The Spitsbergen archipelago became Norwegian on the basis of the Spitsbergen Treaty only in 1920 (before: no mans land) - but with a special status, which guarantees equal rights to all citizens of the treaty countries, low taxation and the absence of miltiary bases. Official Norwegian name since 1925, including Bear Island: Svalbard.
Further geographical and practical information: Guide book "Spitsbergen - Svalbard, Jan Mayen, Franz Josef Land" by Andreas Umbreit, Bradt Travelguides (UK) and Globe Pequot (USA).
ca. 63000 km² between 74° and 81° N, distance from northernmost point Ross Island (Rossøya) to North Pole about 1000 km across the Arctic Ocean, and also about 1000 km southwards to the mass tourism at North Cape in mainland Norway.
Due to the extreme northern position (illustrations: see Location and Access), the sun does never set from April ca. 20th to August 20th (midnight sun, polar day), while it never rises between October 28th and February 16th (polar night). See also: Seasons & Climate.
60 % of the land mass is covered by ice and the soil is frozen deep down all year round (permafrost), except of a thin layer on top, which melts up during summers. Only 10 % of the land surface are covered by dense tundra vegetation, mainly in central Spitsbergen. Mostly mountainous and deeply indented by fjords. Wildlife: about 10,000 wild reindeers, 3000-5000 polar bears (joint population with neighbouring Russian Franz Josef Land), polar foxes, walrusses, seals, masses of birds in summer.
During summer, the snow melts away completely in the lower parts and the sensitive tundra vegetation has just a few months for growing and flowering (Neighbour Nature). Therefore, there are no longer dogsledge tours in summer (frequently asked), due to lack of snow, then.
Spitsbergen is mainly pathless arctic wilderness, and the few tiny isolated settlements and stations have no connecting roads or tracks. Of the ca. 2800 inhabitants on the archipelago, ca. 2100 live in the Norwegian "capital" Longyearbyen (northernmost settlement of the world with normal family life), which boasts also with the main airport, administration and an excellent infra structure. Main activities: mining, research, education, administration, tourism, small businesses. The Russian settlement Barentsburg (mining, some research) has about 400-500 inhabitants. Furthermore: Ny Ålesund as the biggest high arctic research base, a few stations (weather, radio) and trappers. Even around the settlements, pathless wilderness starts right behind the last houses.
Access first of all by scheduled flights (Location and Access) between Oslo/Tromsø and Longyearbyen. Within the archipelago, there are no roads, railways or tracks between the few settlements, and no general scheduled transport. In summer, there are some day cruises to the other settlements/stations in Isfjord - provided sufficient number of bookings.
In summer: hiking paddling and cruises. In winter/spring: skiing, sledging, hiking. No tracks outside the settlements, no generally accessible cabins, etc. Very strict environmental legislation, including a complete ban on touristic use of aircraft. Due to the lack of infrastructure, almost all tourism takes place via specialised tour operators who provide their own infrastructure for their guests. Tours to more remote areas require a special permission and an insurance covering search and rescue operations.
Tour arrangements: www.terrapolaris.com.