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Northern townships: Spitsbergen

by Nicky Gardner


The Arctic archipelago of Spitsbergen (Svalbard) has more than its fair share of polar bears and glaciers. But it is also home to some of Europe's most unusual communities.

The sun was still shining as the evening flight from Tromsø (in northern Norway) touched down at Longyearbyen at exactly one in the morning. The principal settlement on this remote island archipelago is a place that never closes during the summer, when the sun does not set for more than four months. Longyearbyen is half way between Norway's north coast and the North Pole. Tundra, ice and polar bears come as standard fare in the capital of Svalbard (Spitsbergen). In July a hefty four hundred kilo polar bear decided to take a nap at the end of the airport runway. A well aimed smoke bomb eventually roused the animal from his siesta, and he trundled off quietly towards nearby Isfjorden in search of a fish supper.

Yet Longyearbyen has changed. The place that a generation ago was a real frontier town, a stopover full of mud, grit and miners, now has all the sophistication of many a mainland Norwegian township of twice its size. There are modern hotels, a supermarket, a sports centre and power station. Even a new university college. The roads have been tarred, though the owners of the high slung four by fours that cruise up and down the main street in the midnight sun have limited options for long distance driving.

But Longyearbyen, which quietly marks the centenary of its foundation this year, can still pull the odd surprise out of the hat. Like the town's pizzeria, which turns out to be run by a couple of brothers from Iran. And then there is Longyearbyen's unexpected Thai community, fewer than a hundred in all, but enough to make Thai settlers second only to Norwegians when it comes to enumerating the town's population - no more than two thousand people in total. Away down the fjord towards the sea, there is the haplessly run-down Russian mining settlement of Barentsburg, but it is not often that the Russians are seen on the streets of Longyearbyen. Russian roubles don't go a long way when it comes to buying beers at Norwegian prices.

It was an American financier, one John Munro Longyear, who gave his name to the town established in this inhospitable Arctic outpost in 1906. Seventy eight and a bit degrees north of the equator, and a dozen winter weeks without so much as a glimpse of the sun, did not deter JM Longyear, for in the glacier clad mountains that overlook Svalbard's fjords there was coal. Lots of it! Longyear invested astutely in mining companies in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and then used proceeds from that venture to fund the Arctic Coal Company to exploit Svalbard's black gold. Nowadays, there are no American mines on Svalbard, but Norwegian and Russian mines remain.

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