In the quest to stake a claim among the world's most uncommon places — as the smallest, the darkest, the strangest or just the town where you’re most likely to get attacked by a polar bear — Longyearbyen, Norway is definitely in the running.
Longyearbyen is generally regarded as the world's northernmost town (with a population of real people, not just an outpost staffed by researchers and scientists in parkas). It has months upon months in which the sun doesn't come up at all. It has months and months in which the sun doesn't go down at all.
It's not easy living in Longyearbyen, the biggest town in the Arctic Ocean archipelago of Svalbard. According to one widely told tale, it's also illegal to die — but we'll come back to that later.
So, if you're going to Longyearbyen — and, yes, there is a tourist trade there — you need to know some things.
It's not some Arctic wasteland
It's a legitimate question: Why? Why on earth is there a town just 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) from the North Pole, halfway between there and Norway?
The answer: Coal. And an American named John Longyear. He came to the place in 1901 as a tourist and returned in 1906 to begin mining operations. He built a town for his 500 or so workers (most of them Norwegian), dubbed it — in a piece of Trumpian foreshadowing — Longyear City, constructed a tramway to take coal from there to the port and merrily churned along until the first World War. Longyear eventually sold his outfit to a Norwegian coal company in 1916. That company still mines the area today.
The town was renamed Longyearbyen in 1926. It was forcibly evacuated during World War II and bombed almost out of existence by the Nazis in 1943 (only four buildings remained). But coal operations ramped up quickly after the war, the town was rebuilt and, through the decades, Longyearbyen saw other industries develop, including tourism. Today, Longyearbyen has a shopping center, restaurants, pubs, a university, a library, a swimming pool and more snowmobiles than residents.
But it is plenty remote
It's about a three-hour flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen, which plops you into the main airport on the island of Spitsbergen. Know this, too: Once you're in town, you're in town. There are several miles of roads in Longyearbyen, but there are no roads between places in Svalbard. Getting from town to town, or island to island, is done by boat or by the ubiquitous snowmobile.
It has some loooong days and nights
Longyearbyen has long stretches of nights for days. (Photo: Lindsey Nicholson/flickr)
According to the Visit Svalbard site, between Nov. 14 and Jan. 29, it's night. Like, 24/7 dark. "You can tell no difference between day and night," the site says.
It's know as the "Polar Night.” At that time of the year in that part of the world, the sun's rays don’t get over the horizon. So it remains dark, which is great for sky-gazing. (And this area of the world, superlatively speaking, has some of the best sky shows in the world — see below.) It's lousy tanning weather, granted, and if you have seasonal affective disorder, you should bring a sunlamp. But the Dark Season Blues Festival, held every year in late October, is awfully cool.
On the other side is what is known as "Midnight Sun." From late April through late August in Longyearbyen, the sun doesn't set. It’ll dip low, close to the horizon, during some of this period. But during much of it, the sun is high, even at midnight.
Even though Longyearbyen is definitely an Arctic town, it's not howlingly cold or snowy. The average high temperature in July, when the sun's always out, is about 44 degrees Fahrenheit. In January, it's a chilly 8.6. (It's January, in the dark, in the Arctic: What do you expect?) And Svalbard is considered an "arctic desert," with little snowfall or rain.
Northern lights = Awesome
Polar bears outnumber humans (don't mess with them)
Polar bears rule in Svalbard. And they are dangerous. In March, a Czech tourist, in Svalbard to see a solar eclipse, was pulled from his tent by a polar bear and mauled. In 2011, a 17-year-old British schoolboy was killed by a bear while on an expedition.
Throughout Svalbard, warnings are posted about the dangers of polar bears. A local law requires anyone leaving town to have a firearm with them for defense. And you'd need it: A male bear can weigh more than 1,500 pounds
Don't do that here
At one time, it was fashionable — although not particularly accurate — to note a law in Longyearbyen about dying. The law, supposedly, was this: You can't die there.
The fact is, tha'’s not a fact. Liv Asta Ødegaard, the senior communications adviser for the governor’s office in Svalbard, told Waffles at Noon this in 2013: "It is of course not illegal to die in Longyearbyen, but it is the policy of the Government that Longyearbyen not become a 'cradle-to grave' community."
Longyearbyen has no means to care for the elderly. The town has no hospices or nursing homes, and other social services are limited. The one graveyard has not been used in decades. So if you die there, don't worry. You won't get ticketed. You'll just be shipped off-island.