The first mention of Svalbard occurs in an Icelandic saga from 1194. Officially, however, the Dutch voyager Willem Barents, in search of a northeast passage to China, is regarded as the first visitor from the European mainland (1596). He named the islands Spitsbergen, or ‘sharp mountains’. The Norwegian name, Svalbard, comes from the Old Norse for ‘cold coast’; ancient Norse sagas referred to ‘a land in the far north at the end of the ocean’. Today, Spitsbergen is the name of Svalbard’s largest island. In 1920 the Svalbard Treaty granted Norway sovereignty over the islands and restricted military activities. Initially signed by nine nations, it now has over 40 adherents, whose citizens enjoy the same rights and obligations on the islands as Norwegians themselves.
Longyearbyen is precisely 1338km from the North Pole (or not quite precisely; by the time you read this, it will be fractionally nearer as Svalbard inches northwards by 2mm per year). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a series of explorers attempted to reach the North Pole using airships and balloons, and most met with failure. Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile were successful in 1926, but two years later Amundsen and his crew died while on a rescue mission to find Nobile, who had disappeared on a similar expedition and was later rescued.
At the time of Barents’ discovery, the archipelago was uninhabited, as the early Inuit migrations eastward from Siberia and Alaska halted in Greenland. There’s archaeological evidence of Russian overwintering around the beginning of the 17th century but the first confirmed western European activities in Svalbard didn’t begin until a decade later. From 1612 to 1720 English, Dutch, French, Norwegian and Danish ships engaged in whaling off the western coast of Spitsbergen island; it’s estimated that the Dutch alone slaughtered 60, 000 whales.
An English group undertook the first known overwintering at Bellsund in 1630, followed by a Dutch group at Smeerenburg three years later; the following winter, however, scurvy took its toll and the settlement was abandoned for winter, leaving behind a small caretaker team, who all perished. From the early 18th century, Russian Pomor (coast-dwelling) hunters and traders focused their attentions on Svalbard, hunting walruses, moose, seals and belugas. From around 1795 Norwegians exploited the islands’ wildlife resources and began hunting both polar bears and Arctic foxes.
Perhaps as early as 1612 whalers had discovered coal at Ny Ålesund, but the first modern mine wasn’t opened until 1906, when the Arctic Coal Company (ACC) began extracting coal from a rich seam. The settlement that grew up around this mine was named for the ACC’s US owner, John Munroe Longyear. In 1916 ACC sold out to the Store Norske Spitsbergen Kull Compani (SNSK). Over the next few years, two other Norwegian companies set up operations on the archipelago’s southernmost island, Bjørnøya, and the Kings Bay Kull Compani opened a mine at Ny Ålesund.
Mining was halted during WWII and on 3 September 1941 the islands were evacuated. Even so, the Nazis bombed Longyearbyen and the settlements of Barentsburg and Sveagruva (Mine No 2, on the hillside just east of Longyearbyen, was shelled and set alight and continued to burn for 14 years). When the Nazis surrendered in 1945, Norwegian civilians returned, Longyearbyen was rebuilt and the Russians resettled and again mined in Pyramiden and Barentsburg.
Ny Ålesund also re-opened, but was closed down after a mine explosion in 1962 and converted into a scientific post.
Mine No 7 has been in operation for nearly 40 years and nowadays is the only one around Longyearbyen still producing; it yields around 70, 000 tonnes per year for firing the town’s power station or for export to Germany.
The big one these days is the Svea Nord coalfield, 44km southeast of Longyearbyen. The scale of operation boggles the mind. It produces around three million tonnes annually – extracting more in two days than Mine No 7 does in a year. There are estimated reserves of over 30 million tonnes and the project will extend until at least 2013. At the other end of the scale, the workforce, based in Longyearbyen and flown into Sveagruva for three-week shifts, is small, operating colossal, state-of-the-art machinery that chews its way through the mountain.
The most sanguine predictions of Svalbard’s gold reserves beneath the Arctic soil put them on a level with South Africa’s. There are also indications of rich oil and gas deposits, which will become more easily and economically accessible if global warming continues.