As the world’s most northerly settled land, Svalbard easily lends itself to notching up your bedpost with geographic superlatives: most northerly kebab; most northerly naff souvenir shop; most northerly place in the world where you can walk around in a hoodie and carry a gun without ever getting a second look from your neighbour. Island law requires everyone of age to carry a firearm anywhere outside of Longyearbyen – most residents travel with a Ruger .30 rifle – as well as a “shocking device”, a signal pistol or suchlike, to ward off polar bears. Firearms can be rented from, among other places, Ingeniør G. Paulsen (t79 02 32 00) in town, though you’ll need to either show documentation that you have permission to possess a firearm in your home country or apply for a licence with the governor (see Svalbard tours).
These regulations are a constant reminder that somewhere out there lurks Ursus maritimus, the common, hungry polar bear. Polar bear attacks up here, while not commonplace, tend to get plenty of press in the international media, which often serves to tarnish Svalbard’s good name for a while and result in a few cancelled holiday plans. In 2011, a British teenager was tragically mauled to death and four others injured when a polar bear entered their tent during an expedition sponsored in part by the Royal Geographical Society. Though there have been just five fatal bear attacks on humans since 1971, thirteen bears were shot to death between 2001 and 2011. The root cause of all these deaths – both human and ursine – isn’t carelessness, though: it’s global warming. As the sea ice retreats, the bears, who more commonly hunt seals, are forced to unaccustomedly look inland for sustenance, even targeting such unlikely food sources as the eggs of barnacle geese. As food and proper hunting grounds dwindle, interactions between polar bears and humans are likely to increase, particularly as out of the estimated 3500 polar bears that comprise the Barents Sea population roughly half live on or around Spitsbergen.