A Travellerspoint blog

6/12 A Day in Longyearbyen

Earth's Northernmost City

semi-overcast 40 °F
View Polar Bears of Svalbard on paulej4's travel map.


The Radisson BLU Polar Hotel boasts only so-so sunlight blocking window curtains, an amenity that I suppose ranks right up there with hot water and clean sheets--at least during the summer months. It is pretty bright in 2010, the room I am assigned on arrival. It's nothing fancy. Upon entering the "second building," there is a shoe rack. The custom is to remove your shoes so I do. Weird but it makes for cleaner carpeting.

Built on permafrost (permanently frozen soil) that ranges from 30 to 130 feet deep, and home to 2,667 people of 50 different nationalities and 4,000 snowmobiles (called snow scooters here), Longyearbyen is the planet Earth’s northernmost city. On the way up, the view from the air makes it clear: there is nothing but snow and ice and cold cold water surrounding this place.


Here, after the sun sets on August 25th, it does not rise again for eight months until April 18th. Then it does not set until the following August 25th. Said another way, winter lasts from October to March. It is certainly up for our final approach. The video is Longyearbyen from the air on final approach. At the 36 second mark, you can begin to see a blue ferry moored on the shoreline. Immediately in front of the ferry is a small blue ship; that's my vessel, the M/S Quest.

d5fcd050-8cb7-11e9-b2c5-bb13c0e09043.JPGThe airport is about what you would expect; one runway, no jetway. What you don't expect is to arrive in the middle of the night to light like the middle of the day.

Named for John Longyear, an American who founded the Arctic Coal Company here in 1906, Longyearbyen, (the suffix “byen” translates to “city”) is built on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, strategically located between Asia, Europe and North America; you must orient yourself on a globe to understand it. Look for it about 800 miles south of the north pole just north of Norway at 79° north.


In the 1920’s, a dispute motivated several countries to agree to “The Svalbard Treaty.” Any citizen of a signatory nation has the right to come here and mine or fish or hunt or engage in other commerce, “visa free” with no immigration or work documents required. Article 9 of the treaty prohibits naval bases or fortifications or the use of Svalbard for warlike purposes. There are plenty of guns here but they seem to be intended for protection from bears rather than our fellow humans. Norway has sovereignty despite all that international meddling. Forty-six countries, including the United States, are signatories but only Russia still mines coal in the region.

Now June, the average temperature here is balmy: 41° as the average high and 35° as the average low. In winter, the situation changes: February boasts average highs of only 15° and average lows of 2°. However, a Norwegian Meteorological Institute researcher, Inger Hanssen-Bauer, says the climate here is probably warming faster than in any settled community on earth.

To be built on permafrost, buildings here (most of them painted in pastel colors) must be constructed on pilings sunk deep into the permafrost because its top—or “active” layer—melts when summer temperatures rise above freezing. Local newspaper editor Mark Sabbatini recently noticed cracks in his apartment walls because, he says, his building started sinking into the softening ground. That means the permafrost is softening at deeper depths which could prove catastrophic here. One solution? Christiane Hübner set her home on a huge sled and moved it 262 feet inland. CNN reported, “We can’t trust the permafrost anymore,” said Hege Njaa Aschim, communications manager for a Norwegian government agency responsible for real estate (which owns three quarters of the buildings here).

Burials were banned seventy years ago because bodies do not decompose in frozen, sub-permafrost temperatures. One corpse, thawed in 1998, still supported live samples of the deadly flu virus present during the pandemic of 1918.

There is on earth no church, post office, museum, cinema, university, bank or airport farther north than the those located here. Their track record of having “virtually no crime” was spoiled in December, 2018, when the northernmost bank robbery in history took place. It seems that a Russian man, not wanting to return home, decided to kill himself. He had second thoughts. He decided to get arrested instead. Police inspector Vidar Arnesen told the BBC that the man would be charged with threatening behavior with a firearm rather than bank robbery even though he did make off with the equivalent of $8,000 U.S. There is no road out of town, no boat connections and few flights so it was determined that he had no escape plan; he will have to serve his 14-month prison sentence elsewhere as there is no prison here either.

Three weeks ago, two Polish scientists were swept away by an avalanche in nearby Hornsund and killed.

Unlike Oslo and mainland Norway which, from 1940, was continually occupied by the Nazis during most of World War II, Longyearbyen was under German control for only a very short while. Nazi forces here were defeated and the archipelago was then occupied by Canadian and U.S. forces in 1941. Germans attacked the Allied forces here in 1943 but were repulsed.

Even though virtually all the food consumed here must be flown or shipped in, there is nonetheless a fine dining restaurant with a 20,000-bottle wine cellar. Huset serves wild reindeer (if any remains from the handful annually allocated). You would expect lots of fresh seafood but there is no fishing industry but you can look for cod caught by the chef at nearby Isfjord. There is tartar of bearded seal “caught by a local guy a couple of mountains away” and there are fresh herbs and leaves grown at Polar Permaculture nearby. Not your cup of tea? Stationen and Svalbar are nearby “pub grub” options.

The Arctic bird population is so revered that cats are banned. Occasionally, docile reindeer stroll through town but then so do dangerous polar bears. The local guide brochure states, “The polar bears are never far away, so it’s a necessity to carry weapons when we venture outside the settlement.” The local custom is to check your gun and remove your shoes when indoors, including in shops and restaurants (a holdover from the old coal dust days). Usually, slippers are provided. There are no roads that lead outside the town to neighboring settlements of Barentsburg or Ny-Alesund.

For the most part, the surrounding terrain is glaciers, mountains and fjords and would likely be deserted were it not for coal. But how did coal occur here? 360 million years ago this was the tropics, just north of what was then the equator. The land was swampy and covered by the ancestors of modern ferns which were 30 to 90 feet tall. Over time the vegetation was covered by mud and sand and, later, the sea. That became the coal that lured John Longyear which resulted in the town which, in turn, lured me.

For electricity, there is a coal fired power plant. The hot water generated as a byproduct of that plant is piped around the town and used to provide free heat for the homes and businesses here.

The economy today is less coal and more tourism and research which accounts for the university here. Were it not for a warming planet, Longyearbyen would be locked into ice and I, seeking a water passage, might not be. Those who may follow me hope it does not get much warmer because the lack of ice will decimate the habitat for polar bears and walrus and nullify the touristic yearning for adventure here.

After walking the place, one gets the impression that those who are here are in search of something, escaping from something or desiring to become something. Whether it is escape or adventure, they are here and, mostly likely, they are alone in knowing why.

In June, the average high temperature here is 41 and the low is 35. In July, the range is 48 to 41. But, in February, the average high would be only 15 degrees with an average low of two.

So, the sun does not go up and down on a daily basis here as it does elsewhere. Instead, its everpresent altitude in the sky is low; there is no such thing as “high noon.” It is “low noon.” Summer actually begins on June 21 when the sun reaches the highest point in the sky at any time during the entire year. The summer days are perpetual twilight because the sun is more ahead than overhead. Conversely, six months from now on December 21, the sun will not rise and Longyearbyen will be in the middle of its six-month-long polar night.

Climate is important in Longyearbyen.

Last December NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, delivered its 2018 “Arctic Report Card.” It wrote: “warming air and ocean temperatures continued to drive broad long-term change across the polar region, pushing the Arctic into uncharted territory,” adding that the Arctic was undergoing its “most unprecedented transition in human history.”

The impacts of that can be felt far and wide. Warmer Arctic air causes the jet stream to become “sluggish and unusually wavy.” Scientists say that has possible connections to extreme weather ranging from severe storms in the continental United States and a bitter cold spell in Europe.

One simple fact is made clear in their report: snow and ice reflect sunlight while open water (which is darker) absorbs it, creating heat. That begins a “feedback loop” with the warmer water melting more ice more quickly creating more heat absorbing water and so on and so on.

Another fact: very old ice tends to resist melting. Not so with “new” ice. With recent warming, NOAA reports that there has been a decline of 95 percent of very old ice within the last 33 years.

Warmer water also coincides with a rapid expansion of algae species in the Arctic Ocean and that is associated with harmful blooms that can poison marine life and people who eat contaminated seafood. B4 and I saw these vast algae blooms very clearly last summer in Alaska and in Florida as well. Dead fish were abundant.

The aforementioned report was issued as delegates from nearly 200 nations were meeting in Poland for the most recent round of climate talks called for in the Paris Agreement, the “deal” from which President Trump has vowed to withdraw. The U.S. is joined in that position by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia. Interestingly, the New York Times reported in December, 2018, that “there are commercial and geopolitical implications” from less Arctic ice. “New shipping routes may open, and rivalries with other countries, including Russia, are intensifying.”

Frankly, the bears don't give a damn about geopolitical implications; they care only about survival implications.

Posted by paulej4 05:00 Archived in Svalbard

Email this entryFacebookStumbleUpon

Table of contents


This is facinating, Paul.

by Theresa

Comments on this blog entry are now closed to non-Travellerspoint members. You can still leave a comment if you are a member of Travellerspoint.