About Svalbard

About Svalbard

The real Arctic

About Svalbard


Welcome to Svalbard, the true Arctic!

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Located on top of the world, it contains endless areas of unspoilt, raw Arctic wilderness. Svalbard consists of all the islands, islets and skerries between 74° and 81° north latitude and 10° and 35° east longitude. The largest island is Spitsbergen, while the highest mountain is Newtontoppen (1,713 m above sea level).

A visit to the High Arctic archipelago – roughly midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole – is full of contrasts and amazing nature-based experiences. The Arctic silence creates a unique atmosphere, and you will experience tranquillity that is virtually unrivalled anywhere else on earth. Up here at 78° N, you will soon become part of the most beautiful Arctic adventure imaginable. Majestic mountains, blue sea ice, almost never-ending glaciers and a rich animal life dominate the landscape, which changes appearance during our three main seasons; from the colourful tundra of the Polar Summer, via the spectacular light show of the Northern Lights winter to the frozen fjords and endless snowy landscape of the Sunny Winter.

Who lives in Svalbard?

Just 1300 km from the North Pole, you can visit the world’s northernmost urban community, Longyearbyen. Most of the residents in this tiny Arctic metropolis are Norwegians, but there are residents from around 50 other countries. In all, around 2,100 people call this place “home”, and they enjoy a strong sense of unity and fellowship. Even in the middle of the settlement, you will get so close to the pristine nature that it will take your breath away.

Although Svalbard belongs to the Kingdom of Norway, two settlements in the archipelago are mostly populated by Russians and Ukrainians. Around 450 people live in the modern mining community of Barentsburg, while fewer than 10 live in the Soviet ghost town of Pyramiden

Besides Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Pyramiden, there are two other settlements in Svalbard. Ny-Ålesund, which is situated on the southern side of the Kongsfjord, serves as a base for international Arctic research and environmental monitoring, while Hornsund in southwestern Spitsbergen houses a small Polish research station.

A group of islands inhabited by polar bears and people

Here in Svalbard we live knowng that a polar bear may at any time be closer than we might think. The residents always take precautions when venturing outside the settlements by carrying a firearm as protection against polar bears. This is one of the few places in the world where it’s not uncommon to see mothers pushing a pram while carrying a rifle on their back. Everyone who lives here must show respect for the majestic nature we have chosen to be a part of, and we are all fully aware that we are guests in the realm of the polar bear. 

The residents of Svalbard have come here for various reasons. Some are adventurers in search of a new Arctic adventure, some are researchers who have come to study the fascinating geology among other topics, and others are normal families who like to live an ordinary life in place that is anything but ordinary. But everyone has something in common: a passion for and a love of Svalbard. Once you arrive, it’s hard to leave and Svalbard remains in your heart forever. Once a “Svalbardian”, always a “Svalbardian”.

Jarle Røssland

A broad outline of Longyearbyen and Svalbard

Svalbardi literally means “the land with the cold shores”. Svalbarði fundinn was mentioned in traditional Icelandic accounts dated to 1194. However, we will never know for sure whether this mention refers to the discovery of Svalbard or another land area with cold shores.

The first undisputed discovery of the archipelago was an expedition led by Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz in 1596, during which he called the largest island Spitsbergen (“pointed mountains” in Dutch) after the mountains on the western side of the island. Ever since that time, Svalbard has given rise to legendary stories about hunting, trapping, mining and incredible expeditions. Svalbard’s history has included international whaling (1600-1750), Russian overwintering hunting and trapping (1700-1850) and Norwegian overwintering hunting and trapping (1850-1973).

In 1906, the American businessman and mining pioneer John Munroe Longyear established the first mine, erected buildings and named the settlement Longyear City. Longyear had visited Svalbard for the first time as a cruise passenger in 1901. In 1916, the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kullkompani took over the mining operations from Longyear’s Arctic Coal Company, and the settlement was renamed Longyearbyen.

Jarle Røssland

The Svalbard Treaty

The Svalbard Treaty was signed on 9 February 1920 and entered into force on 14 August 1925. The treaty was ratified by The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Denmark, USA, Italy, France, Sweden, Norway and Japan. It was later ratified by many other countries, including the Soviet Union (Russia) and Canada. There are now 46 parties to the treaty. “The Svalbard Treaty recognises Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard, including Bjørnøya (Bear Island), and that Norwegian law applies within the archipelago. The treaty also provides certain rights for the other signatories, including that their citizens may reside and engage in business activities, hunting and fishing in the archipelago. Furthermore, the treaty regulates the demilitarisation of the archipelago, i.e. fortresses, naval bases and the stationing of military personnel are not permitted.” Source: https://snl.no/Svalbardtraktaten

Longyearbyen was a company town until 1989. The mining company Store Norske Spitsbergen Kullkompani (which was nationalised in 1976) controlled most of the infrastructure and services. In line with a White Paper from the Norwegian government in 1990, the authorities started a process to “normalise” Longyearbyen into a more open and regular community. This included the establishment of the Svalbard Council, which was replaced in 2002 by the expanded Longyearbyen Community Council (Longyearbyen Lokalstyre) based on a model adapted for the settlement’s endemic conditions. This coincided with the transferring of responsibility for community services and governance duties from the mining company to the Longyearbyen Community Council. In many areas, the community now functions like a municipality on the mainland, although naturally there are some significant differences.

Svalbard Airport Longyear opened in 1975, making Svalbard accessible year-round. The airlines SAS and Norwegian both operate regular scheduled flights to Longyearbyen.

Svalbard is not a place people spend their entire lives or where families are continued through generations, although there are a few family generations here. People have generally come and gone, contributing to Svalbard’s distinctive history. Consequently, it has been harder for the people to take advantage of the accumulated experience of the harsh and extreme living conditions. The history of Svalbard is rich in tragic events, and graves are the most common relics of culture.

Jarle Røssland

International whaling

International whaling in Svalbard, which lasted from the early 17th century until the mid-18th century, was motivated by favourable prices for blubber oil and baleen. The whaling expeditions were primarily Dutch, British and German, and the whaling companies were of great national importance. At the peak, there were more than 300 ships were active around Svalbard. The most famous land station was Smeerenburg on the northwest coast of Spitsbergen. In its heyday, it comprised of 16 buildings to house up to 200 whalers, and eight large ovens to render blubber into oil.

By the late 17th century, Dutch whaling alone accounted for 150-250 ships that had an annual catch totalling between 750 and 1,250 whales. The bowhead whale was the most popular catch, and the species was eventually exterminated from the waters around Svalbard. There are many traces of the whaling era on Svalbard’s shores. About 50 whaling stations, with remains of foundations, blubber boiling stations and whale and walrus bones, as well as graves have been recorded from this period.

Russian hunting and trapping

When the whalers left, the Russian Pomors arrived. Russian overwintering trapping started in the early 18th century and lasted until the mid-19th century. More than 70 trapping stations from this era are known. Most of the hunters/trappers were Pomor people originating from the White Sea area. The most famous of them was Ivan Starostin, who spent 39 winters in Svalbard, including 15 in a row.

The Pomor trapping was primarily based on walrus products such as tusks, blubber oil and hides. They also traded in furs and down. Additionally, they hunted reindeer, seals and birds and gathered eggs, not least for their own consumption. They constructed buildings ranging from small cabins to large stations, many of which were operated year-round. The thick winter furs of Arctic foxes and polar bears were attractive, and provided a major incentive to overwinter. Traces of various handicrafts have been found at many stations, which indicates that the Russians spent their spare processing raw materials and turning them into valuable trading commodities.

Norwegian hunting and trapping

The Norwegian intensified their activities when the Russians reduced theirs, around 1850, since they were basically interested in the same products. By the late 19th century, it had become quite usual to overwinter in Svalbard. The hunters had a cyclic schedule based on the various seasons. They trapped Arctic foxes and polar bears in the wintertime when the quality of the fur was best. Springtime was devoted to sealing, along with preparation of the furs for sale in the summer. Hunting birds and collecting down and eggs were summer activities, while in the autumn they hunted ptarmigan and reindeer. The trappers covered large distances and used a network of stations and huts.

Although much of the catch was for their own consumption, the hunters needed to sell furs, down and reindeer meat to purchase the necessary provisions from the mainland. They needed raisins, flour, salt, kerosene, tools, weapons and ammunition, among other things. Occasionally, they also needed a new stove or a boat, and perhaps a little luxury. Apparently, hunter Georg Bjørnnes brought a whole year’s edition of his favourite newspaper with him up to Svalbard. Every morning he went out to fetch “today’s newspaper”, which was exactly one year old, to the day!

At the height of this activity, 50 or so hunters/trappers overwintered in Svalbard, which had a big impact on the populations of some species. Gradually the effectiveness of the equipment raised productivity beyond what the population of the species could ensure. One example of this was the self-shooting polar bear trap. Such traps consisted of a sawn-off rifle or shotgun placed in a crate. The trigger was attached by a string to a small piece of blubber, which acted as the bait. When the polar bear poked in its head and touched this bait, it was shot in the head at close range.

Polar Bear King

One of the most famous polar bear huntsmen in Svalbard was Henry Rudi. Known as the “Polar Bear King”, he killed around 750 polar bears in the archipelago, including 115 in one year. Another well-known hunter was Hilmar Nøis, who was one of the most experienced of all having overwintered in Svalbard 38 times between 1909 and 1973. His main station was Fredheim in the valley of Sassendalen. His wife, Helfrid Nøis, accompanied him for several hunting seasons.

At the onset of the 20th century, Svalbard was still no man’s land, and the first years were chaotic. Many people lost large sums of money investing in flamboyant and unstable industrial adventures. The period was marked by the purchase and transport of equipment, the hiring of crews and stocking of provisions, while buildings and plants also had to be constructed.

Jarle Røssland


The mining in Svalbard, which started around 1900, was based on fresh research and favourable prices for raw materials in the newly industrialised Europe. Although the coal reserves generated the most interest, there has also been short-lived mining of phosphorus, gold, zinc, lead, copper, gypsum and marble.

Mining is the only commercial activity that has survived for more than a century. It formed the basis for permanent settlements in Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Ny-Ålesund. Two mines are currently operated in Svalbard; Mine 7, which is near Longyearbyen, and the Russian mine in Barentsburg.

Svalbard – a geologist’s dream

Svalbard’s geological diversity is unique. The archipelago is one of the only places on earth where rocks from practically every geological period may be found within a limited area. During the period from 2004 to 2012, the palaeontologist Dr. Jørn Hurum mapped more than 60 reptile skeletons, and excavated at least 10 at the foot of mountain Janusfjellet on Spitsbergen. One of the most sensational discoveries in Svalbard in recent years is the fossil of a 10-metre-long reptile. It is by far the longest, and best preserved, Ichthyosauria fossil ever detected in Svalbard.

Marcela Cardenas

Ancient fossils

More than 60 million years ago, Svalbard was on the seabed. This all changes when Svalbard crashed with Greenland. Consequently, you will find the unique pointed mountains on the western side of Svalbard. The rock species that are more than 60 million years old are ancient seabed deposits that have risen into what are now mountains. The fossils include everything from single-celled organisms to giant dinosaurs. Ordinary people can gather amazing plant fossils near the Longyearbreen glacier. Many activity providers in Longyearbyen offer fossil hunting trips, and there are no limitations on how many fossils you can take back to the mainland.

Glaciers as far as the eye can see

More than half of Svalbard is covered by glaciers. There are more than 2,100 glaciers of various sizes here, and almost 60% of the total area is covered by ice. The largest glaciers are called ice caps, and are found mainly on the eastern side of Svalbard. The largest ice cap is Austfonna on the island of Nordaustlandet. It covers an area of about 8450 km², and is the largest ice cap in the world if you don’t count the vast ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland.

Glaciers can act as huge climate archives. Over time, more and more snow falls on the glacier. As fresh snow falls on top, the snow is stored deeper and deeper in the glacier. When drilling in a glacier, the ice cores form a timeline, whereby the bottom is the oldest and the top youngest. By analysing air bubbles and particles in the ice, researchers can study how the climate has changed throughout the glacier’s lifetime. In central parts of Spitsbergen, the glaciers are much smaller than further east because the climate is drier and there is less snow in the winter. These glaciers are called cold glaciers because they are frozen to the bedrock and don’t move much (just 1-2 metres per year). Out on the coast, however, there are warm glaciers that are not frozen to the ground and can move considerable distances in a short period of time.

Many of the glaciers in Svalbard are so-called surging glaciers, i.e. the glacier front can move several metres per day before it stops and melts. Surging glaciers are only found in Svalbard, on the islands of Arctic Canada and in Alaska. Little is known about what causes such surges and how long passes between each active phase, but it appears the resting phase in Svalbard varies between 30 and 500 years. (Norwegian Polar Institute)

Roy Mangersnes

Svalbard’s incredible fauna and flora

Only 6-7% of the land area of Svalbard is covered by any type of vegetation. The most fertile areas are found in the inner fjord regions of Spitsbergen.

Permafrost covers the entire landmass of Svalbard, and only the top metre of earth thaws during the summer. The flora is subject to a very short growing season, low temperatures, lack of precipitation and a relatively barren ground soil. Nevertheless, there is a diversity of small plants in Svalbard. In the area around Longyearbyen alone, more than 100 different plant species have been registered.

Around 170 plant species have been registered in the Svalbard archipelago. The flora is extremely vulnerable, and everyone travelling in Svalbard must take great care to avoid causing any damage. The destruction of vegetation leaves permanent traces in the landscape. Consequently, all vegetation is protected. Feel free to photograph Svalbard’s colourful flora, but please don’t pick anything.

The Barents Sea nurtures most of the fauna or animal life in Svalbard. This Arctic Ocean area has a relatively high organic production owing to the Gulf Stream’s mixture of warm and cold water, the shallow shelf and intense sun radiation during the summertime. Svalbard is home to the largest bird cliffs in the North Atlantic region with millions of pairs of the most common nesting species, the auk, black-legged kittiwake and fulmar.
The area along the coast of Svalbard, as well as on the tundra in the large valleys, feature large populations of geese and wading birds. The eider duck nests throughout the Svalbard archipelago. Most of the birds in the Svalbard archipelago are migratory, and spend the winter in the Barents Sea, on the Norwegian coast or on the continent. The Svalbard ptarmigan is the only bird species that remains in Svalbard during the winter. A total of approximately 30 bird species nests in Svalbard.

The Svalbard reindeer and Arctic fox are Svalbard’s only native land mammals. These species are found on most of the islands in the archipelago. Moreover, the rodent species southern vole has found its way to the Isfjord area, most likely as stowaways on boats. Various seal species are found around Svalbard, including the ringed seal, bearded seal, common harbour seal and walrus. Of the whale species frequently visiting the coasts of Svalbard, the beluga (or white whale) is the most common.

Nineteen species of marine mammals may be found in the waters surrounding Svalbard, one of which is the polar bear. Disturbing, capturing, injuring or killing animals or birds is not permitted. All birds are protected during the breeding season. Eggs, nests and It is not allowed to interfere, catch, harm or kill animals and birds. All birds, including their eggs, nests and habitats, are protected during the breeding season. You should never touch dead animals as there has been cases of rabies in Svalbard.

The polar bear – The King of Svalbard 

Polar bears are impressive creatures. They are the world’s largest land carnivores and for many people they have become a symbol of the arctic wilderness. The size of a grown- up bear varies from 200 to 800 kg. Humans are considered an alien element in polar bear habitat. The polar bear is incredibly strong and even young animals under 100 kg can be very aggressive and dangerous. The polar bear has been protected since 1973, and it is considered a criminal act to pursuit, allure, disturb or feed a polar bear.

POLAR BEARS CAN ATTACK QUICKLY WITHOUT WARNING. We recommend all tourists to go on organized tours when moving outside the settlement. In Svalbard you may encounter polar bears all year.

Curious animals

Polar bears do not usually look upon humans as food, but they are naturally curious and will check out everything in their search for food. A really hungry bear will eat almost anything. If the bear moves directly towards you, make yourself visible early and also make noise. Shouting and clapping hands or starting an engine, i.e. a snowmobile or outboard engine will make the bear aware of you. This may be enough to cause the bear to withdraw.

You can read and learn more about the polar bear at the Norwegian Polar Institute’s webpage.

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