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Svalbard / Spitzbergen

Svalbard (sometimes referred to as Spitzbergen, the largest of the islands in the Svalbard Archipelago), sits well inside the Arctic Circle, just south of 80 degrees north latitude. First discovered by the Norwegians in the 12th century, the islands served as an international whaling base during the 17th and 18th centuries. The Spitsbergen Islands in the Svalbard Archipelago were placed under Norwegian protection by treaty on 9 February 1920; five years later it officially took over the territory. This northernmost part of the Kingdom of Norway consists of nine main islands. Svalbard was demilitarized by the treaty of 1920; Norwegian military activity is limited to fisheries surveillance by the Norwegian Coast Guard. 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.

Total area is about 25,000 square miles. The chief islands are West Spitsbergen or Mainland, North East Land (about half the former), Prince Charles Foreland, Edge Island, Barents Land, King Karl's Land, Hope Island, and Bear Island. The climate is essentially arctic, tempered by the Gulf Stream. Coal occurs in several formations and of various qualities, and coal mining is the major economic activity on Svalbard. Glaciers and snowfields cover 60% of the total area. The rugged mountains are capped with snow and glaciers, with only the river valleys and low elevations supporting vegetation. Braided, shallow rivers filled with glacial sediment occupy the valleys. The climate is 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.

It is claimed that in all probability the archipelago was discovered by Norwegians in 1194 and re-discovered by the Dutch navigator Barents in 1596. The English explorer Henry Hudson visited Spitsbergen in 1607. In the 17th century a very lucrative whale fishery was started and for some time there were Dutch, British, and Norwegian claims to sovereignty and quarrels about the fishing places. For over 400 years the islands have been frequented by sailors of various nationalties - in the 19th Century practically only Norwegians - engaged in the whale and seal fisheries, and hunters in search of fur-bearing animals. But when in the 19th century the whale-fishery ended, the question of the sovereignty of Spitsbergen lost its actuality.

Since the beginning of the 20th century Spitsbergen and Bear Island attracted much greater interest than before on account of the discovery of extensive coal resources. Coal occurs in several formations and of various qualities. In Bear Island coal of Devonian and Carboniferous age was found. The first kind had been mined since 1915 by a Norwegian Company. The shipping season lasts about six months. In Spitsbergen there occurs carboniferous, crotaceous, and tertiary coal. Only the last kind of coal is actually worked. There are two or three seams about 3 to 4 feet thick, each of which covers an area of at least 460 square miles with a contents of probably more than 2,000 million tons. The coal is of excellent quality. The coalfields belonged to British, Norwegian, Swedish, Russian, and Dutch companies. Shipping was only possible in three or four months of the year.

It was not until the begining of the 20th century that the question was again raised, owing to the discovery and exploitation of rich coalfields. It was settled by a Treaty, signed on 09 February 1921 at Paris, in which Norway's sovereignty over the Archipelago was recognised by the United State of America, the British Empire, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, Netherlands and Sweden. Claims to land by nationals ot the interested Powers were fully protected by the Treaty. The treaty gave the 41 signatories equal rights to exploit mineral deposits, subject to Norwegian regulation. However, of the forty, only Norway and the Soviet Union inhabited and explored the area, primarily for the purpose of mining coal. The coal production for the countries was nearly equal (450,000 tons monthly in the 1980s), despite the fact that there were at that time some 2,000 Soviet coal miners and only 1,000 Norwegian coal miners in the region. Although US, UK, Dutch, and Swedish coal companies had mined in the past, the only companies still mining are Norwegian and Russian. The settlements on Svalbard are essentially company towns. The Norwegian state-owned coal company employs nearly 60% of the Norwegian population on the island, runs many of the local services, and provides most of the local infrastructure. There is also some hunting of seal, reindeer, and fox.

The first flight over the Arctic occurred in 1897 when Swedish engineer Solomon Andree tried to pilot a hydrogen-filled balloon from Spitsbergen, Norway, to the North Pole. Andree lifted off on July 11 and reached almost 83° N latitude before his balloon went down and he disappeared. It was not until 1930 that another team of explorers discovered his remains. Although Andree's expedition failed, it did start others thinking about using balloons to explore the polar region.

The first serious attempt to use airplanes in the Arctic occurred in 1923 when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen -- who in 1911 had been the first person to reach the South Pole -- tried to fly from Wainwright, Alaska to Spitsbergen with fellow Norwegian Oscar Omdal. Unfortunately, Amundsen and Omdal's aircraft became damaged and they had to abandon their journey. US Navy Lieutenant Commander Richard Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett joined the ranks of those trying to reach the Pole via the skies. On May 9, 1926, the two men took off from Kings Bay in a trimotor Fokker aircraft and headed toward the top of the world. After 15 hours, 30 minutes (or 15 hours, 57 minutes, depending on the source), Byrd and Bennett returned to Spitsbergen and claimed to have circled the North Pole. Within the year, both men would receive the U.S. Medal of Honor. However, despite Byrd and Bennett's apparent triumph, controversy quickly marred their feat. Several people questioned whether they had even made the trip. Some aviators doubted that the men could have flown that far given the trip's short elapsed time.

Only a few days after Byrd and Bennett returned, Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth boarded the Italian dirigible Norge (meaning Norway) in Spitsbergen and headed for the Pole. On May 12 (or 13, depending on which side of the globe and international date line one is on), the Norge, piloted by Italian Umberto Nobile, crossed the Pole en route to Alaska. It enabled Amundsen to become the first person to have visited both the North and South Poles.

The strategic importance of the islands of the Spitsbergen Archipelago increased considerably after Germany began her war against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on June 22, 1941, because of their position on the Arctic Ocean route to Russia's northern ports. Before this date the islands, although not garrisoned by the enemy, served the Nazis as a shipping base, a source of coal, and a weather station.

A combined operation was successfully completed by a small task force of Canadian, British, and Norwegian troops in the islands of Norway's Spitsbergen Achipelago during August and September 1941. The purpose of the expedition was to destroy coal mines and stocks of free coal, transit facilities between mines and harbor installations, and wireless and meteorological stations; to repatriate all Russians to Archangel; and to evacuate all Norwegians to the United Kingdom. At 0100 on August 19 the force sailed for Spitsbergen on a transport that was escorted through the North Channel into the Atlantic Ocean by an aircraft carrier and three destroyers. The first landing was made at 0430 on August 25. About 0700 the large ships of the squadron steamed into Green Harbor and anchored near the Russian mining village of Barentsburg. A landing was made there at 1000, and it was obvious there would be no opposition, for the jetty was crowded with unarmed and curious civilians.

The primary value of the operation was that it destroyed the facilities of a potential air and naval base from which Germany could have attacked British and Amlerican shipping along the Arctic Ocean supply route to Russia's northern ports. The expedition also deprived the Germans of a source of coal and of a radio meteorological station which, through the Nazi-dominated radio station at Tromso, Norway, had furnished the German Air Force with valuable weather data for bombing raids against the British Isles.

In the period between 1944 and 1947, the «Svalbard-issue», where the Soviet Union aimed at a bilateral agreement with Norway, created some nervousness in the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. The 1920 treaty prohibited militarization of the archipelago, yet the Soviets established what some observers called a military colony at Barentsburg, complete with electric fences and security guards. Also, the Soviets based their civilian version of the Mi-8 Hip attack helicopter on the island. The Norwegians alleged that these helicopters were fitted with armament racks for future military use.

There continue to be conflicts between states over such unresolved issues as the dispute between Russia and Norway over the oil-rich continental shelf off the coast of Spitsbergen. The continental shelf extending from the land mass of Northern Europe to the north of Spitsbergen forms the seabed of the Barents Sea. Norway claimed that the ocean floor as an extension of her sovereign territory, which gave full economic rights to the entire shelf. The Soviets contended that the political boundary between the two countries should be defined as a "sector line" drawn from the North Pole to the mainland's Norwegian-Soviet border, dividing the seas appropriately. Norway wanted the region's political boundary determined by a "median line" drawn equidistant from sovereign lands. The difference in the area established by a sector line or a median line amounts to nearly 60,000 square miles of ocean, called the Disputed 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. Although coal mining is still an important economic activity on the frigid island, scientists have recently become as interested in what can be tucked away in the frozen mountains of Spitsbergen as what can be extracted from them. In late February 2008, Norway accepted the first deposit for a so-called "Doomsday" agricultural seed vault, drilled deep into the mountains overlooking the Svalbard Airport. Financed by Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault will safeguard seeds of human food crops from all over the world in case of natural or human-caused catastrophic events that could threaten the human food supply. Seeds can remain viable for decades (often hundreds of years) when stored at temperatures below freezing (-10 to -20 degrees Celsius). Periodically, caretakers remove a few seeds from the seed vault and plant them. Seeds from these plants are then returned to the seed vault to maintain the sample.

One issue that has hampered the development of oil and natural gas reserves in the northern Barents Sea area has been the lack of a defined maritime boundary between Norway and Russia. However, on June 5, 2009, Russian state-owned gas companyGazprom and Norwegian state-controlled oil company StatoilHydro signed a three-year Memorandum of Understanding to work together in exploring and developing their Arctic sea regions. According to a joint statement, the two companies will work together on development of the Shtokman field, some 345 miles from land in 1,148 feet of water. It holds estimated gas reserves of around 113 trillion cubic feet.

Svalbard (Spitzbergen) and Jan Mayen are two distinct dependencies of Norway, grouped according to the ISO-3166. Until 1994 Jan Mayen and Svalbard was governed by the Sysselmann (Governor) of Svalbard, which is the reason why they share an ISO-code. From August 1994 the administration of Jan Mayen was taken over by the Fylkesmann (County Governor) of Nordland. Jan Mayen has permanently staffed defence and meteorological stations. Jan Mayen is an integral part of the Kingdom of Norway, just like Svalbard.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:06:22 ZULU