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What Should I Know About Svalbard?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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Svalbard is a large archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. It covers 23,600 square miles (61,000 sq. km), making it a bit smaller than West Virginia. It lies to the north of Norway, and it about halfway between that country and the North Pole itself. The island is a region of Norway, albeit an isolated one.

Svalbard is thought to have perhaps first been discovered by the Vikings sometime in the 12th century. The name means cold edge, and it is thought to have been used either to describe Svalbard, or part of Greenland. In the late 16th century a Dutch sailor definitively discovered Svalbard.

Over the next two centuries Svalbard grew to become an important base for Arctic whaling. Svalbard was used by a number of different nations, including Britain, the Netherlands, France, Denmark, and Norway. Sailors would set up camps on the island from which to embark on long whaling expeditions. Later, the island became used as a base for the Arctic expeditions of exploration undertaken by some nations struggling towards the pole.

In the early 20th century, Svalbard began to be used as a source of coal by a number of different nations. Norway laid claim to the island, and this claim was accepted by treaty in 1920 as a way of compensating Norway for its losses during World War I. Other nations were still allowed to have minimal settlements on Svalbard, but Norway would administer the territory.

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Svalbard is most widely known in the popular imagination for two reasons. The first is a seed repository project that the Norwegian government has undertaken on the island. In the so-called Doomsday Vault will be held seeds from all around the world, kept in an ice tunnel more than 300 ft. (100m) above sea level, and intended to protect vital seed stock in the case of a nuclear catastrophe or global warming. The second is for its appearance in the popular His Dark Materials books, where Svalbard is home to a race of armored polar bears, the Panserbjørne.

Svalbard is not the most hospitable place in the world, but many people find its unspoiled arctic beauty an irresistible draw. Svalbard is one of the best places on earth to see Arctic fauna, and is home to hundreds of thousands of birds, and numerous polar bears, ringed seals, white seals, bearded seals, walruses, Arctic foxes, and Svalbard reindeer.

Guided tours are probably the best way to explore Svalbard, given the difficulty of transportation once on the island, and the harsh conditions that can be a danger for the inexperienced. Despite its isolation, the major settlements of Svalbard have relatively active nightlife scenes, good dining opportunities, and plenty of accommodations from affordable guest houses to high-end hotels. Winter sports are some of the main activities in Svalbard, and those who enjoy skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling will find it a virtual playground.

Flights arrive daily in Longyearbyen from both Oslo and Tromsø. Once on the island there are no roads, so getting from town to town means either taking a snowmobile or a small airplane.

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