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Visiting the Arctic: Svalbard
Where is Svalbard
Svalbard , the island at the top of the world.
I love to travel, but I really like to travel in comfort, so I was delighted to find a cruise ship heading for one of the less well known destinations, the Svalbard archipelago. I knew very little of the place, but was curious. I'd grown up with snow and ice, but in Scotland. What must life be like so much further north that the snow is permanent, and when night falls on the 26th October, the sun doesn't rise again until Valentines day? As a child I'd been fascinated by the midnight sun, the mid summer voyage would give me a chance to experience it.
People say that cruises are very artificial and don't give you a chance to to see anything of local culture. That may be true, but when you're travelling to somewhere so far off the beaten track as this, having the luxuries of home with you is a definite bonus. Our destination was not an actual settlement but the wall of arctic ice itself, our stop at Ny Alesund allowed us to say we had visited the worlds most northerly town, before heading further north for the ice itself. Did I take pictures of the ice pack? Yes I did, but you won't see any here, for the simple reason that you can't see where the ocean ends and the ice begins. You just had to be there.
Even If you've never heard of Svaalbard, you may have heard of Spitsbergen, the largest of the islands that make up the Svaalbard archipelago and the only one with a population.
First used as a base for whaling ships, Spitsbergen is the 36th largest island in the world. It has considerable coal deposits and as a result, mines were opened at the start of the twentieth century. In addition to tourism and scientific research, mining is the major economic activity.
Spitsbergen has some interesting wildlife, including a population of polar bears, but that can create dangers for tourists. A British student was killed in 2011 on a school expedition to the island when a 7ft polar bear weighing 39 stone entered his tent and attacked his companions before being shot by one of the expedition organizers.
What is Svalbard like?
Svalbard is one of the world's most isolated places and an exception to many rules. To the south, over 400 miles of ice cold ocean separate the islands from the mainland of Norway. To the north, there is nothing at all, only the arctic ice and the North Pole.
Although Svalbard is part of Norway (and hence part of Europe) there is no VAT, and lower income tax than in mainland Norway. There is no military presence and administration is handled by a governor. Although there are several towns, there are no roads to link them together since people travel by plane, boat or snowmobile. Many of the residents are engaged in scientific research. Sixty percent of the land is glacier, the rest is made of up of snow covered mountains and jagged fjords. Polar bears are relatively common.
A brief History of Svalbard
No-one knows who first discovered these isolated islands. Objects said to date from the stone age have been discovered on the island, but so far no form of dwelling has been found. Some believe that the islands were first discovered by Norse explorers in 1194, others than the islands were visited by Pomors, literally seasiders, from Russia. The first undisputed record of the islands comes from the voyage of William Barentz, a Dutch explorer who sighted the islands in 1596 as he searched for a sea route to China. The first expeditions arrived a few years later, in 1604. In the space of a few years they wiped out the local walrus population and in 1611 began to hunt whales. It wasn't until 1650 that exploration confirmed that the islands were not part of Greenland.
The sea around the islands was soon filled with whaling vessels and there were many altercations over whaling rights. As the seventeenth century drew to a close, there were almost 300 whaling ships and 10,000 whalers in the waters around the islands. Russian Pomors came to the islands to hunt fox, reindeer and Polar Bears.
Exploration of the island was largely restricted to the coastline but as the eighteenth century progressed a number of scientific expeditions visited the islands and in 1838 an observatory was built by a French exploratory party. By the end of the nineteenth century Svalbard was the base of choice for exploration of the North Pole. Amundsen and his airship the Norge flew from there and In 1928, Polar explorer Umberto Nobile arrived in Ny-Alesund intent on exploring the arctic in his airship Italia. His third flight to the pole ended in disaster as the Italia crashed on the ice about 75 miles north of Spitsbergen. The hunt for survivors was the largest international rescue effort in arctic history. In June, Amundsen, one of the most famous polar explorers, and five others set off to help in the rescue of Italia's crew only to disappear on the flight to Spitzbergen. He was never found. There is a statue in his memory at Ny-Alesund.
Why Visit Ny Alesund
Ny Alesund is a frequent stop for cruise ships, though not all modern cruise liners are the right size to enter the fjord. Many passengers choose to stay on the ship, wondering why a settlement of only 35 people is worth visiting.
Ny Alesund is primarily a research station, and although visitors come ashore, they are asked to stick to the paths and not distrub any of the experimental work.
One reason to come ashore is the tiny post office, the most northerly post office in the world, where you can, of course send a suitably post marked card back to home and family.
Another reason to visit is the small shop, where you can buy an assortment of good quality souveniers, from stuffed toys (seals, whales and arctic birds are popular, along with polar bears) to beautiful hand made silver jewelry, often incorporating norse designs and inspired by wildlife.
By far the best reason to go ashore is the scenery. Ny Alesund is situated on the Konigsfjord, an outstandingly beautiful inlet covered in ice which sparkles blue in the sun. Like the West of Scotland this part of Svalbard benefits from the warmth of the Gulf Stream, so despite the latitude (78°55'35) the temperature is much higher than you might expect, 4-6 degrees (centigrade) at the height of summer, and around -16 or so (centigrade) in winter.
A book filled with interesting information and stunning pictures. An excellent gift idea for anyone with an interest in the arctic, polar georgraphy or exploration.
Spitsbergen is as close as you can easily get to the North Pole. Andreas Umbreit, an expert on Spitsbergen, provides the complex history of the archipelago and describes, in great detail, its present-day attractions.
So, bring your winter woollies, but don't worry about the weather. Svalbard in summer is stunning, with scenery to take your breath away. Temperatures are low, but nothing to worry about. Svalbard in the winter, under the long polar night, is something else again.
As to the midnight sun, I lived with it for two weeks, and by the end I thought I would cheerfully go mad. At first it was interesting, just like a long drawn out sunset, but as we travelled further north the day just went on and on. I've heard that people find the long arctic night depressing, and the suicide rate in Norway can be a problem in winter, but for me, even the long, long day was a problem, so it will be a while before I set off to see the next site on my list, the Aurora Borealis.