I am the border
“Mi Tular” in ancient Etruscan means “I am the limit.” In this strip of frozen land nestled in the Arctic Ocean, polar bears and men compete for an invisible line. The word “Tular” brings to mind the myth of Ultima Thule, the farthermost island of the known world.
The Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean archipelago is the northernmost permanently inhabited location on Earth.
Located between the 78th and 81st parallel north and between the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea, these islands, where winter temperatures fall to -35°C and the sun doesn’t rise between mid-November and the end of January, are mainly known for their majestic glaciers and for the presence of the creatures known as the true rulers of this land: polar bears.
The name “Svalbard” means “cold shores.” However, far from the image of arctic desert that fills the collective imagination, these islands are a sort of utopic reality. Here, 2,500 inhabitants of 43 nationalities live together.
A varied and multiethnic society is present on the archipelago thanks to the Treaty of Svalbard, signed February 4, 1920, by 14 countries: Norway (which claims a sort of “territorial supremacy,” sovereignty over the land even though Svalbard maintains a certain degree of autonomy and not all Norwegian laws are applicable), the United States, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Great Britain, India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Sweden.Today there are 43 countries, including North Korea, registered as parties. More specifically, the treaty established demilitarization of the archipelago and allows all parties to carry out commercial activities there. Article number 3 in particular establishes the full liberty to become a legitimate citizen without the need for a visa.
In a place where no one is born or dies, where you can’t be buried because of the permafrost and the dead are transferred to the mainland or taken to their native country, a community that is different from any other on Earth has been created. Miners, scientists, fire fighters and philosophers make ends meet by serving also as plumbers, school teachers and sled dog guides.
In this human outpost at the edge of the North Pole, two of the most unexpected endeavors that humans have ever thought up have found a home. In a place where it is difficult to imagine planting roots, there are two structures that hold the world’s memory.
By now famous around the world, the Global Seed Vault sits in Longyearbyen. It has been described by Josè Barroso, a Portuguese academic and politician, as a sort of “Garden of Eden in hibernation.” This building serves as a safety net against the accidental botanical loss of the “genetic heritage” of seeds. Today, the Global Seed Vault is at risk due to climate change. With the melting ice, the cooling system for the structure had to be increased.
In addition to the Global Seed Vault, another unique structure exists here. Housed in an abandoned mine, the Gruve 3, is the Arctic World Archive.
The innovative project created by the Norwegian company PIQL aims to preserve “all the memory of the world”. PIQL has created a film with a secret polymer formula made to last 500 years, but with the conditions of the arctic, the aim is that it can stay preserved for a millennium. Data, including films, writings, paintings, photographs and everything else that humans have produced, and which makes up our collective historical memory and identity are transferred onto the film. Among those transferring the data for this world archive include the ESA, the Vatican Library, the Alinari Archives and the Cineteca di Bologna.
The two most populous inhabited towns on the islands are Longyearbyen, with around 2,000 inhabitants, and Barentsburg, with a population of around 500 people – Russian and Ukrainian miners and their families.
Both towns have still-active coal mines.
There are also other small settlements, such as Pyramiden, an ex-coal mining town (like all others on the archipelago). Now a ghost town, it was founded in 1910 by Swedish miners, sold to the mining company Russkij Frumant and then to Arktikugol in 1930, who still owns it today even though Pyramiden sits on Norwegian land.
Between 6 and 11 people live in Pyramiden today. They guard the property and welcome tourists who typically stop just long enough to see the abandoned buildings. It is possible, however, to stay the night in Pyramiden, at the only hotel in the ghost town, where some of the residents actually live. Pyramiden is also unique for its location. The town faces the Nordenskiøldbreen glacier, where polar bears and seals can be seen at a few meters distance.
Lastly, there’s Ny-Ålesund (literally “New Ålesund”), a settlement located in the northwest of the island, home to mainly scientific researchers. The maximum number of people who live here is 200 in the summer, which drops to 30 in the winter. Kim Holmen, International Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, carries out most of her research here, along with the students of the University of Longyearbyen.
There are no roads between the inhabited towns. Barentsburg, Pyramiden and Ny-Ålesund can be reached in the summer by ship and in the winter with long trips on snowmobiles or by helicopter. Getting around the islands of Svalbard requires a series of precise regulations and precautions. Outside the communities, it is not possible to walk around without being armed. The safe area of Longyearbyen ends at about 200 meters past the last inhabited building.
Polar bears actually outnumber human residents on the island; therefore, it is necessary that they carry a firearm and a flare gun. Getting a gun on Svalbard is not difficult. In fact, a permit isn’t even necessary. If someone wanted to rent a gun, procedure requires that they file a request with the Governor’s office (Sysselmannen). Their criminal record must be checked, then in a gun renting store, they must take a course and pass an exam that proves they are capable of handling a firearm correctly.
Another unique aspect of the Svalbard Islands is that the sale of alcohol is rationed. Each citizen has a card that must be stamped every time they purchase liquor or beer. Only wine is not subject to limitations because, back when the first settlements were founded, wine was only available to the heads of the mining company due to its high cost.