Did you know this about Svalbard…?
Planning an adventure to Svalbard? Here are 7 things that may well surprise you about Norway’s far-flung Arctic archipelago…
Svalbard is ice-bound in winter
You won’t get far until summer arrives. Throughout winter and much of spring, the seas surrounding Svalbard freeze over. It’s only around mid-June, with rising temperatures and 24-hour daylight that the pack ice melts, retreating to reveal a spectacular fjord-riven coastline. Setting off from Longyearbyen on the main island of Spitsbergen, expedition ships enter this pristine Arctic environment in search of polar bears, walrus and prolific birdlife.
Svalbard has a dirty secret
Longyearbyen, home to most of Svalbard’s 2,150 inhabitants, didn’t spring up on the shores of Isfjorden as a polar gateway for tourists, or a bolthole for scientists studying climate change… the settlement was founded on coal. The surrounding mountains are riddled with mines. Only one (Mine 7) is still operational, but Mine 3 has found a new lease of life as a tourist attraction. Nearby Russian mining towns like Barentsburg make fascinating shore excursions on cruises.
Svalbard boasts the world’s most northerly brewery
And ATM, church, coffee bar, chocolatier… With coal as its bedrock, Longyearbyen has become a small but fully-fledged town with a hospital, university, post office, supermarket and, yes, even a brewery. Tourism has also transformed the town. During winter, you can go snowmobiling, husky sledding and aurora hunting, while summer is cruise season – prime time for spotting polar bears and going ashore to hike gently on the flower-speckled tundra
Svalbard is cool for polar bears
Around 3,000 live on the islands of Svalbard and Franz Josef. That’s more than one ice bear for every human that lives in Longyearbyen. Warning signs on the town’s outskirts remind you that you’re in the kingdom of the ice bear. They’re most often seen in northern and eastern parts of Svalbard, but can be found anywhere that seals are hauled out on sea ice. If ice conditions permit, voyages can reach the islands of Barentsoya and Edgeoya, deep in ice bear territory.
Svalbard is hot for birders
The islands get all of a flutter in summer. Geese love the place. Over 50,000 pink-footed, 30,000 barnacle and 7,500 brent geese nest on the tundra, along with 17,000 pairs of eider duck. Svalbard’s dramatic sea cliffs, meanwhile, are transformed into buzzing seabird citadels. Several million pairs of little auk, common and Brunnich’s guillemot and kittiwake festoon the precipitous ledges of colonies at key sites such as Hornsund, Bellsund, Krossfjorden and Alkefjellet.
Svalbard is not as cold as you might expect
The average daytime temperature in Longyearbyen during July is a positively balmy 7°C. The hottest day in 2016 was 3 July when the mercury rocketed to 14.5°C. It’s largely down to the Gulf Stream which brushes the west coast of Spitsbergen, helping to free it of pack ice each summer. During midsummer, you can also bask in constant daylight – the sun doesn’t set for 123 days. In winter, it’s one long polar night in Longyearbyen from around 25 October to 8 March.
Svalbard is almost certainly further north than you think
Squished at the top of a world map, Svalbard is way up north. In fact, set foot in Longyearbyen and you’re only 1,314km from the North Pole. Tromso – the nearest city on the Norwegian mainland and the departure point for most flights to Svalbard – is 958km to the south. Join a small-ship cruise along the west coast of Spitsbergen and – depending on how far the winter pack ice has receded – you may be able to cross the nautical milestone of 80°N.