Svalbard - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Svalbard: the Bradt Guide

Economic development and sovereignty from 1900

Until the end of the 19th century, Svalbard’s economic importance was based exclusively on hunting commodities such as blubber, ivory, fox pelts, polar bear furs, seal products, down and eggs, among other products. Territorial disputes had been resolved by dividing the area first between the competing whaling countries and companies, and later for the hunting and trapping on land, by the gradual development of a generally accepted system of defined hunting grounds. From the time of discovery onwards, Denmark had a vague claim to Svalbard on the grounds that it was considered to be a part of Greenland, ostensibly connected by some supposed land bridge far up in the north.

However, since quarrels could be settled mostly between the parties involved and as the area was huge in relation to the few hunters, there was no apparent need to change the status of the remote archipelago from being a de facto no-man’s-land – even if the riches to be gained there were, in theory at least, unlimited.

This changed in the middle of the 19th century, when the industrialisation of Europe increased the need for mineral resources and the subsequent introduction of steam engines and later steel-hulled ships vastly improved the possibilities of navigation, even in partly iced-over waters. The deposits of coal and some other minerals in Svalbard thus became more attractive, sparking Sweden and other countries to increase their research activities in the archipelago.

The commercial exploitation of natural resource deposits began in the 1890s with coal. The year 1899 is regarded as the beginning of coal mining in Svalbard, when the first shipload of coal from a Norwegian pit on Bohemanflya was sent to Norway. Naturally, this new interest in mineral resources of the largely unexplored archipelago – only the coastlines had really been mapped at this point – invited a wide range of pioneers from Germany, Great Britain, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the USA, from individual adventurers to financially better-equipped companies.

As in other pioneer countries, claims were marked with signs where any riches were found, often generously encompassing vast areas around them as well, and soon after reported to the appropriate institutions of the home country. Not surprisingly, this activity soon led to quarrels due to competing or overlapping claims to the same areas, and with no central ‘claims’ register to speak of, many optimistic entrepreneurs soon found out that it takes more than just a few claim poles to become rich. In some cases, company wars over disputed claims were avoidable by seeking help through the diplomatic channels of the home countries.

In the long run, however, this situation was unacceptable and called for the installation of a legal framework, most naturally by extending the sovereignty of a suitable country to the archipelago. However, at first no country was particularly interested due to the expected costs of administering such a territory, while at the same time care was taken to secure exploitation rights. It took until 1920 to solve the Svalbard question, delayed to no small effect by World War I and the Russian Revolution.

In the meantime, a few major players appeared in Svalbard, established and enforced their claims and bought up others. Most important and successful among them was the Boston-based John Munro Longyear who, having founded the Arctic Coal Company together with his partner Ayer, established the mining settlement of Longyear City in 1906, which grew to become the main settlement of the archipelago. Other bigger companies established themselves in Grumant (1913–20, British–Russian), Ny-Ålesund (1916, Norwegian), Tunheim (1916, Norwegian), Sveagruva (1917, Swedish), Hiorthamn (1917, Norwegian), Barentsburg (1920, Dutch). In most cases, the involved companies were backed diplomatically (and in many cases financially as well) by their home governments.

Apart from coal, mining was also undertaken to try to extract asbestos, copper, gold, gypsum, iron, lead, marble and zinc. But not all mining ventures were successful. Maybe the largest gap between expectations and results was ‘achieved’ by the Northern Exploration Company (NEC) with Ernest Mansfield from Essex as the main actor. Between 1905 and 1926, the company embarked upon exploratory mining activities and claimed a large number of land areas. In 1927, approval was obtained for 16, with a combined total area of 655.3km², the biggest private land property of the archipelago.

However, none of the pits, quarries and shafts got much further than the initial exploratory stage for various reasons, the most famous being the marble quarry of NEC on Blomstrand Island in Kongsfjord with its tiny settlement ambitiously named ‘New London’. In 1929, NEC was practically bankrupt and in 1932, its huge land properties, 58 buildings and 34 mining claims spread over Svalbard were bought by the Norwegian state for NOK100,000.

During World War I, Svalbard gained strategic importance thanks to its coal deposits, as Norway could no longer rely on coal supplies from central Europe and Britain. This increased the interest of formerly wary Norway in the archipelago and led to the purchase of Longyear City from the Americans in 1916. In connection with the peace treaty of Versailles, negotiations on Svalbard were taken up again. With the USA having been bought out, Germany defeated, Russia seen as a pariah due to its new revolutionary regime and the Western Allies grateful for the support from the Norwegian merchant fleet, Norway was in a strong position.

They could also point to some heavy involvement in the archipelago at that time with regular coal mining in Longyearbyen, Ny-Ålesund and Tunheim (Bear Island), the operation of the only telegraph station, Svalbard Radio, plus postal steamer services. In 1920, ‘The Treaty concerning the Archipelago of Spitsbergen’ was signed and came into force in 1925. Signed today by 52 countries, this treaty has so far proved remarkably enduring and has led to a unique legal status for the (now-named) Svalbard Archipelago due to its main principles.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Svalbard: the Bradt Guide


Purple saxifrage tundra flowers Svalbard by Incredible Arctic, Shutterstock© Incredible Arctic, Shutterstock

Despite Svalbard’s High Arctic latitude the flora is amazingly varied, with the strongest vegetation being on the west coast, in central Nordenskiöldlandet, around Isfjord and where affected by guano. Vegetation is sparser in the east. In addition to general problems posed by Arctic conditions (short growing season, low temperatures, harsh winds), vegetation, particularly in inland areas, also has to contend with low precipitation and the concomitant lack of water in the summer and poor snow cover (insulation) during the winter.

Regarding precipitation, Svalbard has a steppe-type climate. In lower latitudes, vegetation would be fairly sparse due to lack of water. In the Arctic, however, the dry climate helps vegetation obtain sufficient water: permafrost in the ground prevents a sub-surface drainage of rainfall and meltwater in summer, which leads to a muddy thawed top layer in flatter parts of the terrain. The little water that is available is therefore stored close to the surface and remains available, while evaporation is less of a factor due to the low temperatures.

Nevertheless, lack of water is a crucial factor in many places and nowhere is this more evident than the brilliant green and red colours of the moss and grass near some streams and puddles in otherwise more brownish-green-grey surroundings. In other places, the cold is a problem for vegetation as it conserves the ice core in moraines, just like the permafrost under the thawed surface in places over the summer. This causes solifluction (‘floating soil’), a very slow slide of the thawed part of the soil on the frozen layers underneath – a movement that is detrimental to the roots of most plant species. Vegetation here is typical of tundra: no tall plants. The tallest growth comes from a few grasses in late summer, their flowering stems reaching up to 30cm. Additionally, there are few endemic species.

In botanical terms, Svalbard is in fact very ‘wooded’. There are five sorts of trees, particularly the four willows, including the polar willow (Salix polaris) and the occasional polar birch (Betula nana) that here grow horizontally with branches no more than 5cm above the ground. The polar willow covers large areas, its green foliage (or, in autumn, brownish-yellow) being the dominant colour of many valleys.

Even if vegetation doesn’t rise much off the ground, it is nonetheless astounding in its variety, bringing additional splashes of colour to the landscape; this is apart from the main flowering season and the later grasses, some of which mark the position of marshes. Changes can also be seen in simple plants: in wetlands there are lush growths of green and red mosses and on cliffs and stones may be found abundant lichen in red, orange, black, grey, greenish-yellow and other colours.

Some of these are very slow-growing, and the larger patches are perhaps already 10,000 years old and have lived through the end of the last ice age, being among the oldest life forms on the entire planet. As well as these, there are many large fungi, which especially the Russian locals are pleased to collect. If you see red snow, it is less likely to be pollution than a colony of tiny algae.

For the uninitiated, the most noticeable of the higher plants (165 known species) are flowering species, including a poppy, Papaver dahlianum, which seems to grow in the most barren of places. Saxifrage grows in these areas also, as well as between stones on the beach, sheltering from the almost constant wind. In flatlands you frequently come across cushions of stemless moss campion, Silene acaulis, also called compass plant as its light-red blooms grow first to the south side of the cushion and then continue to its north, and its tiny leaves change from a succulent green to a dark wine-red in August.

The white flowering cassiope, Cassiope tetragona, is abundant, particularly in tufted peat beds in valley floors. The season is very short – growth, flowering and seed production all have to take place within a few weeks. Many plants do not rely solely on seed production but also reproduce through suckers and runners.



Svalbard has few species of mammals: the only terrestrial mammals to be seen are reindeer, polar fox and polar bear. Then there are the pinnipeds – walrus, seal and the like – and the whales. An experiment to introduce the snow hare has been as unsuccessful as that to introduce the Greenland musk ox, the last of which died in 1986. This was partly because of extremely hard winters and partly because the ox was competing for food with the reindeer, which has been returning to its full strength in terms of population in recent years.


With around 130 observable species, birdlife in Svalbard is not as diverse as in more southern regions. Despite this, the archipelago is of great interest to ornithologists and birders, particularly if they enjoy travel by boat to different regions or are prepared to go long distances overland. There are few breeding grounds easily accessible from Longyearbyen – something of a blessing for the birds, perhaps. Although there are not too many species, the number of individuals of some species is high (there are over a million little auk), leading to a relatively inflexible and fragile ecosystem.

Typically for Svalbard, as with other Arctic lands, most birds are migratory, taking advantage of the rich sea feeding present by the round-the-clock daylight in the summertime. There are huge seabird colonies and birds rarely seen elsewhere, including the little auk (Alle alle), the smallest of the auks, which congregate in large groups and perform ritual formation flying around the rocks, accompanied by some bizarre-sounding cackling.

Also relatively rare, breeding only in the northeast, is the ivory gull (Pagophila eburnea), easily recognised by its pure white plumage, and Sabine’s gull (Larus sabini), which has also been seen breeding here. Ross’s gull (Rhodostethia rosea) spends most of its time on the eastern pack ice, but only one breeding pair has ever been observed in Svalbard. These reclusive Arctic gulls are known to breed only here, in Greenland and in northeastern Siberia.

People and culture

In contrast to other similar regions, Svalbard has no indigenous population. There is still a big question mark regarding the possibility of pre-1596 human activity in the archipelago, as there is regarding the links between the exploration of the archipelago (and other Arctic regions) and climate change. Climatic research shows increasingly that the conditions in the High Arctic were considerably milder than today for most of the time since the last ice age (warmer, less ice), but cooled down markedly from around ad500, with the harshest conditions since the ice age taking place in the first half of the 19th century, leading to a corresponding increase of ice cover on both sea and land.

Therefore, early visitors, possibly up until the 17th century, may have been less hindered by ice and found more comfortable conditions, facilitating early exploration and exploitation. In contrast, navigation was especially hindered by ice in the 19th and even early 20th centuries, thus contributing to the many failures and tragedies. Then again, the warming and retreat of the ice since the middle of the 19th century made remote Arctic areas gradually more accessible, which, together with technological advances, supported the modern exploration of these areas. Combining research on climate change with that of polar history will only lead to new understandings of both.

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