Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic that constitutes the northernmost part of Norway. It is located about 400 miles north of mainland Europe, midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. The group of islands range from 74° to 81° north latitude (inside the Arctic Circle) and from 10° to 35° east longitude. Spitsbergen is the largest island, followed by Nordaustlandet and Edgeøya. Svalbard is located in the north-western corner of the Eurasian Plate. To the south and east, the seabed is shallow at , while to the north and west it sinks down to about . North of Svalbard there is pack ice and the North Pole, and to the south mainland Norway. The Russian archipelago Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya are located to the east, Greenland is to the west.
The administrative center is Longyearbyen. Other settlements include the active Russian mining community of Barentsburg; the abandoned Russian mining settlement of Pyramiden (originally founded by the Swedish); the research community of Ny-Ålesund; and the Swedish mining outpost of Sveagruva. The archipelago is administered by the Governor of Svalbard, whose authority is granted by the Norwegian government.
The islands were first used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries. Several species of whales were hunted to near-extinction and whaling eventually ceased. Coal mining began in the early 1900s, and several permanent communities were established. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 recognizes Norwegian sovereignty, and the 1925 Svalbard Act made Svalbard a full part of the Kingdom of Norway. This act also established Svalbard as a free economic zone and a demilitarized zone. The Norwegian Store Norske and the Russian Arktikugol are the only mining companies remaining on the islands. Research and tourism have become important supplementary industries. Two major research facilities are the University Centre in Svalbard and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. No roads connect the settlements; instead snowmobiles, aircraft and boats serve inter-community transport. Svalbard Airport, Longyear serves as the main gateway to the rest of Europe.
The archipelago features an Arctic climate, although with significantly higher temperatures than other areas at the same latitude. The flora take advantage of the long period of midnight sun to compensate for the polar night. Svalbard is a breeding ground for many seabirds, and also features polar bears, reindeer and marine mammals. Seven national parks and twenty-three nature reserves cover two-thirds of the archipelago, protecting the largely untouched, yet fragile, environment. Sixty percent of the archipelago is glacier, and the islands feature many mountains and fjords.
The treaty defines Svalbard as all islands, islets and skerries from 74° to 81° north latitude, and from 10° to 35° east longitude. The land area is , and dominated by the island Spitsbergen, which constitutes more than half the archipelago, followed by Nordaustlandet and Edgeøya. All settlements are located on Spitsbergen, except the meteorological outposts on Bjørnøya and Hopen. The Norwegian state took possession of all unclaimed land, or 95.2% of the archipelago, at the time the Svalbard Treaty entered into force; Store Norske owns 4%, Arktikugol owns 0.4%, while other private owners hold 0.4%.
Since Svalbard is located north of the Arctic Circle it experiences both midnight sun in summer and polar night in winter. At 74° north, the midnight sun lasts 99 days and polar night 84 days, while the respective figures at 81° are 141 and 128 days. In Longyearbyen, midnight sun lasts from 20 April until 23 August, and polar night lasts from 26 October to 15 February. In winter, the combination of full moon and reflective snow can give additional light.
Glaciation covers or 60% of Svalbard; 30% is barren rock while 10% is vegetated. The largest glacier is Austfonna on Nordaustlandet, followed by Olav V Land and Vestfonna. During summer, it is possible to ski from Sørkapp in the south to the north of Spitsbergen, with only a short distance not being covered by snow or glacier. Kvitøya is 99.3% covered by glacier.
The landforms of Svalbard were created through repeated ice ages, where glaciers cut the former plateau into fjords, valleys and mountains. The tallest peak is Newtontoppen, followed by Perriertoppen, Ceresfjellet, Chadwickryggen and Galileotoppen. The longest fjord is Wijdefjorden, followed by Isfjorden, Van Mijenfjorden, Woodfjorden and Wahlenbergfjorden. Svalbard is part of the High Arctic Large Igneous Province, and experienced Norway's strongest earthquake on 6 March 2009, which hit 6.5 on the Richter scale.
Scandinavians may have discovered Svalbard as early as the 12th century. Traditional Norse accounts exist of a land known as Svalbarð—literally "cold shores"—although this may have referred to Jan Mayen, or a part of eastern Greenland. Contemporaneous understanding was that both Svalbard and Greenland were connected to Continental Europe. The archipelago may in that period have been used for fishing and hunting. The Dutchman Willem Barentsz made the first indisputable discovery of Svalbard in 1596, in an attempt to find the Northern Sea Route. In 1604, an English ship landed at Bjørnøya and started hunting walrus; annual expeditions followed. From 1611, Spitsbergen became a base for whaling, where they targeted the bowhead whale. Because of the lawless nature of the area, English, Danish, Dutch and French companies and authorities tried to use force to keep out other countries' fleets.
Smeerenburg was one of the first settlements, established by the Dutch in 1619. Smaller bases were also built by the English, Danish and French. At first the outposts were merely summer camps, but from the early 1630s, a few individuals started to overwinter. Whaling at Spitsbergen lasted until the 1820s, when the Dutch, British and Danish whalers moved elsewhere in the Arctic. By the late 17th century, Russian hunters arrived; they overwintered to a greater extent and hunted land mammals such as the polar bear and fox. After British ships destroyed most of the Russian fleet in 1812, Russian activity on Svalbard diminished, and became non-existent from the 1820s. Norwegian hunting—mostly for walrus—started in the 1790s, but was abandoned about the same time as the Russians left. Whaling continued around Spitsbergen until the 1830s, and around Bjørnøya until the 1860s.
Discussions to establish the sovereignty of the archipelago commenced in the 1910s, but were interrupted by World War I. On 9 February 1920, following the Paris Peace Conference, the Svalbard Treaty was signed, granting full sovereignty to Norway. However, all signatory countries were granted non-discriminatory rights to fishing, hunting and mineral resources. The treaty took effect on 14 August 1925, at the same time as the Svalbard Act regulated the archipelago and the first governor, Johannes Gerckens Bassøe, took office. The archipelago has traditionally been known as Spitsbergen, and the main island itself as West Spitsbergen. From the 1920s, Norway renamed the archipelago Svalbard, and the main island became Spitsbergen. Kvitøya, Kong Karls Land, Hopen and Bjørnøya were not regarded as part of the Spitsbergen archipelago. Russians have traditionally called the archipelago Grumant. The Soviet Union retained the name Spitsbergen to support undocumented claims that Russians were the first to discover the island. In 1928, Italian explorer Umberto Nobile and the crew of the airship Italia crashed on the icepack off the coast of Foyn Island. The subsequent rescue attempts were covered extensively in the press and Svalbard received short-lived fame as a result.
After the war, Norway had re-established operations at Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund, while the Soviet Union had established mining in Barentsburg, Pyramiden and Grumant. The mine at Ny-Ålesund had several fatal accidents, killing 71 people while it was in operation from 1945 to 1954 and from 1960 to 1963. The Kings Bay Affair, caused by the 1962 accident killing 21 workers, forced Gerhardsen's Third Cabinet to withdraw. From 1964, Ny-Ålesund became a research outpost, and a facility for the European Space Research Organisation. Petroleum test drilling was started in 1963 and continued until 1984, but no commercially viable fields were found. From 1960, regular charter flights were made from the mainland to a field at Hotellneset; in 1975, Svalbard Airport, Longyear opened, allowing year-round services.
Longyearbyen remained a pure company town until 1989, when utilities, culture and education was separated into Svalbard Samfunnsdrift. In 1993, it was sold to the national government, and the University Centre was established. Through the 1990s, tourism increased and the town developed an economy independent of Store Norske and the mining. Longyearbyen was incorporated on 1 January 2002, receiving a community council.
How places in Svalbard are organized