Located half way between Norway and the North Pole, this Norwegian archipelago is one of the world’s northernmost inhabited areas. The islands were allegedly discovered by Viking explorers in the 12th century. However the first recorded voyage here was by the Dutch in 1596, landing on the northwest of Spitsbergen, the archipelago’s largest island. This coast served as an international whaling base during the 17th and 18th centuries. Although it’s officially part of Norway, it remains a neutral territory and there is a significant Russian population on the island. There is a currently standing treaty that any sign of human presence from before 1946 must remain untouched, including loose objects. For this reason, you will see interesting artifacts scattered around its largest settlement, Longyearbyen. Longyearbyen provides a base from which to explore the islands on boat trips, glacier hikes, and expeditions by snowmobile or led by a team of huskies.
This mostly untouched arctic wilderness is known for its rugged, yet fragile, and desolate terrain comprised of dramatic snow-covered mountain peaks, vast untouched glaciers and frozen tundra, that shelters its polar bears, Svalbard (short legged) reindeer, caribou and Arctic foxes, while its iceberg-scattered coastlines are home to seals, walruses and migrating whales in late summer. Humpback whales, Orcas, Beluga Whales and Narwhals all frequent its waters. Svalbard is also renowned for its large diversity of bird life, including Arctic Terns, Arctic Fulmar and Puffins.
There are no trees on these islands and the most common vegetation is a brownish green moss that sprouts in patches on the mountainsides. However, many exotic Arctic flowers bloom here during the warm season. The islands have a stark and eerie beauty all of their own. Nearly two-thirds of Svalbards area is protected in nature reserves, national parks and bird sanctuaries and most of the island’s visitors come here to experience its raw and rugged nature.
Svalbard is the Arctic land as you always imagined it. From the seemingly endless Arctic night to the perpetual sunlight of summer there’s a special magic surrounding these islands. It’s one of Europe's last great wildernesses, home to more polar bears than people, and a land rich in legends of polar exploration.
WHEN TO GO
“Svalbard” literally means “cold coasts (or edge)” – an appropriate name for this Arctic land. That being said, the archipelago has a relatively mild climate compared to other areas of the same latitude, due to the warm North Atlantic Current which flows along Spitzbergen’s west and north coasts. Summer temperatures average 43°F, while winters are cold, with a January average of -4°F (with a lower windchill temperature).
Svalbard experiences the midnight sun from April 20 to August 23, while from October 26 to February 15, the sun stays below the horizon during the long polar night.
During the short summer, the melting snow in the milder regions of the islands gives way to vast stretches of tundra vegetation, sometimes dotted with delicate wildflowers.
Svalbard’s high season is during its brief summer, from June to August, when it's light and not too cold outside. However March-May, when there is both sunlight and snow, is becoming increasingly popular for winter sports.