Svalbard: 20 Things to Know

Before I continue my tales from the north country, I think it’s necessary to pause for a moment and give you some background on this incredible island I’ve been swooning over. Svalbard is the perfect marriage of nature, badassery, and science, all of which I discovered at Svalbard Museum on Monday afternoon. For a mere 70 NOK (approximately 8 USD), you get entrance to the museum, a locker to store your clothes and shoes, and coffee, oranges, and ginger snaps. (At Newark Airport, 70 NOK gets you a luggage cart. I hate you, Newark.)

After padding around the museum for 2 hours in woolen socks – the best way to experience a museum, I have decided – I’ve made a list of my favorite factoids about this frosty Arctic paradise.

“If you’ve been to the Svalbard Museum, you know there are no happy endings on Svalbard…at least not in those days.” – Øivind, my dog mushing guide

  1. Longyearbyen is the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement in the world. It is also home to the world’s northernmost church, post office, airport (with flights open to the public), ATM, and Toyota dealership.

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2. It is located on Spitsbergen, meaning “pointy mountains,” one of the islands in the archipelago that comprises Svalbard, meaning “cold coast.” Svalbard lies halfway between Norway and the North Pole.

3. Svalbard is a part of Norway, but since so many countries had their hands on Svalbard in the 1600s – for mining, hunting, trapping, research – these nations eventually sat down and hammered out a treaty. For example, any citizens of the signatory nations have the same rights as Norwegians for entering Svalbard and setting up permanent residence there. (Crazily, Egypt is one of those nations.)

4. Svalbard is not to be used for military purposes.

5. Research can also be carried out by any of these countries – and apparently, scientific research is big up here in Svalbard.

6. Scientists are currently researching the impact of polar night on marine life. While they thought that animals may have migrated away in the winter, they’ve recently found that some species actually thrive in the darkness.

7. The people in Longyearbyen also thrive in the darkness. When the sun finally appears again in March, the entire town gathers to celebrate on the hospital steps, the first place hit by sunlight.

8. In the 1600s, Svalbard was a great place to come and harpoon whales. The museum features a number of visuals depicting this massive whale hunting industry that nearly led to extinction of the whale.

9. Polar bears and walruses were also hunted, the latter especially because walruses make easy targets.

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The guy on the left looks a little too jolly for this sort of thing.

10. Fortunately! Polar bears cannot be killed on Svalbard today. Unless they are charging at you and you have tried every other option. In which case, you must shoot them in the chest or shoulder, but NEVER IN THE HEAD. I don’t know why this is, especially because the restaurant Kroa features a painting of a polar bear shot in the head. Or suffering a fatal nosebleed.

11. If you do kill a polar bear, you must call the Governor of Svalbard. (Yup. That’s his title.) Imagine having to call Chris Christie every time you killed a deer in NJ. Actually, that would be a great prank.

12. 60% of Svalbard is covered by glaciers. Awesome!

13. Not so awesome: global warming. I know, I know. It doesn’t really exist, right? It’s like unicorns, Hogwarts, and gender equality all rolled into one. But Svalbard’s shrinking glaciers and warming seas make it a key place to come and research climate change.

14. Also researched on Svalbard: the northern lights. Please tell me where to apply for this job.

15. Svalbard is home to a seed vault. Don’t know what that is? Neither did I. According to the museum exhibit, seed vaults offer “security” to the world’s gene banks, which are “scientific institutions that collect, catalogue, and store seeds of agricultural plants.”

16. Svalbard’s cold climate make it an ideal place to store seeds. In fact, the museum notes that the vault is “deep inside a mountain, at sufficient altitude to suffer no effects of rising sea levels” and built inside permafrost “to keep seeds safe” in case of a power outage. As of right now, the vault contains seeds from over 5,000 plant species. That means there are more seeds than there are people on Svalbard.

17. Speaking of permafrost, it is “illegal” to die on Svalbard. OK, maybe not illegal to die, but you can’t be buried there. Permafrost does not allow bodies to decompose. Also, according to Øivind, bodies interred in the cemetery permafrost found their way up to the surface. Imagine strolling through the Longyearbyen cemetery and tripping on a perfectly preserved hand. No thanks.

18. If you think you can postpone dying to live on Svalbard for a while, you must go through avalanche and snow safety training, as well as rifle/shooting practice. All residents must do this, because Svalbard is awesome and wants to keep its people safe. Also, it likes to feature certain residents in the museum, because it is adorable.

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Exhibit on a Svalbard resident

19. Svalbard has a cool satellite station. In fact, it is one of two in the world that is able to “download information for all 14 orbits of polar orbiting satellites.” (According to Wikipedia.) I don’t know what this means exactly, but it sounds pretty important. The other station is in Antarctica. Svalbard’s satellite station provides ground services to more satellites than any other facility in the world, according to Wikipedia. NASA and NOAA both have satellites up there, probably to observe the aurora and do other top secret stuff.

20. The perk of having NASA in your neighborhood when you’re this far north? Stellar WiFi.

Have you booked your flight yet?

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