Things to know about Svalbard

  • It’s located very far North - in fact its one of the world’s northernmost inhabited places
  • Svalbard is the name of the archipelago, while Spitsbergen refers to the largest island
  • The author Philip Pullman helped put Svalbard on the map as home to his ‘armoured bears’
  • It’s got a relatively mild climate compared to other areas at the same latitude, in spite of four months of winter darkness
  • 60% of Svalbard’s landmass is permanently covered by ice and less than 10% has any vegetation
  • Svalbard is a sovereign territory of Norway
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Guide to Svalbard travel

Geography

Covering an area roughly the size of Ireland between 74° and 81° north, the archipelago of Svalbard is made up of a series of islands of which the largest is Spitsbergen.

Located roughly halfway between northern Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard is one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas. Amongst other things it boasts the world’s northernmost brewery and ATM machine.

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Climate

In spite of its northerly latitude and relatively close proximity to the North Pole, Svalbard has a mild climate compared to other areas at the same latitude due to the moderating influence of the Northern Atlantic gulf stream, which passes to the west of the archipelago.

  • July is the warmest month with average temperatures between 3 - 7 °C (37.4 - 44.6 °F)
  • It’s not uncommon to have long periods during the winter where temperatures drop between -20 and -30 °C (−4.0 °F)
  • Periods of fog are quite common during the summer and autumn
  • Svalbard is technically an “Arctic desert” with annual precipitation of only 200–300 millimetres
  • The weather on Svalbard can change quickly and the south is warmer on average than the north
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Midnight Sun

The extraordinary light on Svalbard can be categorised into 3 phases, as the year progresses:

  • The Polar Night (26th October - 14th February) when there’s 24-hours of darkness and its possible to see the Northern Lights in the middle of the day
  • Twilight period between the seasons when the area experiences an eerie, blue light
  • The Midnight Sun (15th April - 26th August) describes the phenomenon of 24-hour daylight

Solfestuka is an important date in the Svalbard early spring calendar when the return of the sun after the dark winter is celebrated. The whole town gathers on the steps of the old hospital at 12:15 to await the first rays peeping over the mountains.

Spitsbergen

Wildlife

One of the Arctic Regions ‘wildlife hotspots’, alongside around 3,000 polar bears and the indigenous Svalbard reindeer, during the summer months arctic fox, walrus, seals and whales can be seen.

Activity peaks during high summer when the island plays host to a coterie of migratory wildlife, including millions of birds who come to breed on Svalbard’s famous bird cliffs.

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Scenery

Svalbard’s landscape is marked by its variety and the stark contrast between the different areas of the archipelago. Spitsbergen’s west coast has dramatic fjords and mountains rearing to over 1,000m/ 3,280 ft rising from sea level, while other parts of Svalbard tend to be more wide and open.

60% of the landmass is covered in ice and less than 10% has any vegetation. Trees are totally absent from Svalbard.

Nearly two thirds of Svalbard is protected and consists of several nature reserves, national parks and bird sanctuaries. An advantage of it being so off the beaten track is that the majority of the land is still pristine and unsullied by either roads or other human activity.

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History

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Svalbard’s history is as captivating as it is varied. First mentioned in Icelandic texts in the 12th century, it was Dutchman Willem Barentsz who officially discovered the archipelago in 1596 while searching for the Northeast Passage.

Whaling: News of healthy whale and walrus populations soon got out following Barentsz’ discovery triggering the first ‘oil rush’, fanned by strong European demand. Whaling in Svalbard, which lasted from approximately 1600-1750, took bowheads whales to the brink of extinction.

Trappers: Once the whalers had left, it was next the turn of Russian Pomors from the White Sea area - hardy to Arctic conditions - to exploit Svalbard’s resources. Focused on the winter furs of arctic fox and polar bears, the Pomors were active on Svalbard from the early 18th century to the mid-1800s. The remains of the trapping stations they established (71 known) are the most visible traces of that period. Norwegians were also involved in trapping, and continued up to the second world war.

Explorers: The remains of former expeditions are some of Svalbard most famous cultural heritage sites, of which there are 35 in total. Of particular interest are the bases from where early explorers set out to attempt to reach the North Pole. Remains from the various balloon expeditions can still be visited, while the 1926 mooring mast for Amundsen, Ellsworth and Nobile’s semi-rigid airship Norge still stands at Ny-Alesund.

Mining: Driven by the demands of the Industrial Revolution for raw materials, and the increasing high price of coal particularly, not even Svalbard’s remote location left it immune from the next phase of exploitation which peaked before the first world war. Heavy setup costs and the short operating season caused many projects to fail, leaving impressively sized installations still very much visible. Mining activity continues to this day on Spitsbergen, but on a scaled back version to its heyday.

Longyearbyen

Named after an American mining magnate, Longyearbyen is the archipelago’s main town and point of arrival and departure for all visitors. A former mining town with a modest population of just over 2,000 people, Longyearbyen these days has transformed itself into Svalbard’s tourist hub.

As well as having Svalbard’s only airport, Longyearbyen also has the majority of hotels and a modest selection of bars and restaurants. Beyond the town’s limits, accommodation is very limited and only available during the summer months.

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Discover Svalbard

Svalbard with Swoop Antarctica

Getting to Svalbard

Compared with other parts of the High Arctic, Svalbard is relatively easy to get to. Most visitors arrive by plane as Svalbard’s closest neighbour is 1,000km away.

By Plane: The only way to fly to Svalbard is via Oslo, the Norwegian capital. There are daily scheduled flight(s), with a stopover en route at Tromso. Flying time is around 3 hours.

By Boat: It’s also possible, but far less common, to reach Svalbard by boat. During the early summer months (May-June), expedition ships heading for Svalbard make their way north either travelling up the dramatic Norwegian Coast or via Iceland.

Svalbard Flying Plane

When to Go

While it’s feasible to visit Svalbard at any time during the year, even in the depths of winter, the most popular times for most visitors are:

Spring (March - May)

While temperatures are still chilly, spring snow conditions are perfect for exploring Svalbard’s pristine landscape by snowmobile & dog sled.

Summer (late May - end August)

Warming temperatures and the resultant breakup of ice allows expedition ships to explore Svalbard’s dramatic coastline for a few brief months and provide an ideal introduction to Svalbard’s rich wildlife, varied landscapes and compelling history.

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John says

FAQs about Svalbard

  • What language is spoken?

    While Norwegian is the dominant language, in Longyearbyen English is also widely spoken.

  • Will I need a visa?

    As Svalbard is an international territory you don’t need a visa to visit, however non-EU nationals should check whether they need one for Norway which they will be travelling through to reach Svalbard.

  • Where can I stay?

    Almost all of the hotel accommodation are found in and around Longyearbyen, the main town on Spitsbergen and where the only airport is located. There’s a reasonable choice, from comfortable 4* international-style hotel to more budget level guesthouse.

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