Svalbard Travel: A Historic Look into the Region

To enhance your Svalbard travel experience, learn a little more about the history of the region before you begin your cruise. The Vikings and Russians may have discovered Svalbard as early as the 12th century. Icelandic accounts from 1194 tell of a place called Svalbaroi, or “cold coast.” In 1596, the Dutchman Willem Barents made the first undisputable discovery of the archipelago. Soon after his rediscovery, the islands were named Spitsbergen, Dutch for “jagged mountains.” As has happened with many Arctic islands, Spitsbergen became a whaling base for as long as it took hunters to dangerously reduce the whale population. Danish, Dutch, English, French, and Norwegian whalers hunted off the coasts from 1612 to 1720. The Dutch alone are estimated to have taken 60,000 whales from Smeerenburg, their base on Amsterdam Island.

After whaling ceased to be lucrative, trapping became popular. Early trappers focused on Arctic fox and polar bear pelts. During your Svalbard travel today you will notice that trapping is still an important part of the local economy. Because of their convenient northern location, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the islands served as a base for many Arctic expeditions. Then, in 1906, the rich coal deposits began to be tapped, and today coal mining remains the major economic activity on Svalbard.

While Svalbard has been used as a base by many in the international community, it has been administered by Norway since 1925, as a result of the Svalbard Treaty of February 9, 1920. However, this treaty is unique in that citizens of other countries have equal rights to the area’s natural resources. At one time, coal companies from the U.S., the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, and Sweden mined in Svalbard. Today, only the Russian settlement of 850 people at Barentsburg remains; in fact, the Russian population used to outnumber the Norwegian population, though today Norwegians make up about 60% of the people with Russians and Ukrainians making up the remaining 40%.

During World War II, the islands were evacuated. Even so, the Germans bombed the three largest settlements, Longyearbyen, Barentsburg, and Sveagruva, in 1943 and 1944. After the war, the residents were allowed to move back and rebuild, and along with them came teams of geologists from Cambridge and other universities, visiting Svalbard in order to do the first comprehensive and detailed mapping of the area.

Coal mining remains Svalbard’s major economic activity. Sixty percent of the Norwegian population is employed by the state-owned coal company, which also provides much of the local infrastructure and runs the local services in the settlements. The settlements on the islands are more company towns than actual cities. Hunting is also a significant part of the economy, as seal, reindeer, and fox are quite plentiful. In recent years research activities and travel to Svalbard and tourism have been making up a growing sector of the economy.

Today, one of the major news items in Svalbard is the seed bank that the Norwegian government and the Global Crop Diversity Trust are planning on building in 2007. Into a hollow cave will go a copy of all the seeds and genetic material currently available around the world. The repository will be built to withstand natural and man-made catastrophes, from nuclear war to earthquakes.