Staggering photos show what life is like in the world's northernmost town, where it's dark 4 months of the year and you're likely to run into a polar bear

Shutterstock.comLongyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway.
  • The world’s northernmost town is Longyearbyen, which is located in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard and has 2,100 citizens.
  • Longyearbyen is around 650 miles from the North Pole, making it the nearest town to it.
  • It’s dark for four months a year and light for another four months. There are also more polar bears than there are people.
  • Despite its remoteness, Longyearbyen has all the amenities of a modern town, including a school, a church, restaurants, and a cinema.
  • It is also the home of the famous doomsday seed vault, which stores every known crop on the planet.

Look at the World Atlas list of the world’s northernmost settlements and you’ll see that many at the very top of the list are located in Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole.

The first settlement on the list with a population worthy of being described as a town, though, is Longyearbyen, which hosts around 2,100 people who have access to a school, a church, restaurants, and a cinema.

Life in Longyearbyen, despite its amenities, is unlike anywhere else on Earth.

For starters, it’s dark four months a year and perpetually light for another four months. Secondly, it’s suggested residents carry a rifle when travelling outside the town borders – in case they run into a polar bear.

Like many of the settlements in this part of the world, Longyearbyen was established as a mining town, though mining operations have since been phased out of the area.

Now, the town is a place of scientific research and adventure tourism – it is the home of the famous doomsday seed vault, which stores every known crop on the planet.

Scroll down to see what everyday life is like in this extreme neighbourhood.

Warning: This article contains images that some may find disturbing.

Welcome to Longyearbyen — the nearest town to the North Pole.

Longyearbyen is located in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, which is three hours away from Oslo by plane and about 650 miles from the North Pole.

Google Earth/Tech Insider

Source: Financial Times.

While there are a couple of tiny settlements further in the north, Longyearbyen is the first of any significant size. The town has a population of around 2,100 residents.

Source: Visit Svalbard.

After its discovery by Dutch explorer Willem Barents in 1596, Svalbard became a base from which to hunt and fish the large fauna that inhabited the archipelago.

English, Danish, Dutch, and French companies fought over the hunting grounds, which were rich in walrus and bowhead whales. It’s estimated that the Dutch alone killed 60,000 whales.

Kit Kovacs / Norwegian Polar InstituteA bowhead whale.

Source: Lonely Planet.

At the turn of the 20th century, Longyearbyen was established as a coal mining town, though mining operations have since been phased out of the area.

In its place, Longyearbyen has become a destination for adventurous tourists who come to navigate ice caves…

… Drive snowmobiles (these are university students taking a training course)…

Ethan Welty / Getty Images

… Go kayaking…

Adrian Wojcik / EyeEm / Getty Images

… And use as a base for North Pole expeditions, which Prince Harry did in 2011.

David Cheskin / WPA Pool / Getty Images

The prince joined the Walking With The Wounded team — four of whom were injured in Afghanistan — for four days to raise money for the charity that helps injured veterans in their career transition from military to civilian life.

David Cheskin / WPA Pool / Getty Images

Sources: BBC, Walking With The Wounded.

Longyearbyen is also home to a number of researchers who work at the doomsday seed vault, which stores every known crop on the planet.

Read more:
The doomsday vault that’s supposed to store every known crop on the planet is in danger

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault delves 400 feet inside a mountain near the town and is home to over one million different seeds. It also looks like it would make a spectacular lair for a Bond villain.

The rooftop and part of the facade of the building are a work of art with a light installation by Dyveke Sanne, since all public buildings in Norway are required by law to have art.

Source: The Crop Trust.

The vault has seeds from more than 60 institutions and almost every country in the world, collected from over 1,500 global gene banks that store samples of seeds from crops native to a region.

Source: The Crop Trust.

Buried in permafrost, the vault is supposed to stay frozen for at least 200 years — even if the electricity fails.

However, due to rapidly rising temperatures in the Arctic, the vault already requires expensive upgrades to protect it from melting permafrost.

This tunnel became “like a glacier” when the meltwater froze, according to The Guardian.

Source: The Guardian.

Read more:
The doomsday seed vault built to store every known crop on the planet is in danger – but it may get a $US13 million upgrade

There are five doors with coded locks that anyone looking to get into the vault has to pass through.

The Crop Trust says that polar bears provide an extra “layer of security” to the vault.

Sources: The Crop Trust, BBC.

There are said to be more than 3,000 polar bears inhabiting the archipelago, which is more than there are humans.

Jokes aside, meandering polar bears pose a very real threat to the population of Longyearbyen. While the bears mainly live north of Longyearbyen on the pack ice, they can occasionally venture into town in search of food.

Earlier this year, a polar bear was killed after it attacked a cruise ship guard. In 2011, a 17-year-old pupil from Eton College in the UK was also tragically killed by a starving and emaciated polar bear that approached a party from the British Schools Exploring Society (BSES).

Source: BBC,The Guardian.

Although polar bear encounters are still rare, residents and visitors are instructed to carry a firearm with them when travelling outside the town borders.

The Governor of Svalbard actually has a six-page report detailing the best weapons to ward off polar bears. This is a well-stocked gun store in Longyearbyen:

Arterra / UIG via Getty Images

Source: The Governor of Svalbard’s guidelines for firearms.

Residents also have natural disasters to beware of. In 2015, avalanches destroyed several apartment buildings and killed one person.

Source: The Guardian.

While there is a small graveyard (the northernmost one in the world), burials were banned in the 1950s after the deceased started to pop out of the ground due to melting permafrost.

Source: Financial Times.

The island also lacks the facilities to care for the seriously ill, or indeed pregnancies. If you’re nearing the end or about to give birth, you have to go back to the mainland. Put simply, Svalbard has no births and no deaths (almost).

Getty Images

Source: Financial Times.

Longyearbyen brands itself as a “tiny metropolis” as its 2,100 residents hail from almost 50 different countries.

As of 2014, around 120 Thai people inhabited Longyearbyen, making them the town’s second largest ethnic population after Norwegians. The town therefore has a Thai restaurant, a Thai supermarket and celebrates an annual festival showcasing Thai customs.

Smudge 9000 / Flickr

Source: Norwegian Air Shuttle.

Immigrants in Svalbard benefit from a unique treaty, which allows people to come to the archipelago without a visa or work permit.

Hans-Henrik Hartmann, then head of the legal unit at the Norwegian government’s immigration department, told Al Jazeera in 2006: “If an asylum seeker is refused residence in Norway he can settle in Svalbard so long as he can get there and is able to pay for himself.”


Source: Al Jazeera.

While living costs in Longyearbyen are unsurprisingly high due to its remote location, residents can benefit from the town’s institutions like the school, which serves around 230 pupils aged between six and 18. It is — also unsurprisingly — the northernmost school in the world.

Source: The Guardian.

Students at the school won’t just learn maths and literature: “They will learn how to behave in nature, how to behave with polar bears, how to survive in winter, how to find a safe place to camp or how to deal with avalanches,” a teacher told The Guardian in 2007. Not your average education.

Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Source: The Guardian.

Longyearbyen also has a university centre, which, you guessed it, is the northernmost tertiary school in the world. Its 300 students don’t have to pay any tuition fees and are offered courses in Arctic biology, Arctic geology, Arctic geophysics and Arctic technology. All students must learn how to use a firearm.

Sources: The University Centre in Svalbard, Visit Svalbard.

Svalbard Church in Longyearbyen is — would you believe it — the northernmost church in the world. It is open 24/7 and serves as a venue for concerts and other cultural activities. “With the majestic Arctic landscape as altar cloth, we meet with all kinds of people in all of life’s situations,” the church’s official description reads.

Getty Images

Source: Visit Svalbard

Aside from the Thai restaurant, residents of Longyearbyen can also pass time in the art gallery, cinema, or museum. There’s even a few pubs and a nightclub. Would you believe it’s the northermost nightclub in the world?

Chris Jackson / Getty Images

You can have a kickabout on the pack ice — just make sure to bring armed guards in case of polar bears.

You can also go for a gentle hike…

Tero Repo / Red Bull Content Pool

… Or catch some rays on the beach (the pair below are climate activists).


Every year, Longyearbyen celebrates the end of dark season with Sun Festival Week. The town gathers on the old hospital steps to celebrate the sun’s return. The saying goes that “the sun is declared back in Longyearbyen when its rays reach the steps.”

Chris Jackson / Getty Images

Source: Visit Svalbard.

That’s not to say dark season — where the sun doesn’t shine for four months straight — doesn’t have its perks. Longyearbyen is one of the best places in the world to witness the Northern Lights, AKA Aurora Borealis.

It was also one of the best places in the world to take in the “super blue blood moon” which occurred earlier this year.

Most people in Longyearbyen get around by snowmobile.

There are currently more snowmobiles than there are people to use them (2,137 as of 2017).

Getty Images

Source: Statistics Norway.

Some prefer more traditional methods of travel, though. The archipelago is home to more than 1,000 polar dogs, which are basically elite athletes — sometimes consecutively running over 100km per day for weeks at a time.

Source: Visit Svalbard.

You’ve got to get the groceries home somehow…

… But watch out for hungry reindeer, who can often be seen roaming around town.

Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

Think Longyearbyen might be the place for you? Visitors to the town can stay in the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel (the northernmost hotel in the world). Rooms start at 1,190 Norwegian Krone ($US139) a night…

Shutterstock.comRadisson Blu Polar Hotel.

Sources: Radisson Blu, Guinness World Records.

… Just keep an eye out for the local wildlife.

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