Willem Barents didn’t set out to discover new land, but that’s his claim on the attention of history. At the age of 45, he was one of the leading explorers of his day. In May 1596, he set sail from the Netherlands on his third voyage, to search for a north-east passage to Asia. In mid-June, at nearly 80 degrees North latitude, he sighted uninhabited land, went ashore, planted the Dutch flag, described the land as Spitsbergen (“Jagged Mountains”) on his chart, and sailed onward.
News of that discovery reached Europe in the summer of 1597, upon the return of the expedition, following the death of Barents from scurvy. The land that he had found was the largest island of an archipelago known to the Vikings, recorded in the Icelandic Annals for the year 1194 as Svalbard (“Cool Rim”). Historians speculate that Barents may have known about the Viking find, so depending on the historical viewpoint, news of the discovery of Svalbard took from slightly more than a year to more than four centuries to reach the rest of the world.
Habitation came about due to Svalbard’s geographical location northwest of Norway, between the Arctic Ocean, the Barents Sea, the Greenland Sea and the Norwegian Sea. Like Hawaii, it is a group of eight main and numerous small islands, with a total land area of 24,335 square miles, about four times that of Hawaii. Like Hawaii, it has mountains, but unlike Hawaii, two-thirds of its land is permanently covered by ice and snow. Warmed by the Gulf Stream that also gives Norway a benign climate for its latitude, Svalbard is as livable as Alaska. In the 17th through the late-19th centuries, it was a base for Arctic whaling, hunting and exploring. In the early 20th century, coal was discovered and mined at four locations on Spitzbergen. Commercial ventures on land precipitated a need for government, which led in 1920 to the Svalbard Treaty that gave Norway sovereignty but granted equal rights to other signatories. Originally there were nine signatories; now there are more than 40.
The first mine was developed in 1906 by the Arctic Coal Company, founded by an American businessman, John Munroe Longyear, for whom the first mining settlement that became the main town of Longyearbyen (literally: “Longyear’s Town”) is named. In the 1920s, a Dutch mine started up at Barentsburg, about 35 miles north of Longyearbyen. In 1932, the Soviet Union acquired the concession, and today Russia operates the mines there. So Russians and Ukrainians now are the second-largest group of permanent residents after Norwegians.
Today ships call regularly at Svalbard, and it has scheduled airline service. Longyearbyen probably is the world’s most-wired community, connected to the mainland by broadband submarine cables. Vestiges of whaling and mining remain, but today Longyearbyen offers all the comforts of a college town on the mainland, from multi-channel cable TV to a take-out pizza service. This all came about because of its being the only livable place in the high Arctic. Svalsat, a ground station for downloading images from orbiting Earth observation and weather satellites, is located on a plateau just above town, producing the images shown in TV weather forecasts round the world. The mainland Norwegian universities have set up a campus at Longyearbyen, dedicated to Arctic studies and research. A rocket range for conducting scientific studies of the aurora is at Ny Ålesund on the coast north of Longyearbyen. In addition to Norwegian groups, Japan, Russia and the USA maintain Arctic research groups at Longyearbyen and at Ny Ålesund, which now claims to have a greater percentage of higher-degreed inhabitants than anywhere else.
Despite the inroads of urbanism in its towns, Svalbard remains an Arctic wilderness. Therein lies its attraction for readers of the Mountain Gazette. Mountaineering challenges abound, though at elevations lower than peaks elsewhere, because most climbs start near sea level. One of them is of Newtontoppen (“Newton Peak”), the largest mountain with the highest summit in the archipelago, on the northeast coast of Spitsbergen. Its prominence, the minimum height of climb to its summit, is the same as the summit elevation, 1,717 m. (5,633 ft.). That makes it an ultra-prominent peak, or “Ultra”, signifying
a prominence of at least 1,500 m. (4,920 ft.). There are more than 1,500 Ultras in the world, some known outside mountaineering circles, including Mount Everest, Aconcagua and Mount McKinley, the top three in prominence. But some famed peaks, including the Eiger and the Matterhorn in the Alps, are not Ultras because they rise from high-elevation cols.
Ruggedness aside, the climate that eased habitation also endowed Svalbard with the most varied flora and fauna of any polar region. Accordingly, the archipelago now has more than 25 national parks and preserves, and though flourishing, travel and tourism are restricted. That said, the Svalbard’s accessibility may be its undoing. After decades of negotiations, in September 2010, Norway and Russia signed a treaty on activities and boundaries within the adjoining areas of their 200 nautical mile limits in the Barents Sea and the Arctic Ocean. The Treaty was a diplomatic milestone, but it may invite threats to the pristine environment of the archipelago. The Barents Sea is estimated to hold enormous hydrocarbon resources that could be exploited with current offshore technologies. How that will affect the lives of the 2,500 humans and 3,000 polar bears inhabiting the archipelago remains to be seen.
The government and its regulations are described on the Governor’s website at www.sysselmannen.no with pages selectable in Norwegian, English or Russian. Details on Arctic studies and research are on the University Centre in Svalbard website at www.unis.no in English only. General information of interest to visitors including lodgings, tours and the like is available on the Svalbard tourism website at www.svalbard.net with pages selectable in Norwegian or English. Maps and other Arctic data are available from the Norwegian Polar Institute, website at www.npweb.npolar.no selectable in Norwegian or English.
M. Michael Brady lives in a suburb of Oslo, where he works as a translator. A natural scientist by training, he vacations in France. Dateline: Europe appears monthly in MG.