Svalbard is an archipelago, a clumpy chain of islands in the far north of the arctic ocean. It’s made up of 11 sizeable islands and many additional small skerries. The area boasts many hundreds of rivers, fjords and glaciers, and has many eerie former settlements sprinkled across the islands, too. The islands also became the launching point for a number of Arctic explorers, including William Edward Parry, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, Otto Martin Torell, Alfred Gabriel Nathorst, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton.
Spitsbergen is the largest island in Svalbard and the only truly permanently populated settlement, Longyearbyen, is located there. Although some weather and research stations exist on the other islands, none of them have a population over 10 nor are they permanent communities.Settled in the 17th century as an ideal location for whaling and then coal mining, Spitsbergen is a cold, mountainous place. Besides Longyearbyen, with a population of around 3,000, Ny-Ålesund isa former mining town, permanently settled around scientific research. Ny-Ålesund has a winter population of 35 and a summer population of 180.
Barentsburg is the only remaining Russian settlement since Pyramiden was abandoned in 1998. All facilities are owned by Arktikugol, who operate a coal mine (operations have, however, been stopped since 2006). Pyramiden is a tourist favorite for taking creepy, ruin-porn photos of the abandoned town.
A scene from Pyramiden
Nordaustlandet is more northely in the chain and is mostly covered in ice caps. Another island in Svalbard, it had previously been the site of walrus hunting, and to this day is still populated by reindeer and walrus. Edgeøya, an island further south in the chain, has within it the massive glacier Edgeøyjøkulen. Barentsøya, located in between Edgøya and Spitsbergen, has some truly incredible scenes of the beauty of the arctic desert.
A Nordaustlandet walrus
Kvitøya is the island I am most excited to visit. Known as White Island, Kvitøya is the site of S.A. Andree’s death, where his and his comrades’ bodies were recovered forty years after he first set sail in a balloon from Danskøya, Svalbard in 1897. I’ve written about S.A. Andree and his failed ballooning attempt to reach the North Pole; his story, and that of his two companions, is amongst the greatest and saddest in the whole saga of Polar Exploration.
Andree sets off from Danskøya
The ørnen, crash landed not three days after take-off
Memorial for Andree and his companions, Nils Strindberg and Knut Frænkel, on Kvitøya