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 inhabitants must carry a gun for protection whenever they leave the settlement.
Located on top of the world, it contains sweeping areas of unspoilt, raw Arctic wilderness. No roads connect the settlements; instead snowmobiles, aircraft and boats serve inter-community transport.
Originally discovered in 1596 by Dutch whalers, Svalbard (meaning ‘cold coasts’ in Norwegian) became a whaling base right up until the 18th century, after which the islands were repurposed by northern European hunters and trappers. Coal mining started at the beginning of the 20th century, and several permanent communities were established, though only two remain 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. Following its abandonment at the collapse of the Soviet Union, the architecture and all its features, including the world’s northernmost statue of Lenin, remain untouched, frozen in time by the sub-zero temperatures.
Life for the estimated 2700 inhabitants of Svalbard comes with its challenges. Firstly, there’s the polar winters to contend with: October 26th marks the beginning of dark sky season, shrouding the islands in darkness for 4 months when temperatures can fall as low as minus 40 degrees centigrade. Only on March 8th does the sun once again emerge above the horizon, an occasion that is marked with a week of community led festivities beginning with a ceremony outside Svalbard Church. In contrast to the long winters, the polar summers provide the islands with 3 months of unrelenting daylight, warmer weather and greater opportunities to explore the land.
Svalbard is not typically a place people spend their entire lives or where families are continued through generations, although a few family generations do reside there. People have generally come and gone, contributing to Svalbard’s distinctive history. The history of Svalbard is rich in tragic events, and graves are the most 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. The latter recently underwent major renovations to prevent the permafrost that preserves its precious contents from thawing.
With plans to close the two operational coal mines that remain, Svalbard now finds itself in a confused identity: part hub of pioneering scientific research, part otherworldly tourist destination at the end of the earth.
This project was shot over two visits to Svalbard, with funding assistance from Newcastle College's Michael Ormerod Travel Award.