Svalbard’s only town – indeed, only centre with more than a handful of inhabitants – Longyearbyen (literally the ‘LongYear Town’) is these days a base for tourism. But its gritty coal-mining roots still show through, commemorated in the statue of a grizzled miner and his pick near the Lompensenteret. For decades, Store Norsk, owner of the pits, possessed the communal mess, company shop, transport in and out, and almost the miners’ souls. Then in 1976 the Norwegian state stepped in to bale the company out from bankruptcy. Today, most of the few people that live here year-round enjoy one-year tax-free contracts.
The modern town, fringed by abandoned mining detritus, enjoys a superb backdrop including two glacier tongues, Longyearbreen and Lars Hjertabreen. Construction here takes into account the harsh Arctic climate; most structures are built on pilings to prevent heated buildings from melting the permafrost that’s never more than a metre deep, then simply sinking into it. The heavily insulated plumbing pipes also run above ground.
Reflecting the days when miners would remove their coal-dust-encrusted boots at the threshold, local decorum still dictates that people take off their shoes upon entering most buildings in town. Exceptions include the majority of shops and places to eat.