Have you ever wondered what would be the climate like in the northernmost part of Norway that lies contiguous to the Arctic Circle? Freezingly cold would seem an understatement, bone-chillingly frigid will be the aptest description. There is no place better than Longyearbyen to get this unique experience.
The world’s northernmost settlement It is no wonder that Longyearbyen, a town that qualifies for the world’s northernmost settlement, has only 2,144 individuals, as per the December 2015 census. The town is the administrative center of Svalbard, where the governor of Svalbard and his administrative office is located.
When John Longyear founded this town in 1906 to set up his Arctic Coal Company, he called it Longyear City. Later the name got translated into its current Norwegian name. The mining operations commenced with around 500 workers in extreme conditions. Even today you can find the debris of the abandoned mines and shipping containers strewn around.
The desolate and bleak, yet somehow beautiful, setting of Longyearbyen, with the tongues of two glaciers – Longyearbreen and Lars Hjertabreen – as its backdrop, displays colorful wooden houses that stand on stilts due to permafrost.
Permafrost is typical of this region, in which the soil remains permanently frozen all the year round. The stilts serve a purpose. When the upper layers of 10 to 40-meter deep permafrost melt each summer, the stilts save the houses from flooding due to melted ice and sinking.
It is strictly illegal to die in Longyearbyen and the only graveyard stopped accepting new burials over 70 years ago. The reason is that the bodies never decompose due to Premafrost. Person’s who seems ill or expected to die soon are dispatched by air or ship to a different part of Norway, where they would spend the last days of their lives.
In this region, it is normal to find the sunrise after four months! Each year the sun sets on October 25 only to rise again after four months. In Longyearbyen, the dawn breaks on March 8 every year. Life is Longyearbyen and Svalbard region
Unlike other towns in the world, there are some peculiar ways of the residents of Longyearbyen.
● No shoes indoors: Even in the freezing cold, there is a custom of not allowing shoes indoors. You have to leave them outside not only of the homes but of the hotels, church, offices and even the Svalbard Museum. In lieu, you are provided with slippers to keep your feet warm.
● No outdoors without guns: Nobody in Svalbard and around is allowed outdoors without a gun. This is to prevent polar bears, that number over 3,000, from attacking. They sometimes get agitated due to hunger, going without food for months together. You need to learn to handle a high-powered rifle. It is common to see people outdoors with casually slung rifles over their shoulders. However, guns are not allowed inside any building.
● The most practical transport: The most practical transport here is a snowmobile, known as snow scooter. Since there are no road networks connecting the various towns, people travel cross country on these. This vehicle is so indispensable that the 2,000 odd residents of Longyearbyen own 4,000 of them.
Longyearbyen: the hub of tourism
Longyearbyen attracts tourists from around the world. The visitors usually get afflicted with what in local parlance is called the ‘island fever’. This makes them go berserk riding snow scooters every which way – over frozen fjords, across glaciers, and inside the town!
The tourists come specially to enjoy Solfestuka, a week-long celebration to welcome the return of the sun. On that day, the whole town gathers at the old hospital steps precisely at 12:15 and witness the first sunrays kissing the steps.
The visitors also get a chance to taste exotic wines and savor the Arctic fare in the world’s northernmost gourmet restaurant, called Huset, that houses Europe’s largest wine cellars, with over 20,000 bottles.
Longyearbyen is extreme, but an exotic destination to experience things that you will never get to experience elsewhere.