The Northernmost Town on Earth (Svalbard in 4K)
Come take a walk with me, around Longyearbyen. That’s the largest town on the Norwegian islands of Svalbard. Parts of it may look familiar. But make no mistake, this place IS different. At 78° north, It is just 1800mi/1300km from the North Pole. And with over 2000 permanent residents, it is the northernmost real town on Earth. There are only 50km (31mi) of road, including the small streets between houses. So people get around the island mainly on snowmobile. In fact, there are more registered snowmobiles, than residents. Anyone leaving town is required to travel with a gun and someone who knows how to use it. Because the islands are also home to polar bears. The average daytime high, is below freezing for all but four months of the year. Hi. And from the end of October to mid February, the sun doesn’t rise at all. This is the long polar night. Living here, is tough. This past December, an avalanche in town destroyed 10 homes, which used to be here, killing two people. So how did this cold, remote, ice-covered archipelago come to be inhabited? Well, the hills around town are rich in coal deposits, that have been mined for over 100 years. The coal was transported to the port via a series of aerial tramways. Some of which remain today, though they are no longer operational. Coal is a reminder that Svalbard was not always an Arctic ice world. 360 million yaers ago it was actually in the tropics, just north of the equator. A swampy area it was covered with a precursor to modern ferns, which were much larger than they are today, reaching 10-30m (33-98ft) in height. This vegetation was then covered in mud and sand, and submerged under the sea. Over time, it turned into the coal deposites that in the 20th century brought miners from Norway, Russia and the US. Most of the coal mines have now closed and the economy is gradually shifting towards tourism, education and research. Tourists take trips on snowmobiles and dog sleds. There is a university center in Svalbard which offers semester courses in biology, physics and geology. And up on the side of a mountain, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. But that’s a story for another time. The locals tell me that interest in the region from different nations is increasing. As the globe warms and Arctic ice shrinks trade routs are opening up across the north. And Svalbard is strategically placed between North America, Asia and Europe. So one day in the future, Svaldbard may no longer be as cold or as remote as it once was. But for now, it is a reminder of how through our ingenuity people can live in even the most inhospitable of places.