Svalbard’s Polar Talking Points
Being an iced-over, snow-heaped, bear-packed island at the edge of the world has its advantages: For one, you’re at least unusual enough to warrant talking about. And Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago situated so far north it redefines the term “off the grid,” certainly warrants talking about. Thousands of tourists each year, in fact, think it warrants flying halfway around the globe for a Svalbard sailing voyage. To get your own account of what makes this Arctic archipelago so singularly special, here are 10 facts that just might prompt you to consider your own Svalbard cruise.
1. There Are More Polar Bears in Svalbard than There Are People
This fact may go far in explaining some of the others on this list. The most recent count, conducted by the Norwegian Polar Institute in 2004, estimated polar numbers in Svalbard at about 2,650 and possibly as high as 3,600. At the time of the count, there were around 2,000 residents living in the archipelago’s capital, Longyearbyen, and some 2,600 living in Svalbard as a whole. Another count done in 2015 revealed that polar bears have increased by 42% since 2004.
2. You’re Legally Required to Pack a Gun outside Svalbard Settlements
The law, published in 2012 by the governor of Svalbard, requires anyone traveling outside the archipelago’s settlements to equip themselves with the means necessary to scare off a polar bear. Firearms are of course highly recommended for this purpose. Though in other respects Svalbard gun laws are not unlike those of most European communities – firearms are prohibited in public buildings, cannot be discharged in town, so forth – it is the unusual wildlife of these scattered Arctic islands that renders additional protection not only necessary, but enforced.
3. One of the Top Ten Globally Ranked Ghost Towns Is in Svalbard
It only fits that the place with the largest bear-to-human ratio and a mandatory rifle rule also houses one of the world’s top ghost towns (according to National Geographic). Purchased from Sweden by the USSR in 1927, the town of Pyramiden was used for years as a mining community, and once housed over a thousand inhabitants. At the time, it wasn’t that bad of a place: It had its own indoor swimming pool as well as a theater, music room, and library. Unfortunately, these are the sole surviving residents of this hollowed-out haunt, which was deserted during the 1998 Russian currency crisis.
4. Svalbard Has Its Own Reindeer
There are an estimated 10,000 reindeer living in Svalbard, all comprising their own distinct subspecies. These are the aptly named Svalbard reindeer – also called Spitsbergen reindeer, after the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. Svalbard reindeer are the smallest reindeer in existence. They have lighter fur color, more rounded heads, and shorter legs than other reindeer, and they have populated Svalbard for around 5,000 years. Even so, they were nearly hunted out of existence in the early 1900s until dedicated recovery programs came to their aid.
5. Svalbard Is Actually an Arctic Desert
For the polar-savvy among us, this is perhaps the least surprising Svalbard fact. After all, Antarctica and parts of Greenland receive such little rainfall that they too qualify as deserts. Svalbard is no different: Its total precipitation averages about 200 mm (7.8 inches) per year, with the northeastern island of Nordaustlandet claiming most of the “Arctic desert” characteristics. The west side of Svalbard is, by contrast, quite lush in places.
6. Over 40 Nationalities Call Svalbard Home
The degree of cultural diversity in Svalbard would be impressive for a centrally located town, much less a scatter of Arctic islands halfway between Norway and the North Pole. The Svalbard capital of Longyearbyen ceased to be simply a mining community in the early 1990s, filling up due to rising research, tourism, and educational interests. The people who relocated there were from all different parts of the globe, proving you don’t have to go to a big city (or town, or village) to enjoy the benefits of a multinational society.
7. You Can See the Northern Lights During the Day in Svalbard
The northern lights are best seen when the sky is darkest, but the hour doesn't have to be late for the sky to be dark. Because of Svalbard’s far northern location, the archipelago gives northern lights enthusiasts a rare opportunity to witness the magical lightshow in the day. From October through February, during the long polar nights, you can eat your lunch below the dance of these famed auroras.
8. The World’s Largest Sea Carnivore Was Excavated in Svalbard
Though it seems logical to group this fact with polar bears and Pyramiden to achieve maximum fright factor, our intent is not to scare you off Svalbard. In 2008 researchers uncovered the 150-million-year-old Jurassic fossil of one of Earth’s largest marine reptiles, a pliosaur that has since been named Predator X. Pieces of the skull, back, neck, teeth, and forelimb – Predator X’s was almost 10 feet in length (3 meters) – were found, remnants of an earlier world.
Øglegraverne 2009. Naturhistorisk museum. Foto: Jørn Hurum/NHM/UiO
9. Svalbard Hosts the Northernmost Blues Festival
Svalbard can actually claim many of the world’s northernmost locations: kindergarten, university, church, post office, museum, commercial airport, and gourmet restaurant. But it’s music festival is one of the coolest (forgive the pun). The music festival, known as Dark Season Blues, takes place in late October, marking the start of the long Arctic nights. Indeed, the dark blue of the sky seems a perfect canopy under which to play such classic numbers. Concerts are held at numerous Longyearbyen venues, including pubs, restaurants, the church, even the local kindergarten. This alone is a reason for an Arctic trip, one that would make B.B. King proud.
Photo credit: Svalbardposten
10. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (aka Doomsday Vault) Is on Spitsbergen
If you think it sounds made up, you’re not alone. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the end-all, be-all, hold-all repository of the world’s crops. Locked deep in a mountain shot through with permafrost, the Vault protects these crops in seed form in the event of global catastrophe. Gene banks from all over the world have contributed, filling the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to an astounding 930,000 crop varieties. Even so, this is only a fraction of what the Vault will hold: 4.5 million crop types, with an average of 500 seeds each, yields a total Vault capacity of 2.5 billion seeds. Not long ago the location made global headlines when melting permafrost threatened the seeds, but the Norwegian government has since made improvements to prevent a reoccurrence. Though the Vault is a precaution we hope we’ll never need, we need it to fail even less.