Midway between Norway and the North Pole, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, is a chain of islands called Svalbard. With a population of just under 3,000, the islands are the northernmost locale in the world to have permanent residents — though nearly as many polar bears live there as humans.
A sign warning of polar bears outside of Longyearbyen, the administrative center of Svalbard, Norway. | (AP Photo/John McConnico)
Originally used as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, Svalbard (an ancient Icelandic word meaning cold coast or cold edge) became a coal-mining hub in the 20th century. But with the coal industry in a steady decline, Svalbard and its residents have been forced to find new ways to keep the economy afloat. Their best options: scientific research and winter tourism.
While the sub-zero temperatures and total darkness (lasting 110 straight days of the year) won't charm conventional tourists, there is plenty to woo certain adventure-seekers, including skiing, access to wildlife, and views of the northern lights. "We're advertising the exotic side of being in the dark," Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen told Reuters. And it appears their efforts have had some marginal success. Last year, 60,000 tourists visited the islands, up from 41,000 in 2008.
If nothing else, a trip to Svalbard promises stunning, untampered vistas and an abundance of solitude. Below, check out the closest thing to uncharted territory you might ever see.
Mt. Breinosa in the distance, on the island of Spitsbergen, in Svalbard. | (REUTERS/Anna Filipova)
The northernmost non-military post office in the world, in the Kings Bay research station in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard. | (REUTERS/Anna Filipova)
Dogs, some that are family pets and others that are used for sledding, wait in their yard outside the settlement in Longyerbyean, Svalbard. | (REUTERS/Anna Filipova)
An old locomotive train that was used for transporting coal is preserved as a monument at Ny-Alesund. | (REUTERS/Anna Filipova)
Radar antennas at the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association facility at the base of Mt. Breinosa. | (REUTERS/Anna Filipova)
A sculpted bust of Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen at the scientific base of Ny Alesund. | (REUTERS/Anna Filipova)
Dinghies and research vessels in the small harbor near Ny-Alesund on Spitsbergen. | (REUTERS/Anna Filipova)
Workers housing in Longyerbyean. | (REUTERS/Anna Filipova)