Svalbard ( ; formerly known by its Dutch name Spitsbergen), is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Situated north of mainland Europe, it is about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. The group of islands range from 74° to 81° north latitude, and from 10° to 35° east longitude. The largest island is Spitsbergen, followed by Nordaustlandet and Edgeøya.
Administratively, the archipelago is not part of any Norwegian county, but rather forms an unincorporated area administered by a state-appointed governor. Since 2002, Svalbard's main settlement, Longyearbyen, has had an elected local government, somewhat similar to mainland municipalities. Other settlements include the Russian mining community of Barentsburg, the research station of Ny-Ålesund, and the mining outpost of Sveagruva. Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world with a permanent population, outside of the occasional research station, such as Alert, Nunavut, the northernmost of them all.
The islands were first taken into use as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, after which they were abandoned. Coal mining started at the beginning of the 20th century, 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. They also established Svalbard as a free economic zone and a demilitarized zone. The Norwegian Store Norske and the Russian Arktikugol remain the only mining companies in place. Research and tourism have become important supplementary industries, with the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault playing critical roles. No roads connect the settlements; instead snowmobiles, aircraft and boats serve inter-community transport. Svalbard Airport, Longyear serves as the main gateway.
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, the arctic fox, and certain marine mammals. Seven national parks and twenty-three nature reserves cover two-thirds of the archipelago, protecting the largely untouched, yet fragile, natural environment. Approximately 60% of the archipelago is covered with glaciers, and the islands feature many mountains and fjords.
Svalbard and Jan Mayen are collectively assigned the ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 country code "SJ". Both areas are administered by Norway, though they are separated by a distance of over 500 nautical miles (approximately 600 miles or 950 kilometers) and have very different administrative structures.
Scandinavians may have discovered Svalbard as early as the 12th century. There are traditional Norse accounts of a land known as Svalbarð—literally "cold shores"—although this may have referred to Jan Mayen, or a part of eastern Greenland. It was then thought 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 raids into the Barents Sea in 1809, Russian activity on Svalbard diminished, and ceased by 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.
By the 1890s, Svalbard had become a destination for Arctic tourism, coal deposits had been found and the islands were being used as a base for Arctic exploration. The first mining was along Isfjorden by Norwegians in 1899; by 1904, British interests had established themselves in Adventfjorden and started the first all-year operations. Production in Longyearbyen, by American interests, started in 1908; and Store Norske established itself in 1916, as did other Norwegian interests during the war, in part by buying American interests.
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 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.
Second World War
In 1941, Operation Gauntlet, all Norwegian and Soviet settlements on Svalbard were evacuated, and a German presence was established with a meteorological outpost, although a small Norwegian garrison was kept on Spitsbergen. The German Operation Zitronella took this garrison by force in 1943, and at the same time destroying the settlements at Longyearbyen and Barentsburg. In September 1944, together with the supply ship Carl J. Busch, the submarine transported the men of Operation Haudegen to Svalbard. Operation Haudegen (i.e., swashbuckler) was the name of a German operation during the Second World War to establish meteorological stations on Svalbard. The station was active from 9 September 1944 to 4 September 1945. It lost radio contact in May 1945, and the soldiers were capable of asking for support only in August 1945. On September 4, 1945, the soldiers were picked up by a Norwegian seal hunting vessel and surrendered to its captain. This group of men were the last German troops to surrender after the Second World War. After the war, the Soviet Union proposed common Norwegian and Soviet administration and military defence of Svalbard. This was rejected in 1947 by Norway, which two years later joined NATO. The Soviet Union retained high civilian activity on Svalbard, in part to ensure that the archipelago was not used by NATO.
After the war, Norway re-established operations at Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund, while the Soviet Union 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 purely a 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