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Svalbard Islands

Svalbard is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Situated north of mainland Europe, it is about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. The group of islands range from 74° to 81° north latitude, and from 10° to 35° east longitude. The largest island is Spitsbergen, followed by Nordaustlandet and Edgeøya.

Administratively, the archipelago is not part of any Norwegian county, but rather forms an unincorporated area administered by a state-appointed governor. Since 2002, Svalbard’s main settlement, Longyearbyen, has had an elected local government, somewhat similar to mainland municipalities. Other settlements include the Russian mining community of Barentsburg, the research station of Ny-Ålesund, and the mining outpost of Sveagruva. Svalbard is the northernmost place in the world with a permanent population, outside of the occasional research station, such as Alert, Nunavut, the northernmost of them all.

The islands were first taken into use as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, after which they were abandoned. Coal mining started at the beginning of the 20th century, and several permanent communities were established. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 recognizes Norwegian sovereignty, and the 1925 Svalbard Act made Svalbard a full part of the Kingdom of Norway. They also established Svalbard as a free economic zone and a demilitarized zone. The Norwegian Store Norske and the Russian Arktikugol remain the only mining companies in place. Research and tourism have become important supplementary industries, with the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault playing critical roles. No roads connect the settlements; instead snowmobiles, aircraft and boats serve inter-community transport. Svalbard Airport, Longyear serves as the main gateway.

The archipelago features an Arctic climate, although with significantly higher temperatures than other areas at the same latitude. The flora take advantage of the long period of midnight sun to compensate for the polar night. Svalbard is a breeding ground for many seabirds, and also features polar bears, reindeer, the arctic fox, and certain marine mammals. Seven national parks and twenty-three nature reserves cover two-thirds of the archipelago, protecting the largely untouched, yet fragile, natural environment. Approximately 60% of the archipelago is covered with glaciers, and the islands feature many mountains and fjords.