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50 Interesting Facts about Svalbard and Tips to Inspire Your Visit

50 Interesting Facts about Svalbard and Tips to Inspire Your Visit

Michele D´Agostino image

Svalbard is without a doubt one of the most fascinating and unique places on the planet. Here are fifty of our favourite facts about Svalbard to give you a flavour for this remote Arctic destination before you plan your trip there.

1. Svalbard is an archipelago of islands

Svalbard consists of a group of remote, Arctic islands. There are 9 main islands: Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet, Edgeøya, Barentsøya, Prins Karls Foreland, Kvitøya, Kong Karls Land, Bjørn Island, and Hopen, and a number of smaller outlying islands. The total land area of Svalbard is 24,209 square miles. To add to the confusion, prior to 1925, Svalbard was known as Spitsbergen, which today is one of the islands in the Svalbard archipelago.

2. Spitsbergen is the largest of Svalbard’s islands

Spitsbergen consists of over half of Svalbard’s total land area. It is the only island with a human population. Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz discovered it in 1596 and named it Spitsbergen, or ‘pointy mountain’ in Dutch.

3. The name Svalbard means ‘cold shores’

Although the official discovery is attributed to Willem Barentsz, it is thought that Svalbard could have been discovered by Norsemen as early as the 12th century. There are references to the land of Svalbarð in Old Norse which literally translates as ‘cold shores’.

4. Svalbard is so far north it would be permanently locked in by ice without the Gulf Stream

Svalbard is located further north than the most northerly settlement in Greenland. Unlike Greenland, the waters around the south and west of Svalbard are relatively free of ice due to the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream that pushes warmer waters up the coast. An ideal way to see Svalbard is from the water on a small expedition vessel. Find out more here.

5. The sun doesn’t set in Svalbard for five months of the year

Svalbard is so far north that the sun doesn’t set for the entire summer, from April 19th through to August 23rd. A great time to visit if you are a sun worshipper. Don’t forget your shades!

6. One night in Svalbard lasts for three months during the winter

Can you imagine not seeing a sunrise for three months? The opposite of the midnight sun in summer is the polar night during the winter. It commences around the beginning of November and ends at the end of January. You will not see a glimpse of the sunlight in Svalbard during that time.

7. Svalbard is a great place to see the northern lights

Due to its twenty-four hour darkness during the winter and its far northerly location, Svalbard is an excellent place to view the northern lights. Svalbard’s cold, dry climate means more clear nights than most other places in the northern lights belt. Don’t expect to see them in the summer though.

svalbard facts

8 . Svalbard is home to the four northernmost settlements in the world

Longyearbyen, Ny-Ålesund, Pyramiden and Barentsburg are all located on the island of Spitsbergen.

Longyearbyen is the main settlement and year round home to over 2,000 people. It has all the infrastructure you would expect of a normal town including hotels, shops and an international airport. It is the first place you will arrive on your trip to Svalbard.

Ny-Ålesund is a scientific research community located further north with a year round population of 35 increasing to 120 during the summer.

Barentsburg is the second largest settlement on Spitsbergen with a population of 470 Russians and Ukrainians.

Pyramiden is a former Soviet mining town that was abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Once home to over 1,000 people, today only a handful of people live there to run the hotel and act as guides.

9. Longyearbyen is so far north it is just 814 miles from the north pole

It’s not a surprise that Svalbard has a rich history of explorers who set off from there to conquer the north pole. Svalbard’s northerly location makes it the perfect place to explore the high Arctic either on land or by sea.

10. Svalbard only has 25 miles of road

That’s not a lot of tarmac for such a large area. The good news is you are unlikely to get stuck in a traffic jam. The main methods of transport are snowmobile in the winter and boat in the summer. One of the best ways to see explore Svalbard during the summer is from the coast on a small expedition vessel. Find out more about our latest trips here.

11. Svalbard’s average temperature is milder than you think

Due to its location at the top of the Gulf Stream, Svalbard’s temperature is warmer than other areas at the same latitude. The average temperatures range from -14c in the winter to + 6c in the summer. Visitors during the summer months are often surprised at how warm it is. The climate during the summer months feels like a northern European winter.

12. The Global Seed Vault is located in Svalbard

The seed vault is located on the edge of Longyearbyen, close to the airport, and was opened in 2008. Situated in a former coal mine, the seed vault holds copies of all the worlds seeds to ensure against loss in the event of a global crisis. You can see where it gets its nickname ‘The Doomsday Vault’ from.

13. Svalbard’s Is one of the safest places in the world with virtually no crime

Crime is virtually non-existent amongst the small population. The majority of crimes reported are bar brawls. In 2018 Longyearbyen made headlines when an armed robbery took place at the local bank, a dramatic first for the town. The offender was promptly shipped off to mainland Norway. Don’t worry, you are highly unlikely to experience any crime on your visit.

14. You don’t need a visa or residency permit to live and work in Svalbard

Everybody has the right to live and work in Svalbard indefinitely regardless of citizenship. Svalbard is outside of the Schengen area and has its own rules. There is a limited welfare system so it is essential that immigrants have the means to support themselves. It is possible to be expelled for not having the means to support yourself or violating laws and regulations.

15. Longyearbyen has inhabitants from fifty nations

For a population of under 3,000, having inhabitants from over fifty countries makes it one of the most diverse places on earth. Due to its relaxed stance on immigration, anyone can come and live and work there.

16. It’s against the law not to carry a gun outside of the settlements

Since 2012, it has been a legal requirement that anyone travelling outside of a settlement must carry a firearm due to the threat posed by polar bears. Whilst a firearm is essential, it is also highly recommended to carry other ways of scaring a bear including false guns and bangers. If you are participating in one of our tours you will be accompanied by an armed expedition leader responsible for your safety.

17. It’s highly unlikely you will meet anyone born on Svalbard

Svalbard has no native population. Everyone that lives there is from the outside and women are not allowed to give birth there. Due to the remote location, a few weeks before their due date women are obliged to go to mainland Norway to have their babies.

18. You can’t be buried in Svalbard

A common myth is that it is illegal to die on Svalbard. In reality it is simply that there are no options for burial on these icy islands. Due to the permafrost bodies do not decompose when buried in the ground, as evidenced by 1918 flu victims who were buried there.

19. It is customary to take off shoes inside buildings

Today in most of the hotels and places you visit in Longyearbyen you will notice a big pile of shoes to the side of the door reminding you to take your own off. This tradition dates back to the times when Longyearbyen was predominantly a mining settlement, but today it helps to keep the interior floors snow and ice free.

20. Svalbard is home to seven national parks

Svalbard is a highly preserved area with at least 60% of the land being protected. There are seven national parks, twenty-nine protected areas, fifteen bird sanctuaries and six nature reserves, making it an ideal place to view wildlife in its natural home.

21. Svalbard is classified as an Arctic desert

Due to its low humidity and precipitation, Svalbard is considered a desert. The air in Svalbard is almost as dry as the air in the Sahara.

22. Svalbard has over 2,100 glaciers

Svalbard is a perfect place to witness glaciers. During the summer months it is quite possible to watch huge chunks of ice calve off the glacier faces into the sea. The glaciers in Svalbard are around 3000-4000 years old and are currently in a state of retreat.
svalbard glaciers

23. 60% of Svalbard’s land is covered in ice

Svalbard is a frozen desert made up of mountains and glaciers. Large areas of the land are covered in ice all year round. Ausfonna is Svalbard’s largest ice cap which covers part of the island of Nordaustlandet. This ice cap alone covers 8120km2 of land.

24. Less than 10% of landmass has vegetation

Due to its desert nature and freezing temperatures, not much grows there. Algae, mosses and lichens cover many of the ice-free areas. There are 164 plant species documented in Svalbard which is an impressive amount considering its extreme temperatures in the winter.

25. There are no trees in Svalbard

Due to the short summers and long, cold, dark winters it is not possible for trees to grow. The plants that do grow there rarely reach more than 10cm in height and grow at a slow speed.

26. Climate change is affecting Svalbard with winter temperatures 7c warmer today than they were in 1971

The Arctic is experiencing warming at an accelerated rate compared to the rest of the world. As larger areas of sea ice melt during the summer due to rising sea temperatures, more water is exposed to the warming effects of the sun which increases the warming cycle. Animals that hunt on the sea ice, such as polar bears, are under threat from man-made climate change.

27. There are more snowmobiles than people in Svalbard

Considering there are barely any roads and lots of ice, it makes sense that snowmobile is the preferred method of transport outside of the summer months.

Most Northerly Facts

Located above 78 ̊ north, Svalbard holds the title for the most northerly of quite a few categories. Here are our favourites:

28. Longyearbyen has the most northerly airport in the world with scheduled public flights

When you land at Longyearbyen you are at the furthest point north that you can fly on a scheduled domestic airline anywhere on earth.
longyearbyen travel guide

29. The most northerly piano in the world resides in the Russian ghost town of Pyramiden

Abandoned in 1998, the most northerly piano in the world is thought to reside in one of the ghostly buildings in Pyramiden.

30. Ny-Ålesund is the most northerly community populated all year round

If Longyearbyen wasn’t already far north enough for you, then check out Ny-Ålesund. This scientific and research settlement has a population of staff all year and an excellent museum on the settlement’s history.

31. The most northerly post office in the world is located at Ny-Ålesund

It makes sense that the most northerly post office in the world is located in the most northerly settlement in the world. How else would those scientists write home?

32. Longyearbyen hosts the Earth’s northernmost blues festival

Every year the Dark Season Blues Festival takes place in Svalbard in late October every year. The festival marks the beginning of the darkness when the daylight leaves Svalbard for the next four months.

33. The world’s northernmost research and higher education institute is based in Svalbard

Fancy studying at the world’s most northerly university? The University Centre in Svalbard offers courses in Arctic Biology, Geology and Geophysics and of course Arctic survival.

34. Svalbard is home to some of the world’s northernmost eateries

You guessed it! The world’s most northerly pizzeria, kebab house, gourmet restaurant, bar, nightclub, and sushi restaurant are all located in Longyearbyen.
Svalbard Wildlife Facts

35. In Svalbard there are more polar bears than people

Svalbard has a human population of just under 2,700 and an estimated polar bear population of 3,000. It is one of the best places on earth to see and photograph polar bears in their natural home.

36. Shooting a polar bear in Svalbard is a criminal offence

It goes without saying that it’s an offence to kill a polar bear. Polar bears are an endangered species and are protected by law throughout the archipelago. It is also illegal to chase or disturb polar bears.

37. You won’t see a single cat on Svalbard

Cats are prohibited on Svalbard. The law was introduced to protect sensitive birdlife throughout the archipelago. There is a rumour one cat was smuggled in after being registered as a fox.

38. Arctic terns migrate to Svalbard from Antarctica

The red beaked Arctic tern migrates from pole to pole every year. A single tern can fly up to 25,000 miles in a year, from the Arctic to Antarctica and back again.
39. Walruses were once hunted to near extinction in Svalbard

For three-and-a-half centuries walruses suffered from heavy commercial exploitation. Thankfully in 1952, walruses in Svalbard became protected saving them from extinction. Today the population has grown to an estimated 3,000 walruses. The scientific name for a walrus is Odobenus Rosmarus, which is Latin for tooth-walking sea-horse.

40. Svalbard is home to nineteen species of marine mammals

Polar bears, walruses, five seal species and twelve different types of whale call the water around Svalbard their home, making Svalbard an excellent place for wildlife photographers and nature lovers.

41. Svalbard has its own species of reindeer

Svalbard is home to an estimated 10,000 reindeer which are their own subspecies. Svalbard reindeer are the smallest type of reindeer on earth, with shorter legs than other reindeer. They have been residents of Svalbard for over 5,000 years. Regular sightings of Svalbard reindeer are made on our cruises around the archipelago.

42. The tusk of a Narwhal is actually a tooth

It is possible to encounter the unicorn of the sea, a Narwhal, in Svalbard. A little known fact is that the single tusk that extends from the head of the male is actually a large tooth that has incredible sensory capabilities with up to 10 million nerve endings. The tusks themselves can grow to nearly three meters.

43. Svalbard’s waters are home to the largest animal to have ever lived on planet earth

The blue whale, the largest of the earth’s animals, is a frequent visitor to the waters around Svalbard. These solitary visitors can weigh up to 200 tonnes and grow up to 24-28 meters in length. They make an impressive sight and are one of the many natural wonders that attract photographers and wildlife watchers to the area.
44. The Svalbard rock ptarmigan is the only bird to overwinter in Svalbard

The Svalbard rock ptarmigan endures the entire winter in the freezing Arctic conditions. During the summer it uses a different habitat from the winter and prefers surfaces free of snow and ice to nest on. Little is known about the overwintering spots of this bird.

Historical Svalbard Facts

45. Tourism predated mining in Svalbard

The first mine on Svalbard was established by the American businessman John Munroe Longyear in 1906. Longyear had previously visited Svalbard as a cruise ship passenger back in 1901 which was how he became aware of the potential the area had for mining. He established Longyear City, now known as Longyearbyen and the rest is history.

46. Longyearbyen was almost completely destroyed during World War II

In 1943, a German task force under the name of Operation Zitronella was sent to destroy the settlements of Barentsberg and Longyearbyen. During the eight hour attack by warships, six Norwegians were killed and thirty-one were taken prisoner. Find out more about the account here.

47. Abandoned buildings don’t decay in the Arctic

Due to the permafrost, low humidity and cool climate, rot and decay take place at a very slow pace. This is evidenced in Pyramiden where the abandoned buildings have yet to deteriorate to the same extent as abandoned buildings in warmer climates.

48. You can visit the ghost town of Pyramiden and stay overnight in the hotel

The Russian mining town of Pyramiden was abandoned in 1998. Today it is possible to visit the ghost town and explore the abandoned buildings. The hotel was reopened in 2013 and it is now possible to stay there overnight.

49. Svalbard was the departure point for the exploration of the North Pole

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and Italian pilot Umberto Nobile‘s daring attempt to reach the north pole via airship in 1926 departed from Svalbard. The mast from which the airship departed is still visible at Ny-Ålesund.

50. It is illegal to remove any historical objects that you find in Svalbard

Historical objects and remains in Svalbard are protected under law. It is illegal to remove anything of historical interest, no matter how insignificant, from broken pots and pans to ammunition cases.

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