Liminals of the Far North
Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago that lies within the Arctic Circle, approximately halfway between Norway and the North Pole. At 78 degrees north, it is home to the northernmost town on earth, Longyearbyen, where polar bears outnumber people and its estimated 2000 inhabitants must carry a gun for protection whenever they leave the settlement.
Located on top of the world, it contains sweeping areas of unspoiled, raw Arctic wilderness. Originally discovered in 1596 by Dutch whalers, Svalbard (meaning ‘cold coasts’ in Norwegian) was repurposed by northern European hunters and trappers in the 18th Century. Coal mining began at the beginning of the 20th Century, and several permanent communities were established, though only one mine remains operational today.
Many derelict coal mines still stand on the mountainsides like ghostly monuments, looking down on civilisation as a reminder of the formerly thriving industry. Pyramiden, a once prosperous coal mining town under the administration of the Soviet Union, has become a tourist destination in itself where satellite phones serve as the only means of communication and visitors can stay overnight in the former guesthouses under the supervision of armed guides.
Owing to its harsh climate and limited job opportunities, Svalbard is not typically a place people spend their entire lives or where families are continued through generations. People have generally come and gone, contributing to Svalbard’s distinctive history. The history of this remote archipelago is rich in tragic events, and graves are common relics of culture.
With global warming being one of the most important issues of our time, research and tourism have become important supplementary industries in Svalbard, featuring among others the University Centre and the Global Seed Vault, which houses seed samples from all over the world should we need them in the event of large scale human-made or natural disaster. The latter underwent major renovations in 2018 after the entrance to the Vault was breached by melting permafrost following continuously rising temperatures.
With plans to close its sole operational coal mine, Svalbard now finds itself in a confused identity: part hub of pioneering scientific research on the front line of climate change, part otherworldly tourist destination at the end of the earth.