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“Mi Tular” in ancient Etruscan means “I am the border.” 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 furthermost island of the known world.
The Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean 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 an 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 which was 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.
Where nature rules, humans find a new way to survive. Roles, identity, personal and collective history: they all take on new forms and contribute to making Svalbard one of the few places in the world today without lines dividing land or identity.
In this human outpost at the edge of the North Pole, two of the most unexpected endeavours that humans have ever thought of have found a home. In a place where it is difficult to imagine settling down, 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, there 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 thanks to 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 represents our collective historical memory and identity are transferred onto the film. Among those which transferred data into the world archive Fpolaare 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 consisting of 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 own 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 his 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 outnumber human residents on the island; therefore, they must carry a firearm and a flare gun. Getting a gun on Svalbard is not difficult. An applicant national permit isn’t even necessary. If someone wants to rent a gun, the procedure requires that they file a request with the Governor’s office (Sysselmannen). The criminal records must be checked, and then they must take a course in a gun renting store 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. Wine is the only beverage that 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.