but wonder if there will be a North Pole to see if these cruises continue to gain popularity.
As you can probably tell by now, this post is more of a photo essay than a blog post, because there was something about the raw, industrial exterior of Longyearbyen town that really called to my inner engineer. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever taken as many photos of a place as I did of Longyearbyen. The whole town has a vibe of brutal practicality and everything is laid out on the surface since the ground is permanently frozen and too tough to dig in. There’s something about the complete, ugly honesty of Arctic living that feels so very temporary and I got the feeling that us humans are still just visitors in the northern wilderness, which is exactly as it should be. It felt as if we still need to fight and coax nature into giving up every inch of settled ground, despite all of our technology and perseverance, and I can’t even begin to imagine what those first explorers must have felt like upon landing on this gorgeous frozen wasteland.
Yes, I contracted the call of the Arctic and I got it bad. There’s a definitely version of me in a parallel universe living on Svalbard with a bunch of dogs and 24/7 thermal underwear and I imagine that I might have been her if I hadn’t met my boyfriend or were a little more adventurous. Fun fact: the average time people spend on Svalbard is about 7 years, which is also kind of what my couchsurfing host had planned (read that story here).
The old coal mine no. 3
At the same time, visiting Longyearbyen made me feel sad for what we’re losing due to climate change and extremely grateful that I still got to see the Arctic in its full glory. I was staying in the same house as two Italian journalists who were there to film a documentary on the effects of climate change on the Arctic, which made me even more aware of how far things have progressed and how greedy humans are. Svalbard’s history is essentially a history of greed: first the whale hunters hunted all the whales almost to extinction, then the coal companies dug out all the coal and now there’s tons of abandoned mining infrastructure just lying around Svalbard and the cruise ships are lining up to profit from it.
This contrast between untamed, frozen wilderness and human devastation definitely makes Svalbard a tough destination to process if you have the eyes to see it. Although I’d love to say that it’s a place everyone should visit for its uniqueness, polar bears and educational value, the truth is that I’m really glad that it’s expensive enough to have avoided the effects of overtourism so far. However, seeing how the locals in Longyearbyen coexist with their reindeer, polar bears and Arctic birds also gave me hope. One of the things I loved was seeing a signposted common eider colony just outside the main part of the city and all the drivers patiently stopping for the birds to cross the road. There was also a husky dog pen close by, as dog sledding is a naturally a popular activity in a place like this.
Common eider colony
In conclusion, I leave you with this wonderful quote I found in the Svalbard Museum and even more photos. Since I was there for a few days, I took lots of photos of Longyearbyen in different weather conditions and hope that they’re able to bring a little bit of the lonesome Arctic magic to you.
“Thousands of stressed, tired, civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home, that wilderness is a necessity.”Svalbard Wildlife Service, 2003