Svalbard (Russian: Шпицберген, Shpitsbergen or Грумант, Grumant) is a group of islands located between the Arctic Ocean, Barents Sea, Greenland Sea, and the Norwegian Sea. The area is sometimes referred to as Spitsbergen, the main island with all the settlements. The islands are directly north of Norway, and have been under Norwegian rule since 1920. Svalbard's settlements are the second most northerly permanently-inhabited spots on the planet, after the Canadian military base at Alert.
Svalbard is a unique place because of its nature, the extreme northern location and its legal status as neutral Norwegian territory. There is virtually no infrastructure outside a handful of small settlements. About 60% of the area is covered by glaciers, 30% is barren rock and only 10% is covered by vegetation. Svalbard has midnight sun from late April to late August, while winter darkness (polar night) lasts from late October to February. Seven national parks and 23 nature reserves cover 70% of the islands. Because of the delicate nature and threat from polar bears, movement outside settlements is strictly regulated.
Weather is generally cold and above freezing for only a couple of summer months, but relatively mild for such a northern latitude. There is so little precipitation that parts of Svalbard are similar to a desert.
All settlements in Svalbard are located on the main island of Spitsbergen (or Vest-Spitsbergen).
- 1 Barentsburg (Баренцбург) – sole remaining Russian settlement, population 400
- 2 Hornsund – Polish research station, population 10 in winter, around 20–30 in summer.
- 3 Longyearbyen – the "capital" and main Norwegian settlement with a population of 2100
- 4 Ny-Ålesund – the most northerly civilian settlement in the world, population under 100
- 5 Sveagruva – population 210
The other islands of Svalbard are uninhabited and, as they are all nature reserves, generally inaccessible without special permission. The islands can be divided into two groups: the Spitsbergen group of Barentsøya, Edgeøya, Nordaustlandet and Prins Karls Forland, and the more remote islands of Bjørnøya, Hopen, Kong Karls Land and Kvitøya.
Svalbard is the northernmost tip of Europe and, a few military bases aside, its settlements are the northernmost permanently-inhabited spots on the planet. Located between the 76° and 81° parallels, they are far more northerly than any part of Alaska and all but a few of Canada's Arctic islands. In fact, they would be permanently locked in by ice if not for the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream, and it is this comparative warmth that makes them habitable. The islands cover 62,050 km² (smaller than Iceland, about twice the area of Belgium), the largest of which are Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet and Edgeøya. Austfonna glacier on Nordaustlandet is 8,492 km² and the widest glacier in Europe, slightly ahead of Vatnajökull in Iceland. Austfonna glacier alone covers an area about 3-4 times wider than Luxembourg. Spitsbergen is the fifth-widest island in Europe and covers an area about the size of Switzerland.
While Svalbard has never had an indigenous population, the islands are inhabited today by fewer than 3,000 people, nearly all of them in the main settlements of Longyearbyen and Barentsburg on Spitsbergen.
The islands are governed by Sysselmann på Svalbard, literally if slightly awkwardly translated into English as the Governor of Svalbard; the Governor is appointed by the government of Norway. Sysselmannen administration is responsible for policing, rescue, environmental policy, visas, weapon licences and other public services on the islands.
All man-made objects older than 1946 are protected by law and cannot be touched by visitors. For this reason, the area around Longyearbyen, and several other parts of the archipelago, are littered with interesting artifacts including disused mining equipment, bits of rope and shovels. Human graves are often shallow and human remains are in some cases visible on the ground. Remains of animals such as whales and polar bears of any age are also protected.
The islands were supposedly discovered by Viking explorers in the 12th century. However the first recorded voyage here was by the Dutch in 1596, landing on the northwest of Spitsbergen. The first permanent settlement was the international whaling base, which was active during the 17th and 18th centuries. Norway's sovereignty was recognised in 1920; five years later it took over the territory. However, the Svalbard Treaty gives "absolute equality" to other nations wishing to exploit mineral deposits, and Russia continues to maintain a significant population on the island. Although part of Norway, Svalbard remains a neutral territory.
Coal mining is the major economic activity on Svalbard. The treaty of 9 February 1920 gives the 41 signatories equal rights to exploit mineral deposits, subject to Norwegian regulation. Although American, British, Dutch, and Swedish coal companies have mined in the past, the only companies still mining are Norwegian and Russian. The settlements on Svalbard were essentially company towns. Barentsburg still exists as such, while Longyearbyen has begun to resemble a 'normal' mainland town. The Norwegian state-owned coal company is responsible, both directly and indirectly, for approximately half of the working hours in Longyearbyen. There is also some trapping of seal, fox, and walrus. Tourism has become increasingly important and now powers the economy of Longyearbyen, changing it significantly. Nonetheless, the place is not often swarming with tourists. The third main industry on Svalbard is scientific research and education. UNIS, the University Centre on Svalbard, offers tertiary and postgraduate courses in Arctic sciences, and many countries also run research stations on the archipelago.
Svalbard is barren, rugged and desolate. Its mountains look like giant, precipitous slag heaps: steeply-piled stacks of rubble, eroded by rain with peaks jutting out at improbable angles. Higher mountains are permanently covered in snow and many valleys are filled with glaciers. There are no trees on the islands and the most common vegetation is a brownish green moss, the colour of dead grass, that sprouts patchily up the mountainsides. However, many Arctic flowers bloom here during summer.
Svalbard literally means "cold edge", an apt name for this northern land. The climate is Arctic, tempered by the warm North Atlantic Current. Summers are cool (July average 6.1°C) and winters are cold (January average -15.8°C), but wind chill means that it usually feels colder. The North Atlantic Current flows along the west and north coasts of Spitsbergen, keeping water open and navigable most of the year. The peak travel season for cruises is during Svalbard's brief summer, from June to August, when it's light and not too cold outside. The "light winter" period (March-May) is the high season for fly and stay guests, when there is both sunlight and snow. This period is also increasingly popular for winter sports. March is still one of the coldest months with an average of -15°C in Longyearbyen, though temperatures can drop to -40°C. Summer months are just above freezing on average and temperatures occasionally climb to 15°C.
Weather is often cloudy but Svalbard is typically a very dry area. Fog is common, with April and May being the least foggy months. Annual precipitation is typically around 200-500 mm making Svalbard one of the driest areas of Europe. Some places in Svalbard get less than 100 mm annually, similar to or less than the driest places in Spain. A few places in Svalbard get 1000 mm annually. Precipitation mostly falls from low clouds and depends on the landscape.
Svalbard features the midnight sun from 20 April to 23 August. Conversely, the sun stays under the horizon during the polar night from 26 October to 15 February. In northern mainland Norway there is twilight midday during the polar night, but on Svalbard it is fully dark at least all of December.
Norwegian and Russian public holidays apply in their respective settlements, but there are a few local festivals of interest:
- Polar Jazz, end of January. 4-5 day jazz, blues, and bluegrass festival.
- Solfestuka, around 8 March. 'The sun festival week', a celebration of the end of the polar night.
- Dark Season Blues. Blues festival at the end of October. An appropriately-themed way to mark the approach of winter.
- KunstPause Svalbard, around 14 November. An arts festival timed to match the beginning of the polar night.
Getting in is relatively expensive and time-consuming, but less so than other destinations at nearly the same latitude, e.g., in Greenland and Canada. Svalbard has no border controls, and citizens of the 41 signatories of the Svalbard treaty (including such unlikely countries as Afghanistan and the Dominican Republic) need no visas or other permits to visit – or even work – in Svalbard. However, in practice it's difficult to arrive in Svalbard without transiting through Norway, and as Norway considers Svalbard a domestic destination, you'll need to pass through Norwegian immigration first. In the other direction, Norway reserves the right to check the passports of passengers coming from Svalbard. Svalbard is not inside the Schengen area. People who need a visa to the Schengen area will need a multiple-entry visa to go to Svalbard since returning to mainland Norway counts as entering the Schengen area again. People from the Nordic countries need a passport to Svalbard even if they do not normally need it inside the Nordic countries. Norwegians can for the time being use their Norwegian driver's licence.
Longyearbyen has the largest airport on the islands (LYR IATA), the only one suitable for passenger flights from outside Svalbard. SAS has scheduled flights from Oslo and Tromsø, Norwegian from Oslo only. Moreover there are charter flights from various European destinations.
SAS considers flights to Longyearbyen from Oslo or Tromsø domestic, so an SAS EuroBonus award ticket from anywhere in Scandinavia to Svalbard costs just 10,000 EuroBonus points in SAS Go, and 20,000 in SAS Plus. This little loophole is well-known by SAS frequent flyers and award availability is quite limited, so book well in advance if planning to use this. SAS flights can also be bought over the Internet either direct from SAS or via certain meta agents.
While flights to Svalbard were long rather expensive, fares can be in line with other intra-European flights these days, but early booking and flexibility with dates will help you get the cheapest tickets.
A number of operators offer cruises around Svalbard in the high season. These are the only practical means of visiting the more far-flung bits of the archipelago like Ny-Ålesund, but they don't come cheap: a typical 3-day cruise starting from Longyearbyen may cost you from 13000 kr (c. US$1500 / €1300, cheapest cabin, twin sharing). There are also longer cruises, some starting all the way from Oslo, with rates going up to US$9500 for a 12-day trip.
There are countless cruise operators, but they all seem to book on the same boats. Spitsbergen Travel runs MS Fram and the MS Nordstjernen (1956), formerly Norwegian Hurtigruten ships. Other small ship favorites are the Antarctica Dream, Ocean Adventurer, MV Plancius, Ortelius, Akademik Vavilov, Ioffe and the Polar Pioneer. Most of these vessels have been designed to plow the icy waters of the Antarctica and have comfortable facilities. While none of these can be described as "luxurious", other vessels such as the Le Boreal, Sea Spirit, and Le Diamant are larger and designed to cater to the luxury traveller. Some operators specialize in small ship cruise options and land safaris, such as Adventure Life. If you want a full-fledged cruise ship, P&O usually also calls a few times a year on two-week trips.
Passenger services to Svalbard are very limited. In the summer there is a cargo ship service from Tromsø once a week. The journey takes 2-3 days and prices are generally at least as steep as flights, but this cannot be considered as a usual measure of transport, as passengers are usually not allowed onboard. Very seldomly, cargo ships also operate from Murmansk to Barentsburg. There is also the Polish sailing yacht Eltanin, which provides supplies for research stations. It sails once a year from Gdynia (usually May); however, the journey takes about 3 weeks.
Most of Svalbard is protected as national park or nature reserves. There is no infrastructure outside Longyearbyen. Visitors can in general not go around on their own out of Longyearbyen, also for safety reasons.
The only "highway" links the Longyearbyen airport to the Mine 7 via Longyearbyen. It is for the most part unsealed and anyway very short. There are paved streets in the settlement of Longyearbyen and many of the local residents tend to have cars. Snowmobiles are common transportation in wintertime. Visitors don't need a car.
Travel between islands and settlements can be done by plane or helicopter any time of year.
Boats can be used in summer. MS Polargirl runs a mail service several times a week between Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Pyramiden and passengers are taken on these trips. Many people go with an expectation of seeing a polar bear on a boat safari. This is possible, but by no means guaranteed.
- See also: Eurasian wildlife
Svalbard's visitors come mostly to experience Arctic nature at its rawest and most powerful. The islands have untouched glaciers and craggy mountains, but also polar bears, caribou, a peculiar short legged reindeer, polar foxes, whales, seals and walruses. Svalbard is renowned for its variety of birds, including Arctic Terns, Arctic Fulmar and Puffins. Whales can be spotted off the coastlines particularly during late summer. Humpback whales, Orcas, Beluga whales, and Narwhals all frequent the ocean waters near Svalbard.
During the short summer, the melting snow in the milder parts of the islands gives place to vast stretches of tundra vegetation, sometimes dotted with delicate flowers.
Although it is possible to prepare your own excursion while on Svalbard, the lack of infrastructure, the necessity of carrying (and knowing how to use) a rifle outside the settlements, and the harshness of the environment even during the summer make organized activities with professional guides a necessity for most visitors. Activities can be booked online or in Longyearbyen.
Longyearbyen has a couple of museums and the world's northernmost church. The Soviet-era settlements of Barentsburg, still running fitfully, and Pyramiden, abandoned in the 1990s, make offbeat attractions, being home to (among other things) the world's two northernmost Lenin statues. Both can be visited by cruise or snowmobile from Longyearbyen.
The currency is the Norwegian krone (kr), and this is also accepted in the Russian settlements. Svalbard is a tax free zone so a number of shops in Longyearbyen display various items for sale at prices well below mainland Norway.
Exchange rates for Norwegian kroner
As of August 2018:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
Svalbard is by most measures very expensive: on Svalbard most things costs even more than mainland Norway. Accommodation in cheap guesthouses costs around 500 kr/night and sit-down meals are closer to 100 kr each, and both can easily be double if you want to stay in a full-service hotel. Guided activities start at about 500 kr per day (e.g., trekking and kayaking) but can go to 1000 kr and above for tours requiring specialist equipment.
One way to cut costs significantly is to camp and self-cater, bringing all your supplies from the mainland. There is, however, a full service grocery store in Longyearbyen. Frozen and dry goods are on par with or even a little cheaper than in Norway, while perishable items arrive via air freight and are more expensive.
Svalbard's duty-free status means that alcohol and sports clothing, etc. are much cheaper than on the mainland.
Food on Svalbard is expensive for most visitors, as it is anywhere in Norway. Local specialities include seal and reindeer, served at restaurants in Longyearbyen. Sometimes polar bears are shot (see below) and served to tourists. It is generally accepted that they don't taste particularly good, but the novelty value keeps them on the menu.
Alcohol is duty-free on Svalbard. If you've arrived from Norway the bars will seem refreshingly cheap but are still equivalent to London prices. In Barentsburg, Russian vodka can be cheap.
A popular party trick for glacier cruises is drinks served with glacier ice, purified by natural processes over thousands of years.
A range of accommodation is available only in Longyearbyen, which offers camping, guesthouses and luxury hotels. The camping site is located 300m from the airport and is the only place where camping is permitted in relatively close proximity to Longyearbyen. For travellers looking to bring the cost down it is much cheaper to camp than pay for guesthouses and the camping site is free to use outside season, although the service buildings are locked meaning facilities such as toilets are unavailable. Rules therefore apply to how to deal with urgent toilet purposes, and strict rules are applied to waste disposal. In season the camp site is serviced and facilities available, and it is possible to rent tents. Warm showers cost extra.
- The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS). A private foundation run by four Norwegian universities, offers university-level courses in Arctic biology, geology, geophysics and technology. Several hundred students, half of them exchange students from outside Norway, attend yearly.
Citizens of Svalbard Treaty signatory countries need no permits to work on Svalbard; you can even set up your own mine if so inclined. In practice, work opportunities are rather more limited, although there is some seasonal tourist industry work available during the summer if you have the requisite skills and language abilities (Norwegian will come in handy). The Governor of Svalbard does, however, have the right to boot you off the island if you cannot support yourself.
The biggest threat on Svalbard is polar bears (isbjørn), some 500 of which inhabit the main islands at any one time. Seven people have been killed by polar bears since 1973, the most recent in August 2020, so if travelling outside settlements you are required to carry a rifle at all times to protect yourself. They can be rented for about 150 kr and up per day, but starting 2009, a valid gun license is now required; those without a gun license can apply for temporary permission to rent a rifle: all that is required is to fill out an application form and a certificate of good conduct (i.e. proof of no criminal record) which can be e-mailed to the Svalbard Police Department. Processing may take up to 4 weeks, but has been known to work even on the same day with some luck. However, for most people, it's better to stick to guided tours. Do not underestimate the speed of polar bears (you cannot outrun one). Polar bears can be extremely unpredictable and are far more dangerous than European brown bears. You are not allowed to kill polar bears unless it is an immediate threat to your life.
The harsh Arctic environment also poses its own challenges, particularly in winter. Beware of the danger of frostbite in the face (nose and cheeks), fingers and toes, particularly in low temperatures with wind (such as high speed on snowmobile). Crossing glaciers and rivers can be hazardous and travelling with local guides is strongly recommended. If heading out on your own, informing the Governor of Svalbard about your route and expected duration is highly advisable. For any trips outside central region of Spitsbergen, you must notify the Governor, and may be required to purchase insurance or put up a large deposit to cover possible rescue costs.
Svalbard has virtually no crime, except occasional drunken brawls.
Tap water on Svalbard is drinkable, but surface water may contain tapeworm eggs from fox feces and should be boiled before consumption.
There is a pharmacy in Longyearbyen and you can buy some non-prescription drugs in the supermarket (Svalbardbutikken). Longyearbyen also has a hospital for treating emergencies.
As there are no maternity clinics on or near Svalbard, women in late-stage pregnancy are discouraged from visiting.
In most of Svalbard's buildings, including some hotels and shops, you are expected to take off your shoes before entering. In public buildings this will be obvious as a shoe rack covered in dirty walking boots will be prominent at the entrance. Alternatively you may be invited to put on overshoes (effectively plastic bags) over ordinary footwear.
GSM/3G phones work in the main towns of Svalbard.
The Internet connection in Svalbard is top class because NASA rents bulk capacity on undersea fiber optic cables running at seabed to mainland Norway for its experiments. Longyearbyen has several public Internet terminals.
While mail from Svalbard to mainland Norway and the outside world uses regular Norwegian stamps at regular Norwegian prices, philatelists may be interested in the Lokalpost system used for intra-Svalbard mail. Stamps, first-day covers and more are available at the post offices in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, as well as at Longyearbyen's Svalbardbutikken.
Svalbard is a popular staging point (at least in relative terms) for launching expeditions to the North Pole. For more experiences of the Arctic north, you can visit Ellesmere Island or northern Greenland - where the world's northernmost land is located.
Fairly close to Svalbard is Franz Josef Land, a largely uninhabited group of islands which belongs to Russia.