Svalbard literally means ‘cold coasts’, and these islands, lying midway between Norway and the North Pole, do indeed have an Arctic climate. Perhaps surprisingly though, it’s relatively mild here compared to other areas lying along the same latitude. The island archipelago group is made up of five main islands and around 150 smaller, uninhabited ones.
First discovered in 1596 by William Barentsz, the islands were first used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries. They became an integrated part of Norway in 1920.
Around 65% of the land and surrounding seas are protected areas: the Svalbard Islands boast an impressive 23 nature reserves, 7 national parks, 15 bird sanctuaries and 1 geotopical protected area. Many of these areas cannot be visited without permission.
The Svalbard is an important breeding ground for many seabirds and has a healthy population of polar bears, reindeer, arctic foxes and seals. 60% of the archipelago is glacier and mountains and fjords dominate the landscape. The natural beauty of the area is highlighted by the midnight sun from April to August. However, between October and February, the sun doesn’t rise at all.
The main settlements are Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, both on the island of Spitsbergen, where most of the permanent population is based. This only numbers around 3,000 in total, but is supplemented by nature lovers and tourists, who come for the range of winter sports such as glacier trekking, fjord cruising, hiking, skiing, dog sledding and snow mobile riding. Along with tourism, mining and research are the main industries in Svalbard. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is known as one of the safest places on Earth – with virtually no crime.