Svalbard: 10 Things You May Not Know

Svalbard: 10 Things You May Not Know

Firstly, the grand question. Where is Svalbard?

If you didn’t know the answer, you are not alone. Before going to Svalbard, friends and family asked me where I’m headed to. When I mentioned Svalbard, the common reaction was Sval WHAT? WHERE IS THAT?

Well, I wouldn’t know too, except that I’m a nerd.

Anyway, I was blessed to have gotten the opportunity to visit this remarkable place back in August. I know, it’s been a while and this post is way overdue. Obviously, I’ve been enjoying the summer too much! But before the events start to blur in my mind, I’d better start writing. So, in the next few posts, I will try and share my experience visiting Svalbard: The Last Stop Before the North Pole. For now, here is a quick introduction…

1. Longyearbyen is the northernmost town in the world

To explain to my friends and family where Svalbard is, I’d take out my iphone, google world map and showed them exactly where Svalbard is.

Here’s Svalbard on the world map.

“Wow!!!” most of them would say.

Svalbard is halfway between the north shores of Norway and the North Pole and at 78° north, makes Longyearbyen the northernmost permanent settlement.

Now, I can just hear you ask, Longyearbyen???

Let’s get one thing cleared: the names.

Longyearbyen is the capital of Spitsbergen and Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen and Svalbard are often used interchangeably.

Because Longyearbyen is the northernmost town, it’s not hard for other things here to be “northernmost” too.

Some may argue that Ny-Alesund is further north. However, I’d say Ny-Alesund is a research town only with circa 200 researchers doing their research there.

2. Polar bears outnumber humans

If you didn’t know this fact before going, you’d quickly realise you’re in polar bear county the moment you step off the plane. A huge polar bear greets you at the baggage collection area.

Don’t worry, it’s dead.

Svalbard’s current population is circa 2,500 vs the estimated polar bears of 3,500.

Whilst in movies and storybooks polar bears are cute and cuddly, they are not in real life – well, they are cute but don’t even attempt to get close. Polar bears are the largest carnivores on earth and when not hibernating, are on constant hunt for food. That is why it is the law to carry a rifle (and know how to use one!) or be with an armed guide when one wonders outside the settlement area!

3. Snowmobiles outnumber residents

There are only roads within Longyearbyen and within other settlements: Barentsburg and Ny-Alesund. There is no road network connecting these settlements, hence, snowmobile is an important mode of transportation given the long winter months. On average, each resident has 2 snowmobiles.

4. Longyearbean was founded by an American

Even though Longyearbyen is part of the Svalbard archipelago which in turn is part of Norway, Longyearbyen was founded by John Munro Longyear, an American who went there in the early 1900s to set up a mining company. Longyearbyen means “Longyear town” in Norwegian.

5. More than 40 nationalities live in Longyearbyen

Despite the harsh weather, nationalities from various countries all over the world have now called it home.

Svalbard was considered free of a ruling nation until the Svalbard Treaty was signed in the early 1900 which recognises the sovereignty of Norway over Svalbard. However, over 40 other countries signed the treaty  allowing them to become residents in Svalbard and are allowed to fish, mine and trade there.

Believe it or not, besides Norwegians and Russians who make up the largest population, there is also a large group of Thai’s. Yes, Thai’s! And they didn’t even sign the treaty! You can even find a Thai restaurant in town.

6. The grounds are permafrost

This means it’s frozen all year round. Let’s hope Trump doesn’t change that.

7. The sun does not rise for 4 months and does not set for another 4 months

Due to its location being so up north, it experiences 4 months of polar nights where between the end of October to mid February, the sun does not rise above the horizon.

Solfestuka is a week long celebration to welcome the return of the sun.

Between the end of April to the end of August, the sun never sets. This phenomenon is call the midnight sun. With the sun shining throughout the day, we lose track of time often and stayed out way past our bedtime!

The photo below was taken closer to 11pm!

8. The streets have no names

Streets in Longyearbyen are numbered. So are the coal mines. Talk about keeping it simple!

9. It’s customary to leave your shoes at the door

It’s a local custom to take off your shoes when indoors. This is not just at locals’ homes but also at hotels, museums, the church and the tourist information centre. You’ll see signs asking visitors to leave their shoes at the door in many establishments.

Some places provide slippers to help keep your feet from getting cold.

10. It’s illegal to die in Longyearbyen

Yes, you read that right! Death is forbidden here. Longyearbyen only has a small graveyard. Because it’s permafrost, bodies don’t decompose well there. In 1950s the government passed the law to not accept anymore bodies for burial. So if you want to die, go elsewhere. It’s the law!



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