What (and Where) Is Svalbard?

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If you’re looking for warm beaches, palm trees swaying lazily in the wind, and piña coladas in each hand, don’t go to Svalbard. The Norwegian archipelago is known for its remoteness and arctic conditions. In fact, polar bears outnumber people by a few hundred. But like a tropical island, Svalbard truly allows you to get away from it all. So, if you're in need of a place to chill (pun intended), you might want to head north — way north.

Where Is Svalbard?

Row of colored homes near large icy mountains in  Longyearbyen, Svalbard
Credit: Jane Rix/ Shutterstock

Svalbard is a group of islands located in the Arctic Ocean above Norway and to the east of Greenland. It falls well within the Arctic Circle, making it the northernmost inhabited region in the world.

Svalbard is technically part of Norway, but in order to get to the archipelago, you have to travel through international air or waters. Even people from Norway have to use a passport to get there.

Climate and Geography

Arctic landscape and lakes in northern region of Svalbard, Norway
Credit: FilippoB/ Shutterstock

Since it’s located so far north, the climate in Svalbard is very cold. Summer highs reach a maximum of 45 degrees Fahrenheit, while winters can easily dip below zero. Average temperatures rarely rise above freezing, and Svalbard is frequently windy, which makes the cold feel much worse.

Surprisingly, though, much of Svalbard is considered a desert. No, there aren’t any sand dunes, but the average amount of precipitation is low enough that it qualifies as an arctic desert. The entire group of islands receives an average of about 10 inches of precipitation per year. In some areas it’s even less.

Additionally, because it’s so far into the Arctic — the northernmost tip of the island is only 600 miles from the North Pole — Svalbard is one of the few places in the world that experience full polar night. From October to February, the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon.

Svalbard’s geography, meanwhile, can be described with one word: ice. Glaciers and snowfields cover about 60% of the mountainous landscape.

Vegetation and Wildlife

Solitary polar bear sitting on ice in northern region of Svalbard, Norway
Credit: Don Landwehrle/ Shutterstock

Due to the harsh conditions, there’s not much in the way of vegetation. Most plants can't survive the arctic conditions, so local flora is limited to mostly hardy lichens and mosses that cover some of the plains.

Animal life, on the other hand, is abundant. Some of the most populous residents are polar bears and reindeer. There are so many polar bears, in fact, that residents are required to equip themselves with the means to scare off the bears whenever they travel outside of settlement areas. Arctic foxes, seals, walruses, and whales also are common around Svalbard.

Population

Iconic rows of colored homes in the icy region of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway
Credit: Jane Rix/ Shutterstock

Most of the people who live in Svalbard reside in the largest city, Longyearbyen. As you can imagine, though, even the largest city in Svalbard doesn’t have many residents. Longyearbyen has a population of only 2,400 people, but it’s relatively diverse, with residents from more than 50 countries.

With its tight-knit community and friendly atmosphere, Longyearbyen is a popular destination for people who want to slow down. Moving to Svalbard is fairly simple, too — all you have to do is show up. Norwegian immigration laws don’t apply, so anyone can move to and work in Svalbard without having to file for a visa. You do have to be able to support yourself, though, so you'll need a job before you go.

Global Seed Vault

Global Seed Vault in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, seen at night
Credit: ginger_polina_bublik/ Shutterstock

In the event of a worldwide catastrophe, it might be up to Svalbard to rebuild society and replenish the planet. The Global Seed Vault is a project started by conservationists hoping to preserve all of the world's important plants and crops. The vault is buried deep inside a Svalbard mountain, safe from any climate-related or man-made disasters that could happen.

The vault can hold more than 4.5 million varieties of crops from all over the world. If a global crisis were to wipe out a particular type of plant, the seeds could be taken from the vault and used to propagate the species.

Northern Lights

The Northern Lights aurora borealis seen in Svalbard, Norway
Credit: ginger_polina_bublik/ Shutterstock

If you want to see the northern lights, look no further than Svalbard. Because the islands are so remote, there’s no light pollution to prevent you from seeing the aurora borealis in all its glory. Want to have lunch under the lights? During polar night in the winter, when it's dark 24 hours of the day, they can appear overhead at any time.

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