Svalbard Archipelago and the Town of Longyearbyen


 Longyearbyen is the only real town in the Svalbard Archipelago and at 78°13′N, it is one of the northernmost towns in the world. It is located along the coast of Advent fjord near the western side of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. The settlement was founded by John Munroe Longyear, a U.S. citizen who was the main shareholder of the Arctic Coal Company (1906-1916). The community grew rapidly and was given the name Longyear City, now known as Longyearbyen.  It is the seat of local government, as well as Norway’s administrative center in Svalbard.  The town has evolved from the original rough mining settlement into a thoroughly modern community with colourful buildings typical of Norwegian tastes.  Today, Longyearbyen has a population of just over 2,000 people, consisting of a rather young composition, including many families with small children.  Coal mining is still an important local industry, but the town is also an important center for tourism, science, Arctic expedition, education, and public administration. 

Since the discovery of the archipelago by William Barents in 1596, people of many different nationalities have operated on Svalbard through hunting, trapping, scientific research, mining, and/or tourism.  During the early 1600s, several European nations competed and sometimes actually fought each other for the right to catch whales in Svalbard. To complicate matters even more, both Denmark-Norway and England claimed sovereignty over the islands, but as neither permanently settled the region, it remained open territory.

However, by the beginning of the 1900s, competition among growing mining interests made everyone agree that some type of administration was necessary to allow for land ownership and legitimate claims over mineral deposits. Also, some sort of legislative body was needed to enact laws, as was a court system to settle disputes, of which there were many.

At the end of the First World War, the Spitsbergen Treaty (an offshoot from the Treaty of Versailles) arranged for Svalbard to become part of the kingdom of Norway. However, it gave citizens of all signatory nations equal rights in the islands and made allowance for them to reside, own property, and conduct commercial activities and scientific research there. The treaty was signed on February 9th, 1920.  This agreement explains why the population of Svalbard is so diverse today. It should be noted that this new oversight of the islands did not affect life in Longyearbyen very much, because the community was essentially run as a private company town by the Norwegian-owned mine Store Norske Spitsbergen Kullkompani AS.

In the 1960s, a concerted effort was made to bring about modernization in the islands and the Norwegian authorities became actively engaged in Svalbard politics. Development projects increased rapidly in the 1970s and there has been a successful endeavor to turn Longyearbyen into a family-oriented community. Today, Longyearbyen is surprisingly cosmopolitan and provides a wide range of cultural activities and opportunities. It contains nearly all the modern conveniences and entertainment entities one would expect in a small town anywhere in the world...hotels, taverns, grocery and do-it-yourself and general stores, a movie house, a church, a sports complex, and numerous tourist shops. It even boasts the University Centre in Svalbard, a school that represents four Norwegian universities and provides a university-level education in Arctic studies.

There are no roads linking the various settlements in the Archipelago, so most transportation takes place by either boat or snowmobile. But, an airport was constructed in 1975 just outside of Longyearbyen, which ended the extreme isolation during the winter months. Locals are very fond of outdoor activities, and many residents own isolated cabins and huts that they use on weekends.

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