Ny-Ǻlesund is the northernmost (year-round) human settlement in the world. Located on the island of Spitsbergen, ten degrees further north than the north coast of Alaska and at the same latitude as Canada’s Ellesmere Island and the northern tip of Greenland, Ny-Ǻlesund has a remarkable history steeped in heroism, exploitation of the natural environment and scientific research.
Spitsbergen is a part of the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard which is about 1 ½ times the size of Switzerland. Spitsbergen is Norway’s largest and the world’s 36th largest island. It was named by the Dutch sailor Barentsz, who found the archipelago when he was looking for a northern sea route to China in 1596. He thought the mountains looked very pointy (spitz = pointed, bergen = mountains), thus the name.
Spitsbergen must have teemed with life at the time of the archipelago’s discovery. Whales, polar bears, walruses and seals feasted in the waters near the glaciers while arctic terns, kittiwakes, guillemots and puffins flew overhead and reindeer scraped snow away from the rocks to get to the lichen below. The scene must have been spectacular. In the 400+ years since then, humans have come, wiped out the whales, decimated the walruses and seals, dug out the mountains, drilled the sea and desecrated the glaciers. Luckily, life this far north is tough and the humans never stayed for long. Even now, in 2014, less than 3,000 people live on Svalbard, spread out over 4 communities: Longyearbyen, the administrative center of the archipelago and the only place with a transportation link to the outside world, Barentsburg, a Russian mining community, Sveagruva, another mining outpost and Ny-Ǻlesund which is primarily a research settlement. Despite the human interference, Svalbard still is an extraordinary arctic landscape, a vast frozen wilderness that can awe the senses and make you feel insignificant in the face of such natural grandeur and beauty.
“How on earth can people live here?” is probably every civilized person’s first response to seeing Ny-Ǻlesund. Well, first of all it’s because of the Gulf Stream, that warm ocean current coming up from Mexico. This maritime influence creates a much milder climate than one would expect at this northern latitude and only 1,200 km (750 miles) south of the North Pole. Winter temperatures here are only minus 12 C to minus 16 C, while the summers can be a balmy 4 to 6 C.
Secondly, human curiosity drove people to come here to investigate ocean currents and weather. Ny-Ǻlesund was established as a scientific base in 1868 by the German explorer Carl Koldewey, who wanted to know what the heck was going on. During the time of arctic exploration in the 19th century, expedition teams heading for the Pole reported drifting south on ice shelves faster than they were travelling north. Hmm, I can understand why they would be frustrating!
Thirdly, there was (is) coal in them hills! For a brief period starting 1916, people mined for coal here until the human cost in the form of repeated fatal accidents in the mines, became too great. A German-built locomotive with rail cars at Ny-Ǻlesund’s pier are silent reminders of this area’s mining history (see picture).
Fourthly, Ny-Ǻlesund served as a launching point for polar expeditions. It is from here that Roald Amundsen, one of Norway’s greatest heroes, his flying partner, the Italian engineer Umberto Nobile and Oscar Wisting, Amundsen’s partner in the successful South Pole expedition, launched the airship “Norge”. They, together with 13 other men, left Ny-Ǻlesund on May 11, 1926, flew over the North Pole and landed in Alaska 3 days later. This makes Amundsen and Wisting the first men to reach each geographical pole by ground and by air. The mooring tower for the airship still exists just outside of Ny-Ǻlesund (see picture). Amundsen also tried to reach the pole by plane from here. He made it to 87 degrees NL before he had to turn around.
These days, Ny-Ǻlesund is an international scientific community consisting of 11 research stations operated by 10 different countries (Norway, Germany, Japan, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Italy, France, South Korea, China and India). Four of the 11 stations are operated year-round. In addition, institutes from other countries send their scientists to Ny-Ǻlesund for the summer months. What kind of are they doing up there? First and foremost atmospheric studies. Because of its clean air, Ny-Ǻlesund is the perfect location for monitoring the atmosphere. While major cities around the world record 10 to 30 million particles per cubic centimeter, the air up here only contains 300. Other research conducted here includes studying of climate change, marine life, mammals, water temperatures, barnacle geese and other local wildlife.
When all the souls in town are counted (polar bears excluded), you’ll find 30 Ny-Ǻlesund inhabitants in winter and 150 in summer. I wonder how they all get along during the World Cup. At least, to keep the peace in the village, the Ny-Ǻlesunders have the option of setting the obstinate party adrift on an ice float in the Arctic Ocean. They wouldn’t even have to worry about the exiled party’s safety. After all, the ice float would be drifting south.