The 62,500-square-kilometre Svalbard archipelago is one of the most hostile places on earth. Some 836km north of the Norwegian mainland – and just 1308km from the North Pole – two-thirds of its surface is covered by glaciers, the soil frozen to a depth of up to 500m. Despite the hardships such topography engenders, there are convincing reasons to make a trip. For one, Svalbard’s hinterlands make it a devastatingly gorgeous place to visit – whether in summer, autumn or spring when a magical light engulfs a Bergmanesque landscape and the Arctic opens itself up to curious visitors (during winter Svalbard is unconscionably dark). Experiences up here can be otherworldly: hiking a permafrost landscape strewn with antlers and whalebones; donning a massive orange drysuit to float around in icy waters; and dining at a snowy beach on campfire-cooked ox gruel and fjord-chilled champagne. It’s not your average place to visit – this is a land where there are double as many polar bears as people – and is a once-in-a-lifetime destination if ever there was one.

Weather-wise, things are actually much better than you might expect. The warming Gulf Stream helps keep the coastal waters of this Arctic desert largely ice-free and navigable for much of the year – though the main fjords do tend to freeze over for several months of the winter – and the land is oddly fertile. Between late April and late August there’s continuous daylight and, with temperatures bobbing up into the high teens, the snow has all but disappeared by July, leaving the valleys covered in wild flowers. And then there’s the wildlife, an abundance of Arctic fauna, including over a hundred species of migratory birds, arctic foxes, polar bears and reindeer on land, and seals, walruses and whales offshore. In winter, it’s a slighly different story: the polar night, during which the sun remains a full 8° below the horizon, lasts from late October to mid-February. The average temperature in February, Svalbard’s coldest month, is -16.2°C, though this has plummeted to a staggering record low of -46°C – and that’s not counting wind-chill.

Brief history

Though the landscape of Svalbard is mentioned in a twelfth-century Icelandic saga, suggesting that the Vikings made it up here several centuries previously, the first recorded discovery of Svalbard’s ice shards was by Dutch explorer Willem Barents on June 17, 1596. It was the third year in a row that Barents had come in search of the Northeast Passage, and when his Dutch crew saw the icy peaks of Svalbard (whose modern name for which derives from the Old Norse for “land with the cold coast”, they actually believed they had arrived at part of Greenland. After a protracted maritime battle with a polar bear, Barents was forced to winter at Bjørnøya just south of the main island, and later died sailing towards the Russian Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya. A decade later, an English ship landed to hunt walrus, followed by French and Danish whalers, Russian polar bear and fox trappers and, at the beginning of the twentieth century, coal miners from all over the place.

Even today, the mythology of early European exploration informs everyday life here, with place names that read like an encyclopedia of imperial Arctic discoverers and explorers. Aside from the Barents Sea, there is Taylorfjellet, a mountain recalling the Victorian editor of The Scottish Geographical Magazine, W.A. Taylor; Murraypynten, a cape named after Scottish oceanographer Sir John Murray; and a group of islands named after sixteenth-century merchant and adventurer Thomas Smythe.

After rich coal deposits were discovered in 1899 – the geological residue of a prehistoric tropical forest – the first coal mine was opened by an American seven years later and passed into Norwegian hands in 1916. Meanwhile, other countries, particularly Russia and Sweden, were getting into the coal-mining act, and when, in 1920, Norway’s sovereignty over the archipelago was ratified by international treaty, it was on condition that those other countries who were operating mines could continue to do so. It was also agreed that the islands would be a demilitarized zone, which made them, incidentally, sitting ducks for a German squadron, which arrived here to bombard the Norwegian coal mines during World War II. Today though, only two of the collieries are still in operation – generating enough energy to run Longyearbyen’s power station – and Svalbard’s role is now primarily as an outpost for Arctic research and a place where tourists come to experience life at the end of the world.

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