Svalbard is an archipelago in the Arctic, constituting the northernmost part of Norway. It is located about 400 miles north of mainland Europe, midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. The group of islands range from 74° to 81° north latitude (inside the Arctic Circle), and from 10° to 35° east longitude.
The Svalbard coal rush came to abrupt end in the 1920´s for two main reasons; falling world market prices on coal and the fact that Norway established control over the archipelago with the ratification of the Svalbard treaty in 1925. From the end of the 1920´s, there were basically only two nations involved in the industry; Norway and the Soviet Union.
Article 8 establishes that collected taxes, dues and fees may only benefit Svalbard. Norway may not exercise its authority to acquire any income other than that which is needed for the administration of Svalbard. In practical terms, this means that income taxes are lower in Svalbard than they are on the mainland; nor does Svalbard have any value-added-tax or any other taxes aimed to augment State revenues. Revenues and expenses from the administration of Svalbard are budgeted separately, in the Svalbard budget.
The Svalbard Treaty of February 9, 1920, brought the territories under the attention of international diplomacy and was granted the Norwegian sovereignty. The regions are free from any sort of military activity. Because of a freehand given by the Norwegian government, other countries legally exploit the mineral deposits and other natural resources, making Barentsburg and Pyramiden the permanent Russian settlements, until 2000.
Svalbard, as claimed by both history and Norse folklore, was discovered by the Vikings in the 12th century AD, the name being an appropriate translation of the words ‘cold edge’. Modern world came to know about the island through Dutchman Willem Barents in the year 1596. The newly discovered islands had thereafter become the centre for whale-hunting for the rest of Europe.
The scientific exploration of Svalbard has concentrated largely on the collection of data to describe topography, geology, biology, botany, oceanography, glaciology and climate. The rationale behind the expeditions has alternated over the years, sometimes being purely scientific and at other times politically motivated, economically based or just personally motivated, and sometimes a mix of all of these.
The archipelago of Svalbard is situated high in the northern Hemisphere, in the High Arctic between 74° and 81° north and between 10° and 35° east. Two thirds of the archipelago is permanently covered by snow and ice. Much of the terrain is naked and apparently unproductive and there are great variations in the light regime through the year.
The chief wealth of the islands is derived from their mineral resources, most notably coal; deposits of asbestos, copper, gypsum, iron, marble, zinc, and phosphate also exist.
Spitsbergen, the largest island, contains the highest mountain of the group (Newtontoppen, c.5,650 ft/1,720 m) and the principal settlements of Longyearbyen (the administrative center), Ny-Ålesund, Barentsburg, and Grumantbyen. Spitsbergen has served as the base for many polar expeditions. Nearly 65% of the small population is Russian and 35% is Norwegian.
The first mention of Svalbard occurs in an Icelandic saga from 1194. Officially, however, the Dutch voyager Willem Barents, in search of a northeast passage to China, is regarded as the first visitor from the European mainland (1596). He named the islands Spitsbergen, or ‘sharp mountains’. The Norwegian name, Svalbard, comes from the Old Norse for ‘cold coast’; ancient Norse sagas referred to ‘a land in the far north at the end of the ocean’.
Vast icebergs and floes choke the seas, and ice fields and glaciers frost the lonely heights. But under close scrutiny, the harsh conditions reveal tiny gems as the Arctic desert soil, however barren-looking, manages to sustain lichens, miniature grasses and delicate little flowers. The environment supports larger creatures too: whales, seals, walruses, Arctic foxes, squat Svalbard reindeer – and polar bears aplenty, outnumbering us humans for the moment.