Polar Night in Svalbard : The Dark Season
I really got a glimpse of just how vast and desolate this place was when I saw it from the sky! It was the most breathtaking view I had ever seen from a plane window! I really felt worlds away, and looking down at it left me feeling awestruck. From the air, I really had the sense that I was in another universe, and felt the closeness of the North Pole at my fingertips (even though it was still far away!). Vast expanses of white mountainous landscapes against the dark ocean water, covered in snow. Pure white, and nothing else to see at all: a pristine wilderness that we must protect! The sun was right below the horizon, so up in the skies we had beautiful shades of blues and pinks to complement the views! Utterly speechless, by far the most surreal place I’ve seen from above!
A Few Facts About The Svalbard Archipelago
Svalbard is made up of a few islands, the largest being Spitsbergen – also where the town of Longyearbyen is located, and where you will fly into. Spitsbergen means “Wild Mountain” and the name is quite fitting.
Over 60% of the land is covered in ice, and only 10% is vegetation. It is also considered an arctic desert due to its low humidity factor. Arctic flowers do grow for a very short period during the summer, and it is forbidden to pick them.
The only way around Svalbard is either by boat in the short summer months, or by snowmobile in the winter. There are simply no roads in between places; it is a true wilderness.
Longyearbyen was founded by an American – John Munro Longyear – in the early 1900’s. Longyearbyen means Longyear City in Norwegian.
Svalbard Reindeer and Arctic foxes are the only land mammals in the area. Walruses, seals, whales and many sea birds live off the ocean waters, along with the polar bears. The arctic tern, a sea bird, travels 70,000 kms every year from the Antarctic to the Arctic regions of Svalbard, and back! Every year, 6 million birds migrate to Svalbard to breed.
Longyearbyen is the northernmost year-round populated town in the world, and also has the northernmost, well, pretty much everything… Postoffice, ATM, supermarket, brewery, university, museum, etc
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (doomsday vault) is found on Spitsbergen. It contains preserved seeds from all over the wold in case of an apocalyptic event or major crisis. No-one is allowed to enter, so it’s closed to the public, but I believe you can visit the exterior through tour agencies.
Svalbard is some 1000km away from the North Pole; situated about half way to the mainland of Norway. Although it is technically “owned” by Norway, Norwegian nor European immigration laws do not apply as they have their own treaties. There are two Russian settlements: Pyramiden and Barentsburg with only a few inhabitants during some months and are considered “ghost towns”. I unfortunately didn’t get to visit either of them during my time there, but I hear they are fabulous sites to see.
Fun fact: Cats are forbidden on Svalbard. It would apparently cause and imbalance in the natural fauna. Rumor has it, though, that there is one cat living in Barentsburg (a Russian settlement), and that he is registered as an arctic fox…
Fun fact: No one is allowed to be born or die on Svalbard. Pregnant and sick/old people need to move back to the mainland of Norway. I’m sure unexpected incidents do happen, but I don’t know what happens in those cases.
With just over 2,000 residents, this is definitely a sleepy town to visit! During polar night, it definitely felt that way too!
Coal mining was the big industry in Svalbard over the last 100 years or so, and with only one working mine left since the end of the mining industry in 2017: mine number 7, everything else is abandoned. What you’ll find now is a small village of international cultures, literally from every corner of the planet! I was actually quite surprised that this would be the case; I never expected to have such a diverse population so far away from anywhere else on the planet!
Tourism is their main industry and economy nowadays, with tour operators offering polar bear expeditions and boat tours in the summer, and fun northern lights snowmobile tours in the winter. Polar bears are the # 1 attraction for people to visit this land of the north, although there are very strict rules in place to do so since the bears are protected species by law. No hunting, luring, following, feeding or interrupting them of any kind is tolerated. They are to be admired from a distance!
The Main Street in Longyerbyen is lined with a few shops, restaurants and stores. The main supermarket, post office, and little shopping mall are all found in one spot! The town can literally be walked through within an hour or so! At the post office, you can buy postcards and some souvenirs, but the coolest thing was the postage stamp itself!
Being there during the dark season definitely posed it’s challenges. I felt sleepy ALL. THE. TIME. I mean, I shouldn’t, because I’m Canadian and we have our share of dark and cold winters… but this was another level! At the beginning of February, the light slowly starts to come back to the sky from 3 months of deep darkness, offering shades of dark blue with grey intermixed. At least there was some sign of the sun below the horizons, when the sky would lighten up a little bit more with each passing day… but not having the sun rise at all was messing with me.I felt like I never knew what time it was, and I always felt ready for bed. It takes true effort to want to wander around in the darkness!
A couple things to note:
It is compulsory to wear reflectors when wandering by foot during the dark season! Yes, you read that right! I saw people at all times of the day (because it was dark all the time) wearing reflector vests, and sadly I never thought in a million years to bring mine! Runners, skiers, bikers (yes, people bike in the snow!), school kids… all wore some type of reflectors to make themselves visible for oncoming cars! I asked some locals about it and they said it was strongly encouraged, and during the darkest months – December and January – it was compulsory! Don’t sweat it if you don’t have any though, most shops sell them (at a fairly reasonable price considering everything there is MEGA expensive.), and they also make good souvenirs as well: wrist bands, zipper ties, etc. I grabbed a few of those to bring home! Not many places you can find a polar bear reflector bracelet!!
Speaking of polar bears: this is not called the land of the polar bears for nothing. They outnumber people on this land by almost 2:1! They can literally be found around any corner… and are quite difficult to spot in the winter since it’s pitch black out! Longyearbyen is considered a “safe zone” for polar bears. They don’t like noise – or people for that matter (with good reason) – so they tend to shy away from “populated” areas. If one does come close to town, the local enforcements are pretty up on it and close down the area leading to where they were spotted, and they keep a close watch.
Speaking of roads, there are only 3 ways in/out of Longyearbyen. Since it’s situated in a valley, the one road that leads up it ends at the foot of the moraine of Longyear glacier. The other leads to the airport, and the other direction leads to the one mine still operating today: Mine 7. Needless to say, renting a car isn’t necessary.
To mark the limits of the “safe zone” of Longyearbyen, they have the famous polar bear sings! Very popular in pictures depicting Svalbard, and very cool to have a selfie with (I’m not big on selfies, but this was a must!). These mark the limits of town, which means that anywhere beyond those points, one must legally have polar bear protection A.K.A a riffle and a flare gun. No, the intention is not to shoot a bear – they are a protected species and if that does happen, a huge investigation goes on – it’s mainly used as a scare tactic to shoo them away if you are surprised by one if they come too close. They have protocols to follow, as it’s the way of life out there, and it’a always the last last last resort to have to shoot a bear – something no-one wants to do! The local people have such an amazing awareness that they are in polar bear territory, and there is a sense of such respect around the whole topic as well! It’s quite awesome to see – I personally wish all nations had such grace, respect and humility when it came to wildlife!
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any as they were mostly out at sea. Polar bears follow the flow of the pack sea ice as seals are their main prey – so they tend to come closer to land as the sea ice retreats and melts. This has obviously become a huge problem in the Arctic, as the sea ice is melting faster than the natural world can adapt – something we must all be conscience of and strive to help! It’s a sad reality!
Due to the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act and cultural heritage law, any traces or artifacts of human activity dating back to 1945 or earlier is considered protected elements, and cannot be touched or moved. It actually gives an eerie feeling to the place, as all of it has been abandoned and are mostly physical artifacts from the mining days. Even though these abandoned elements are constantly battered by the harsh environment that is Svalbard and the Arctic, nothing seems to be out of place or damaged. It looks as if it was all abandoned yesterday.
About Polar Night
As previously described in my Winter in Northern Norway post, polar night is a phenomenon that happens in the polar regions of the planet during the winter months. Because of the axis of the earth, the polar regions are either deprived of sunlight for 3-4 months in winter, or have 3-4 months of constant daylight in summer! In Svalbard, due to its close proximity to the North Pole and it being wayyyy above the arctic circle (the arctic circle is at 66° North, Svalbard sits at 78° North, and the North Pole at 90°), the contrast between seasons is very drastic! From October to March, the land is in total darkness without ever even seeing the sun! Alternatively, in the summer – from April to September – the sun never sets below the horizon!
Needless to say, the non-existent daylight during the winter months – or dark season – messes with your internal clock!
Where To Stay
Guesthouse 102 is known to be one of the budget accommodations in Longyearbyen. Situated up the valley near the end of the road, it is about 3km away from the town centre. Walking into town is a breeze since it’s on a slight decline, but walking back… ugh! I think I swore the whole way! Normally, a 3 km walk would be easy peasy, but add in the incline “up” the valley, a very strong and cold arctic wind in your face, and ice beneath your feet, and it’s a nice cocktail! I literally felt like I wasn’t moving sometimes due to the wind. It was not fun lol. I do suggest bringing crampons or ice cleats for walking around, as they help immensely to avoid slips and falls!
Otherwise, it’s a great quiet location (I mean, Longyearbyen is a sleepy and quiet town anyway…), and good for backpackers, solo traveler, and those on a budget. Svalbard is very pricey, even more so than mainland Norway (which was insanely pricey!), so savings are always welcomed!
They offer a variety of different accommodation options, from dorm rooms to single rooms to doubles. The bathrooms are shared however, so keep that in mind if that’s something that would bother you. Breakfast was simple but good enough to start you day! There is also a kitchen available to guests, so that’s always a plus to be able to make your own meals. They have cozy lounge areas throughout the 2 floors, and the front desk staff is welcoming and helpful.
I stayed there 2 nights, and didn’t have any complaints, aside from the wifi being spotty in the rooms. It’s definitely a good budget option!
Mary-Ann’s was such a cute and cozy place to stay at! Adjacent to town, with a walkway leading right into the center, it was the perfect location to be near everything. The views were also great by the water, a short walk to the main road.
They have a variety of different rooms to offer, and have very unique lounge areas with artifacts from the mining days, and newspapers framed on the walls from important events on Svalbard. The structure used to be mining cabins back in the mining days, which was then left abandoned. The idea to turn it into a quirky hotel/guesthouse came to mind and made it what it is today. There is a ton of history in the building, and so much effort has gone into creating (and keeping) that feeling as well.
There is also a very unique restaurant, The Winter Garden, with glass walls 3/4 of the way around, offering spectacular views of the mountains surrounding the valley. It’s also an indoor garden, with plants everywhere! The food is a “the arctic meets the orient” combination, and was just excellent!! Of course, I was limited due to the fact that I’m vegetarian, but for those who love to try new things – not a problem!
I absolutely loved staying here! The breakfast was plentiful, with everything from eggs to waffles to breads, jams and a bunch of other stuff! They have an outdoor hot tub and sauna, and offer spa treatments upon request!
I most definitely will be returning to this enchanted homey space the next time I visit Svalbard!
What To Do
My first activity on Svalbard was an ice cave tour by snowcat with Hurtigruten Svalbard. They pick you up from your accommodation and take you up onto Longyear glacier. It about a 30-40 minutes ride up, and then you suddenly come to a halt in the middle of nowhere. Longyearbyen can be seen in the distance below, and everything else is a shade of dark blue and grey.
Suddenly, the guide points to a small opening in the ice and leads us over to it! Hands us over our helmets and ice cleats to put on, and then we descended one by one into the glacier on a tiny ladder.
The images below speak for themselves. The ice caves are constantly changing due to the movie glacier. It is however, a slow moving glacier, so these ice caves aren’t as “dangerous” as the ones you may see in Iceland where the glaciers are moving so quickly. The ice in that we were surrounded by was about 1000-1200 years old, and hard as rock. In some places, it looked like transparent marble, and it has difference shades of blues and greys. It’s pitch black down there as no light gets through (and even if it did, it was the dark season anyway), so head torches were necessary. The passages are very narrow, and only one person at a time can go through. Some spots, we needed to crouch down onto our knees to get through the opening… so if you’re claustrophobic, maybe reconsider this activity. This cave can apparently be visited in the summer months as well, as the temps don’t get high enough to actually melt the ice caves. Either way, it’s dark inside so it makes no difference aside from light coming through the opening at the top.
My next adventure took me on a northern lights snowmobile tour with XArctic. The tour was about 5 hours total, where our small group of 6 people took off in a line on our individual snowmobiles and sped off into another valley! It was complete darkness, but the white snow still reflected some light and it was absolutely beautiful to see! Most of the way, we drove at about 60km/h… exposed to the cold and wind. They provide all the gear you need to be warm… full snowsuits and winter gear, yet the cold still finds ways to permeate through. Oddly enough, the back of my head got really cold for some reason which caused a headache in the end. Luckily, it went away once the tour ended, but it definitely wasn’t comfortable in the least bit.
Our stopping point was at “the frozen waterfall”… where we stopped to check it out, have some hot drinks, and try to see the northern lights. We did manage to catch some faint auroras during out stop, and them again on the way back. These are the only images I managed to capture though.
All in all , it was a fun adventure, and it would have been even better had there been more light to properly see things lol. I’ll join again next time! 🙂
My last activity was another northern lights tour, but this time it was by bus with Arctic Tapas . The winter tour consists of northern light hunting, and they take you to the end of the road where you stop and see if the auroras can be seen! Unfortunately, it was cloudy the night I went, and the lights were very faint, so I didn’t get any images! However, I can vouch for them and say that they are very professional and offer great insights and story telling for those who want to listen. The bus is also very comfortable, and they do other tours that include more sightseeing in the summer along with some tapas and drinks!
The above mentioned companies also all have summer tours and “in-between seasons” tours as well, so do check them out! They were all fantastic and very accommodating! Some of the tours I am very excited to partake in during my next visit! Also, as in my other Northern Norway post, the company I did tours with in Tromso called Arctic Expeditions also offers boat tours and expeditions in the summer time as well! They are absolutely fantastic!
Would I Go Back?
Absolutely! In a heartbeat!
However, I will be returning when the daylight is present! I want to see the contrast between both seasons, and I need more light to see and photograph the land better! I also would love to see polar bears! The 24 hours of darkness was a little harsh, although most locals prefer the polar night to the midnight sun! I know, I was surprised to hear that too! One local even told me his favorite month was February and that he found the summer months depressing! Odd thing to be depressed about, but ok! 🙂
As mentioned above, the “dark season” lasts from October to March, and then quickly turns into the opposite: the midnight sun! By mid April, the sun doesn’t set, and by July, it is overhead constantly for 2 months – what people in more “normal” latitudes would call “high-noon”, where the sun just hovers straight overhead!
Here are some other images of the beauty that is Svalbard!
Needless to say, Svalbard is a true wilderness to be cherished! With the climate issues we now face and the effects more drastically felt in the polar regions, it is truly heartbreaking that it may be ill-fated! Nevertheless, it is breathtaking and worth a visit while it’s still possible! It’s also an awakening to see it with your own eyes – to know how fragile this whole wilderness is and how much every other life and balance on the planet depends on it – it is important to see it and understand it through your own personal experience!
So, if you can, GO! Go see it for yourself; experience that humble, magical and beautiful part of the planet, and share it with the world! I’m a firm believer that when we experience things firsthand, we have a better understanding of it and a deeper desire and passion to help it survive and thrive!
That’s it for now folks, stay tuned for more goodies soon! Thanks for stopping by! 🙂
Light & Love,