Svalbard’s intriguing past

For a place so remote, Svalbard’s past is surprisingly lively. This rugged archipelago deep within the Arctic Ocean has a rich history marked by exploration, experimentation, and international influences.

Svalbard’s past is as dynamic and remarkable as the Northern Lights that paint its winter skies. From its days as a base for bold explorers to its role as a centre for scientific advancement, the archipelago has enchanted people for centuries.

Today, the population may be small, but the stories that have unfolded on its icy shores are many, weaving together the threads of numerous countries, cultures, and languages.

Early exploration

Records suggest that it was the Vikings who first knew of the land that would be called Svalbard, but it wasn’t until the age of European exploration that the islands were thoroughly navigated.

The Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz discovered Svalbard while searching for the Northeast Passage in 1596, although Norsemen or Pomors (Russian settlers) may have visited earlier. Barentsz died at sea after his ship became stuck in the ice, but the tales told by the surviving members of his crew helped to establish Svalbard as a land of both peril and promise.

Whalers, hunters, and trappers found the lure of Svalbard irresistible, drawn by stories of encounters with polar bears and walruses in the stark landscapes, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that a more permanent population began to form on Svalbard.

Basque, Dutch, English, and French whalers established temporary stations, transforming the archipelago into an economic hotspot. It was a time marked by brutal exploitation of marine resources, leading to the near extinction of some whale species in the waters around Svalbard.

Norwegian exploration

Svalbard’s history is deeply intertwined with the intrepid spirit of Norwegian explorers, too. Thanks to our long-standing seafaring traditions, Norwegians were among the first to navigate the perilous Arctic waters to reach Svalbard.

One of the most notable Norwegian explorers connected with Svalbard is Roald Amundsen, famed for being the first person to navigate the Northwest Passage and the first to reach the South Pole. He used Svalbard as a base for his expeditions, including the successful airship flight over the North Pole in 1926, helping to cement Norway's claim and presence in the region.

roald amundsen Ny alesund HGS 12418 Foto Nina Bailey
DS Lofoten Svalbard HGR 164233

Pioneering Arctic cruises

Norway also pioneered tourism in the form of Arctic cruises to Svalbard. As early as 1896, three years after he established Vesteraalens Dampskibselskap (which later became Hurtigruten), our own Richard With started the Sportsman’s Route, which sailed from Hammerfest to Svalbard. These early expeditions were the forerunners of the modern cruise industry, combining a taste for adventure with the comforts of travel.

You can get a taste of those early expeditions on The Svalbard Line, our nostalgic summertime voyage along Norway’s coast and across the Barents Sea to Svalbard, at the very edge of the world.

Svalbard’s mining heritage

Coal mining has been a cornerstone of Svalbard’s economic history since the early 20th century. Companies from Norway and Russia established settlements to support the mines, which led to a population boost and the development of infrastructure. Longyearbyen, the archipelago’s largest town, is named after American entrepreneur John Munro Longyear, whose company started coal mining operations in 1906.

The Russian and later Soviet interest in Svalbard was primarily driven by the potential for resource extraction. Originally established by a Dutch mining company in the 1920s, the coal mining settlement of Barentsburg became the heart of Soviet ambitions in the Arctic in the 1930s. Even today, it remains a symbol of Russia's enduring presence in the High North, with its Cyrillic signs and Soviet-era architecture.

Coal mining in Svalbard did more than provide fuel for Europe and Russia and shape the physical landscape with its mines, railways, and company towns. More than any other industry, it also defined Svalbard’s human geography. The miners and their families created tight-knit communities that defied the Arctic's isolation and harshness. Towns like Longyearbyen and Pyramiden were erected from the snow, complete with amenities such as schools, hospitals, libraries, and theatres. Svalbard is a living, breathing example of the remarkable human endeavour to create liveable spaces in the least hospitable of environments.

Barentsburg HGR 119963 1920 Foto Agurtxane Concellon
Pyramiden HGR 120040 1920 Foto Agurtxane Concellon

An international agreement

The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 was a pivotal moment in the archipelago's history. It recognised Norwegian sovereignty while guaranteeing treaty signatories the right to engage in commercial activities on equal terms.

This unique political situation led to the diverse international community that exists in Svalbard today, with Russian and Norwegian communities coexisting alongside a growing international presence.

Svalbard at war

That’s not to say Svalbard’s history has been entirely peaceful. The archipelago’s strategic location made it a point of contention during both World Wars. In World War I, it was seen as a potential haven for German U-boats, prompting Allied forces to establish a presence. World War II saw a more direct impact. The archipelago was strategically crucial for forecasting the weather for ships and planes navigating the Barents Sea.

After realising the Svalbard population had been evacuated in 1941, the Germans established a weather station there, and in 1943, a German shell devastated Barentsburg and Longyearbyen. Later, Norwegian and Soviet forces worked to evict the Nazi presence from the archipelago.

In the gripping theatre of the Cold War, Svalbard occupied a unique position. Its strategic importance was amplified by the polar projection of missile ranges and the need for satellite stations. While there were no direct military confrontations on Svalbard soil, the archipelago was an area of significant espionage and surveillance activities, with both Eastern and Western powers keenly monitoring each other's moves in this polar region.

Svalbard’s role in science

The extreme latitude of Svalbard has made it an invaluable location for scientific research, particularly in the fields of meteorology, glaciology, and polar biology. The archipelago is home to the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), the world's northernmost higher education institution, which attracts international students and researchers.

With climate change affecting the Arctic faster than many other regions, Svalbard has become a natural laboratory for studying the impact of these changes. Research stations dot the landscape, and scientists from around the world come to study the melting glaciers, shifting permafrost, and changing ecosystems.

Frohvelvet HGS 03300 1920 Foto Hanne Feyling
Ny alesund HGS 11700 Nina Bailey

The Global Seed Vault: Svalbard's Modern Legacy

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Svalbard’s contribution to global heritage is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Opened in 2008, this facility is carved into the permafrost and designed to function as the world's backup for plant diversity.

“It’s such an important monument that people travel to Svalbard just to see it, even though you can’t go inside,” says Caroline Sund, a Travel Designer for Hurtigruten Svalbard. “The Vault is a big part of life here. It means a lot to people, and it’s a nice building too. You can see it up on the hill, and during the dark season it’s lit up to look like the Northern Lights.”

Svalbard's Global Seed Vault is often referred to as the ‘Doomsday Vault,’ not because of any apocalyptic function but due to its role in providing a safety net against the loss of seeds in genebanks. With its robust construction and natural freezing temperatures, the Vault ensures that the diversity of the world’s crops is preserved for future generations. It represents a significant investment in the future of humanity, holding more than a million unique seed samples from nearly every country in the world.

The presence of the Global Seed Vault on Svalbard is a powerful symbol of the archipelago's enduring legacy. This is a place where the past is always underfoot, and the future is being secured deep in the Arctic ice.

An international cultural heritage

From the explorers and miners to the soldiers and scientists, Svalbard’s population has always been transient; the extreme conditions mean few can call it a permanent home, although some families have been here for generations. But each community that has come, gone, and stayed over the centuries has left its cultural imprint.

As a result, Svalbard’s cultural heritage is as multifaceted as its history. That unique blend of Norwegian, Russian, and international influences is evident in its cosmopolitan spirit, the architecture of settlements like Barentsburg and Longyearbyen, and in the celebration of holidays and traditions from various corners of the globe.

Today, that close-knit international community is one of Longyearbyen’s defining features, and one of the main reasons people stay here.

Caroline says she expected to find an international community when she moved to Longyearbyen in 2021, but the extent of that international feel still took her by surprise. “The community is what I love most about living here. It is amazing, and so much fun. People from all over the world are here, from Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, America, from a lot of Europe, Spain, France, and England, from all over the place.”

Alberto Loranzo, Head Chef of the town’s popular fine-dining restaurant, Huset, agrees wholeheartedly: “It is so isolated but you find a lot of good friends.”

Svalbard’s languages mirror that international community. Norwegian and Russian are predominant due to historical and present settlements, but because of the Svalbard Treaty and the archipelago's research significance, English has also become common. This blend of languages in such a remote location is a testament to Svalbard's role as a crossroads of nations and cultures, even in the desolate expanse of the Arctic.