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Extremities of the Earth: The Northernmost Inhabited Point (Part 2)

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In the previous post of this series, the military installation of Alert in Nunavut, Canada was named the northernmost permanently inhabited point. While this is indeed true, it is only accessible to assigned military personnel. For the adventurers out there, we will have to content ourselves with visiting or living on the island of Spitsbergen, the northernmost permanently inhabited civilian point in the world!

Located 700 miles south of the North Pole, Spitsbergen is the largest island in an archipelago known as Svalbard (originally also called Spitsbergen) located midway between Norway and the North Pole. With a population of about 2,100, the largest settlement is Longyearben, on the central west coast of the island, while the town of Ny-Ålesund is the northernmost inhabited town.

Inset of Norway. 6-62. CIA, 1962. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Inset of Norway. 6-62. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 1962. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

There is not a consensus on if there were ever permanent inhabitants of the archipelago before the 17th century. In the 1970s, Swedish archaeologist Hans Christiansson found several flint objects he identified as Stone Age tools, dating to about 3000 B.C., but the lack of any other evidence of human habitation leaves most scholars to believe there was not a permanent population on Svalbard.

The first recorded discovery of Spitsbergen was by the Dutch mapmaker and explorer, Willem Barentsz, on his search for a northeast passage to China. The discovery of the islands came on his third attempt to find the passageway to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic Circle, on June 17, 1596. After finding the archipelago and sailing further northeast, the expedition became trapped in ice and was forced to spend the winter in the frigid and inhospitable climate. Tragically, after surviving the extreme winter, Barentsz died at sea, seven days into the return journey to Holland. Before his death, Barentsz created one last map, a major milestone in Arctic cartography and the first to show Spitsbergen, which he titled, “Het Nieuwe land,” or “The New Country”. Originally engraved by Baptista van Deutecum and published by Cornelis Claesz in 1598 upon the return of Barentsz’ crew, the map below is a facsimile made in 1917.

Deliniatio cartae trium navigationum per Batavos ad Septentrionalem... Original by Willem Barentsz, 1598. Facsimile, Nijhoff, 1917. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Deliniatio cartae trium navigationum per Batavos ad Septentrionalem… Original by Willem Barentsz, 1598. Facsimile, Nijhoff, 1917. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The first settlement on the island was Smeerenburg, founded by the Dutch in 1619, a site even farther northwest than Ny-Ålesund is today. Throughout the 17th, 18th, and into the 19th centuries, the island was used as an outpost for walrus hunting and whaling by the British, Dutch, Danish, Russians, and Norwegians. As you can see from the 1690 map below, whales were an important theme when it came to depicting Spitsbergen!

Spitzberga. G. Valk and P. Schek, 1690. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Spitzberga. Valk and Schek, 1690. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Whaling and hunting began to die out in the mid 1800s. In the early 1900s, coal was discovered on Spitsbergen and coal mining became the largest industry on the island, as it still is today, followed by tourism and scientific research. Ny-Ålesund, the furthest northern town, started out as a coal mining town but is now dedicated to scientific research, with facilities for permanent research institutes from ten countries. With many countries interested in the benefits of the land, the archipelago was formerly granted to Norway under the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, when Norway also changed the name of the archipelago from Spitsbergen to Svalbard, leaving the largest island with the name. However, all countries that signed the treaty were granted rights to fishing, hunting and mineral resources on the islands. In 2016, about 30% of the population of Svalbard were from countries other than Norway.

Map of the Arctic and adjacent regions. Sir John Ross, 1855. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.
Map of the Arctic and adjacent regions. Sir John Ross, 1855. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The climate of the archipelago is not as frigid as Alert, Canada, making permanent habitation easier, with the temperatures being relatively higher than those at similar latitudes in Russia and Canada due warmer ocean currents. The 1855 map above drawn by John Ross shows the location of Spitsbergen in relation to the rest of the Arctic Circle. While the average summer temperature is 39-43°F (4-6°C), the average January temperature is a balmy 3-10°F (-16-12°C)!

Of interest to visitors, Svalbard is widely known for its polar bears, with a population of about 3,000, more than the human residents of the archipelago! The island is also home to the global seed bank, a long-term backup seed storage facility that houses more than 890,000 samples of food crop seeds, originating from almost every country in the world, held in case of a global emergency. With daily flights to the airport at Longyearbyen, this Arctic wilderness can be easily accessed and added to anyone’s travel list!

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