There is no doubt. I was drawn to Longyearbyen by the simple fact that at latitude 78 degrees 13 minutes North, it is the northernmost town in the world.
The Svalbard Archipelago (formerly Spitzbergen) has about twenty-six hundred people and three thousand polar bears. The principal “city” is Longyearbyen, Longyear City in Norwegian. John M. Longyear, an American, started a coal mine in the area in 1906. The coal is almost gone, but the area still hosts scientists, environmentalists and tourists.
We, of course, are in the latter category. It is less than 820 miles to the North Pole. We were not offered an excursion to go the rest of the way, but Santa Claus greeted us at the dock.
After mid-April, there is no clear distinction between day and night until about the second week of September. The polar night lasts from the end of October until mid-February.
An Icelandic saga mentions the islands in 1194, but it wasn’t until 1596 that the Dutch explorer Willem Barents saw them and named the area Spitzbergen for its pointed peaks. Barents didn’t find the northwest passage to China he was seeking, but he did find good whale and seal hunting grounds. Henry Hudson, also looking for a way to China, charted the area in 1607.
The Svalbard treaty was signed in 1920 opening the area to everyone while maintaining Norway’s sovereignty. You don’t need a visa to live there, but you do need to prove you can support yourself.
There is just one main street. We were told there were 144 registered snowmobiles and 33 registered cars. It got its first radio station in 1950 and its first satellite TV in 1984. An airport, built in 1974, makes it possible to visit during the long night.
Most buildings are new. The coal made Longyearbyen a strategic target in WWII. In 1943, a small fleet led by the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst destroyed all but 4 buildings.
Among the new buildings is the Svalbard Museum, voted to be the best museum in Europe in 2008 by the European Council of Museums.
Four Norwegian universities began the University Center of Svalbard in 1993, a collaborative effort which offers courses in geophysics, biology and geology as related to the Arctic.
Alie visited the museum and a place that raises sled dogs while I took a walk to a nearby glacier.
The weather was gray and rather dismal – just what we wanted from the northernmost town in the world.
Click on photos to enlarge.