Svalbard's History

Up in the Arctic Circle is Europe’s most northerly populated land, Svalbard, named after the Viking discovery they called ‘Cold Shores’. However as their account is sketchy the Nordic discovery could actually be one of several other far northern island chains. Dutch explore Willem Barents for certain discovered these islands in 1596 and from 1611 the islands were home to permanent whaling stations from nine countries. The discovery of coal attracted mining operations from five nations at the beginning of the 20th Century but in 1920 Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard was confirmed as compensation for Norway’s merchant shipping losses during WWI. Under the 1920 Treaty of Spitsbergen, Svalbard is open to settlement from signatory countries so today a Russian settlement remains. In WWII the Allies, fearing a German takeover of Svalbard evacuated the locals in 1941 and dynamited strategic operations. The German invasion never eventuated.

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Whaling long ended in Svalbard and coal mining has virtually ceased. Svalbard’s largest coal customer is the ‘capital’s’ own coal fired power station. However in the 1960’s the spectacular Arctic beauty began to attract a new breed of invaders – eco-tourists armed with cameras. The unmatched beauty of Svalbard is a once-in-a-lifetime cruise destination for many, with ships sailing through the majestic fjords and islands of the icey north. Svalbard is home to the world’s largest seed bank and town’s of the cold north are surprisingly warm on hospitality and have a night life beyond expectation.

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