Dangers & Annoyances

Svalbard's main settlement of Longyearbyen is an extremely safe town, one where crime is almost unheard of. A few things to remember:

  • Dress warmly, even in summer when night-time temperatures can fall below freezing.
  • In winter, ice on footpaths and other thoroughfares can be a hazard.
  • Listen to local advice when it comes to climbing the foothills of loose stones around former coal mines in the town's vicinity – landslides do occasionally occur in the surrounding area.

The Polar Bear Threat

Don't let your desire to see Svalbard's symbol, the polar bear, blind you to the fact that a close encounter with this iconic creature rarely ends well. As the signs on the outskirts of Longyearbyen attest, polar bears are a real danger almost everywhere in Svalbard. If you're straying beyond Longyearbyen's confines, you're strongly advised to go with an organised tour. Walk leaders carry guns and know how to use them. Standard equipment too, especially if you're camping, are trip wires with flares and distress flares – to fire at the ground in front of the bear, not to summon help, which could be hours away.

With patterns of polar bear behaviour changing as sea ice levels shrink and tourist numbers increase, close encounters with polar bears are becoming more common. In 2015 a tourist was injured when a bear attacked his tent, while four polar bears were shot in self-defence in 2016 (double the annual average). In one incident, four tourists shot and killed a bear that attacked them while they were skiing in the far north of the archipelago. An investigation found that the tourists had correctly followed all procedures. In another incident, a three-year-old polar bear was sedated and relocated to another part of Svalbard after it was sighted in Longyearbyen.

The last bear fatality was in 2011 in the vicinity of the Von Post glacier, 40km from Longyearbyen. The previous fatality, in 1995, happened only 2km from Longyearbyen.