National Geographic : 1978 Aug
square kilometers (24,000 square miles) is covered by glaciers or frozen as deep as 300 meters. Stretching to within 1,046 kilo meters (650 miles) of the North Pole, Sval bard is so far north that the northern lights reach into its southern sky. Yet these remote islands-for centuries too unimportant for any nation to claim now receive international attention. To the Soviet Union, they pose a potential security problem. To the rest of the oil-hungry world, they hold promise of easing the pro spective world energy shortage. Coal Mine Started by an American Ice encrusted my beard by the time I com pleted the half-mile walk from my quarters to the Store Norske office, but warm Nor wegian hospitality and scalding coffee were waiting. Henrik Varming, assistant manager of the mining complex, briefed me as I sipped. "An American-John Munro Longyear started a commercial coal mine here in Longyearbyen in 1906. The town, of course, is named for him." Peering out the window, I grimaced. With four months of darkness out there, I thought of this isolated community as the City of the Long Year. Varming continued. "Store Norske Spits bergen Kulkompani-the Great Norwegian Coal Company of Spitsbergen, in your lan guage-bought Longyear out in 1916. But now the government has become the owner. If a second mining area, Sveagruva, goes into production, Norwegian coal tonnage here will probably double." Varming grinned when I asked if this was a typical day. "There is no typical weather on Svalbard. Tomorrow may be warm, or raining, or even colder. A low-pressure sys tem usually hovers over Svalbard. When the system drifts to one side of the islands, north winds bring down polar air. When it moves to the other side, winds from the south send up warmer air." "What attracts miners here?" I asked. "High wages?" He shook his head. "The pay isn't much higher than on the mainland, but taxes are low. A miner can save enough in a few years to go back [coastal Troms0 lies 950 kilome ters south] and buy the house or farm of his The great white way of inland ice leads a dogsled toward Ny Alesund, one of the world's most northerly towns. Overland travelers use sleds and snowmobiles; no roads exist between cities. Once a coal mining town, Ny Alesund is now a Norwe gian base for Arctic research.