Photos of Svalbard

Introduction

Background

The archipelago may have been first discovered by Norse explorers in the 12th century; the islands served as an international whaling base during the 17th and 18th centuries. Norway's sovereignty was internationally recognized by treaty in 1920, and five years later it officially took over the territory. In the 20th century coal mining started and today a Norwegian and a Russian company are still functioning. Travel between the settlements is accomplished with snowmobiles, aircraft, and boats.

Visit the Definitions and Notes page to view a description of each topic.

Geography

Location

Northern Europe, islands between the Arctic Ocean, Barents Sea, Greenland Sea, and Norwegian Sea, north of Norway

Geographic coordinates

78 00 N, 20 00 E

Map references

Arctic Region

Area

total: 62,045 sq km

land: 62,045 sq km

water: 0 sq km

note: includes Spitsbergen and Bjornoya (Bear Island)

country comparison to the world: 125

Area - comparative

slightly smaller than West Virginia

Land boundaries

total: 0 km

Coastline

3,587 km

Maritime claims

territorial sea: 12 nm

contiguous zone: 24 nm

continental shelf: extends to depth of exploitation

exclusive fishing zone: 200 nm

Climate

arctic, tempered by warm North Atlantic Current; cool summers, cold winters; North Atlantic Current flows along west and north coasts of Spitsbergen, keeping water open and navigable most of the year

Terrain

rugged mountains; much of the upland areas are ice covered; west coast clear of ice about half the year; fjords along west and north coasts

Elevation

lowest point: Arctic Ocean 0 m

highest point: Newtontoppen 1,717 m

Natural resources

coal, iron ore, copper, zinc, phosphate, wildlife, fish

Population distribution

the small population is primarily concentrated on the island of Spitsbergen in a handful of settlements on the south side of the Isfjorden, with Longyearbyen being the largest

Land use

agricultural land: 0% (2011 est.)

arable land: 0% (2011 est.)

permanent crops: 0% (2011 est.)

permanent pasture: 0% (2011 est.)

forest: 0% (2011 est.)

other: 100% (2011 est.)

Natural hazards

ice floes often block the entrance to Bellsund (a transit point for coal export) on the west coast and occasionally make parts of the northeastern coast inaccessible to maritime traffic

Environment - current issues

ice floes are a maritime hazard; past exploitation of mammal species (whale, seal, walrus, and polar bear) severely depleted the populations, but a gradual recovery seems to be occurring

Geography - note

northernmost part of the Kingdom of Norway; consists of nine main islands; glaciers and snowfields cover 60% of the total area; Spitsbergen Island is the site of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a seed repository established by the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Norwegian Government

People and Society

Ethnic groups

Norwegian 58%, foreign population 42% (consists primarily of Russians, Thais, Swedes, Filipinos, and Ukrainians) (2019 est.)

note: foreigners account for almost one third of the population of the Norwegian settlements, Longyearbyen and Ny-Alesund (where the majority of Svalbard's resident population lives), as of mid-2019

Languages

Norwegian, Russian

Population distribution

the small population is primarily concentrated on the island of Spitsbergen in a handful of settlements on the south side of the Isfjorden, with Longyearbyen being the largest

Infant mortality rate

total: NA (2018)

male: NA

female: NA

Life expectancy at birth

total population: NA (2017 est.)

male: NA

female: NA

Government

Country name

conventional long form: none

conventional short form: Svalbard (sometimes referred to as Spitsbergen, the largest island in the archipelago)

etymology: 12th century Norse accounts speak of the discovery of a "Svalbard" - literally "cold shores" - but they may have referred to Jan Mayen Island or eastern Greenland; the archipelago was traditionally known as Spitsbergen, but Norway renamed it Svalbard in the 1920s when it assumed sovereignty of the islands

Dependency status

territory of Norway; administered by the Polar Department of the Ministry of Justice, through a governor (sysselmann) residing in Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen; by treaty (9 February 1920), sovereignty was awarded to Norway

Government type

non-self-governing territory of Norway

Capital

name: Longyearbyen

geographic coordinates: 78 13 N, 15 38 E

time difference: UTC+1 (6 hours ahead of Washington, DC, during Standard Time)

daylight saving time: +1hr, begins last Sunday in March; ends last Sunday in October

etymology: the name in Norwegian means Longyear Town; the site was established by and named after John LONGYEAR, whose Arctic Coal Company began mining operations there in 1906

Independence

none (territory of Norway)

Legal system

the laws of Norway where applicable apply; only the laws of Norway made explicitly applicable to Svalbard have effect there; the Svalbard Act and the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act, and certain regulations, apply only to Svalbard; the Spitsbergen Treaty and the Svalbard Treaty grant certain rights to citizens and corporations of signatory nations; as of June 2017, 45 nations had ratified the Svalbard Treaty

Citizenship

see Norway

Executive branch

chief of state: King HARALD V of Norway (since 17 January 1991); Heir Apparent Crown Prince Haakon MAGNUS (son of the king, born 20 July 1973)

head of government: Governor Kjerstin ASKHOLT (since 1 October 2015); Assistant Governor Berit SAGFOSSEN (since 1 April 2016)

elections/appointments: none; the monarchy is hereditary; governor and assistant governor responsible to the Polar Department of the Ministry of Justice

Legislative branch

description: unicameral Longyearbyen Community Council (15 seats; members directly elected by majority vote to serve 4-year-terms); note - the Council acts very much like a Norwegian municipality, responsible for infrastructure and utilities, including power, land-use and community planning, education, and child welfare; however, healthcare services are provided by the state

elections: last held on 7 October 2019 (next to be held in October 2023)

election results: seats by party - Conservatives 5, Labor Party 5, Liberals 3, Green Party 2

Judicial branch

highest courts: none; note - Svalbard is subordinate to Norway's Nord-Troms District Court and Halogaland Court of Appeal, both located in Tromso

Political parties and leaders

Svalbard Conservative Party [Kjetil FIGENSCHOU]
Svalbard Green Party [Helga Bardsdatter KRISTIANSEN, Espen Klungseth ROTEVATN]
Svalbard Labor Party [Elise STROMSENG]
Svalbard Liberal Party [Erik BERGER]

Flag description

the flag of Norway is used

National anthem

note: as a territory of Norway, "Ja, vi elsker dette landet" is official (see Norway)

Economy

Economic overview

Coal mining, tourism, and international research are Svalbard's major industries. Coal mining has historically been the dominant economic activity, and the Spitzbergen Treaty of 9 February 1920 gives the 45 countries that so far have ratified the treaty equal rights to exploit mineral deposits, subject to Norwegian regulation. Although US, UK, Dutch, and Swedish coal companies have mined in the past, the only companies still engaging in this are Norwegian and Russian. Low coal prices have forced the Norwegian coal company, Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani, to close one of its two mines and to considerably reduce the activity of the other. Since the 1990s, the tourism and hospitality industry has grown rapidly, and Svalbard now receives 60,000 visitors annually.

The settlements on Svalbard were established as company towns, and at their height in the 1950s, the Norwegian state-owned coal company supported nearly 1,000 jobs. Today, only about 300 people work in the mining industry.

Goods such as alcohol, tobacco, and vehicles, normally highly taxed on mainland Norway, are considerably cheaper in Svalbard in an effort by the Norwegian Government to entice more people to live on the Arctic archipelago. By law, Norway collects only enough taxes to pay for the needs of the local government; none of tax proceeds go to the central government.

Budget

revenues: NA

expenditures: NA

Exchange rates

Norwegian kroner (NOK) per US dollar -

8.308 (2017 est.)

8.0646 (2016 est.)

8.0646 (2015)

8.0646 (2014 est.)

6.3021 (2013 est.)

Communications

Telecommunication systems

general assessment: modern, well-developed (2018)

domestic: the Svalbard Satellite Station - connected to the mainland via the Svalbard Undersea Cable System - is the only Arctic ground station that can see low-altitude, polar-orbiting satellites; it provides ground services to more satellites than any other facility in the world (2018)

international: country code - 47-790; the Svalbard Undersea Cable System is a twin communications cable that connects Svalbard to mainland Norway; the system is the sole telecommunications link to the archipelago (2019)

note: the COVID-19 outbreak is negatively impacting telecommunications production and supply chains globally; consumer spending on telecom devices and services has also slowed due to the pandemic's effect on economies worldwide; overall progress towards improvements in all facets of the telecom industry - mobile, fixed-line, broadband, submarine cable and satellite - has moderated

Broadcast media

the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) began direct TV transmission to Svalbard via satellite in 1984; Longyearbyen households have access to 3 NRK radio and 2 TV stations

Transportation

Airports - with paved runways

total: 1 (2019)

2,438 to 3,047 m: 1

Airports - with unpaved runways

total: 3 (2013)

under 914 m: 3 (2013)

Heliports

1 (2013)

Ports and terminals

major seaport(s): Barentsburg, Longyearbyen, Ny-Alesund, Pyramiden

Military and Security

Military and security forces

no regular military forces; military installations prohibited by treaty

Military - note

Svalbard is a territory of Norway, demilitarized by treaty on 9 February 1920; Norwegian military activity is limited to fisheries surveillance by the Norwegian Coast Guard

Transnational Issues

Disputes - international

despite recent discussions, Russia and Norway dispute their maritime limits in the Barents Sea and Russia's fishing rights beyond Svalbard's territorial limits within the Svalbard Treaty zone