Thursday, July 22, 2010


Map picture

Why Do People Live In Longyearbyen?

Note: I am writing this on July 22, 2010, even though the ship has no internet. We have been advised that limited internet will return on the 24th, so until then I will continue to write and save these for later transmission. Enjoy!

There are not many towns where your friendly tour guide must carry a rifle along on your tour, but Longyearbyen is one of them. As the warning signs posted at the edge of town warn, DSC_2131 the city is surrounded by a large population of Polar Bears, and while they are a protected species, citizens are encouraged to “shoot to kill” if they feel their lives may be in danger.

Longyearbyen is a city of over 2,000 people located in the Svalbard archipelago of islands, of which Spitzbergen is the largest. The city is located at 79 degrees of North Latitude, making it one of the northernmost places in the world that are populated. To give you some idea, Barrow, Alaska is only at around 71 degrees of north latitude. For most of the year Longyearbyen is locked in ice and for six months of every year its citizens live in total darkness. The town has more snow mobiles than residents, and travelling by dog sled is also quite common.

So, why do people live here? It is a good question and it took me awhile to ferret out the answer. Originally the town was founded after coal deposits were discovered in 1899. By 1906, a coal mine was established, and thus the town grew up around the mine. In 1920, the archipelago formally became part of Norway. I would guess from what I learned that the economic basis for the town was pure and simple: coal. At the end of the Second World War, the Germans burned every building in the town and set fire to the one and only coal mine at the time. That mine burned for over 20 years. After the war, Norway took to rebuilding the town and eventually six more mines were built.

Today however, all but one of the mines is closed. That one remaining mine uses half of its production to provide coal for the town’s power plant and the other half it its production is sold to Germany. Apparently that small amount of coal is still the primary source of income for the community. But that cannot explain what we saw. The city boasts a very modern hospital, a new and fairly large museum that was very modern,DSC_2035 an airport with a 9,000 ft runway and year round service two times a day, and a modern art gallery. Their schools were likewise modern and the island now had fiber optics and high speed internet, not to mention great cell phone coverage.

Norway is a very rich country, earning so much money from its oil production that it has created a national trust where funds are being invested for future generations. It provides a myriad of services to its people and overall its tax rates are low. So when you talk with the people you learn that the government heavily subsidizes Longyearbyen. Citizens who live here pay almost no tax, and some even receive subsidies to move here. Most people are now working in the tourism industry. For example, the town has two hotels, one of them a Radisson. There are five separate companies offering dog sledding experiences to tourist. Our tour guide was from Poland originally and came to Longyearbyen like most young people, under a contract to work for one year at a very high wage, after which she could go home. However, she has now taken Norwegian citizenship and has extended her contract for seven years. She said that the winters are getting harder and harder to take, but the money is good and she is not quite ready to leave and so the town is undergoing a population boom of sorts, having added 600 people in the last two years alone.

We took a four hour tour of the city and the surrounding countryside. Our first stop was the museum. Next we visited Spitzenbergen Basecamp, DSC_2099 home to several dog sledding teams. We were met with wagging tails and snuggles from the friendly dogs, and also given an opportunity to have some coffee and snacks. Since these dogs are considered “working dogs” they spend their lives outside. To take a working dog inside would be to ruin it for use on a dog sled. I wondered why their kennels were so high off the ground; my guess around 3 to 4 feet. I asked the owner, and he explained that was because of the snow. In amazement I said dumbly- so the snow gets that high in winter. He laughed and said not only that high but they have to raise the kennels at least three times during the winter just to keep ahead of the snow!

Next we visited the Art Museum and saw a short movie on life in Longyearbyen – you could not pay me to live there in winter – end of statementDSC_2127 . Then we drove all over the city and stopped long enough to grab a photograph of the entrance to the “Seed Vault” which has been built into the mountain inside an old mine.

And thus, our short half day visit to one of the world’s most northern communities came to an end. We are now heading south again and will sail for all of today and half of tomorrow before reaching the city of Alesund, Norway.


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