The archipelago of Svalbard was discovered by the Dutch captain Willem Barentsz in 1596. Most parts of the area remain untouched wilderness, but over the past 500 years, Svalbard has played host to fishermen and hunters, mining companies and science expeditions. The Treaty on Svalbard was signed in Paris the 9th of February 1920, and since the 17th of July 1925 Svalbard has been part of The Kingdom of Norway.
As much as 60 percent of the landmass is covered in ice, and less than ten percent has any vegetation. The nature preserves of Svalbard today comprise around 65 percent of the total land mass of the archipelago, as well as around 85 percent of the territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles. Svalbard has 29 protected areas, and these are governed by the Svalbard Environment Law which was passed the 1st of July 2002.
The edge of Nyskjaeret in Svalbard, 2011 Photo: Max McClure
Svalbard is surrounded by a shallow sea-shelf. The annual average temperature in Longyearbyen is -4° C, but the climatic differences in the archipelago are greater. The highest measured temperature in Svalbard is 21.3° C, and the lowest is -46.3° C. Longyearbyen has the Midnight Sun from 20 April until 23 August, and the Polar Night from 26 October until 15 February.
Svalbard has one of the most varied and interesting geologies in Northern Europe. Most of these rocks were formed when the land that is now called Svalbard was thousands of miles away, millions of years ago and in different climate zones. For example, the Devonian rocks in Svalbard were formed somewhere in the tropical zones of the Earth about 410-360 million years ago. As with everywhere else on Earth, what can be seen at the surface today was once deeply buried below the surface. There is more information on the geology of Svalbard in the Handbook for Svalbard supplied by the Norwegian Polar Institute.
Nowhereisland is made from a small part of the land that makes present day Svalbard. Having already travelled thousands of miles over millions of years, the territory continues on a new kind of journey as part of a new nation. Tim Cresswell's text for Art Review draws connections between his observations of Svalbard's geology and human migration. Download the PDF here.
The Svalbard Treaty
The Svalbard Treaty, which was signed in Paris on 9 February 1920, granted Norway full and absolute sovereignty over Svalbard. The Treaty of Svalbard became effective on 14 August 1925, and according to the Act of 17 July 1925, Svalbard is part of the Kingdom of Norway.
At the same time, the Treaty also gives other countries extensive rights. Citizens from signatory countries to the Treaty have the same rights as Norwegian citizens to engage in industry, mining, fishing, hunting and other maritime and commercial activities. The Treaty stipulates that the taxes that are collected in Svalbard are to be used in the archipelago. Military activities are not permitted.
Svalbard has no indigenous population. It's so remote that even migrant Palaeo-Eskimos didn't venture this far. In 2009, Svalbard had a population of 2,753, of which 423 were Russian and Ukrainian, 10 were Polish and 322 were other non-Norwegians living in Norwegian settlements, but none of these are permanent settlers.
In her book The Magnetic North, Sara Wheeler writes, "Of all the Arctic landscapes I have seen, this one, without a permanent population, could claim to be the purest. Like the Antarctic, Svalbard was terra incognita*(or frigore inhabitabilis**, as it appears on pre-Renaissance maps). No people had invested this land with the spiritual meaning that confers a sense of ownership more powerfully than political foot stamping. Whalers, trappers, explorer, miners and scientists - they were visitors, like me. It was easy to feel at home in a place that was nobody's home."
The significance of Nowhereisland as "a nation heading south in search of a population" is heightened by the fact that anyone who has ever set foot on Svalbard has arrived from further south, and will return that way sooner or later. You can read more about what the 2011 Arctic expedition team found during their journeys in Svalbard in the Logbook for September 2011, including 'The Fence Furthest North' by Tim Cresswell on 20 September and the 'Story of Virgohamma' on 19 September.
Watch Alex Hartley's report on the history of exploration at Virgohamma.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault
The High Arctic is often represented as a culturally (as well as geographically) remote place from Western Europe. In contrast to the uninhabited, empty spaces in most visual representations of the Arctic, Svalbard is a working environment and perhaps more importantly represents the nexus of a global network of economic and political interests. Longyearbyen is the largest settlement on the archipelago, the seat of the Governor and the only town to be incorporated. The town features a hospital, primary and secondary school, university, sports centre with a swimming pool, library, culture centre, cinema, bus transport, hotels, a bank, and several museums. The newspaper Svalbardposten is published weekly and Icepeople is the local alternative newspaper.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault
There are few plants on Svalbard, due to its climate and heavy glaciation, and no arable land or native trees. However, it is home to The Svalbard Global Seed Vault housing copies of thousands of plant seeds held in other seed banks around the world. It provides insurance against global catastrophe which could destroy other supplies and includes crop varieties such as wheat, potatoes, rice and maize. It opened in 2008 and is based in a former mine. The permafrost conditions, high altitude and distance from any fault lines and potential earthquakes make it an ideal, cold, safe location. If in the future, agriculture needs to start over again, it is here that people might find the source material.
The Cold Rush
Terry McAllister recently wrote a series of three articles for The Guardian on the rush for the Arctic’s natural resources. "The Svalbard archipelago is already covered by an international treaty signed in 1920. But that does still not stop friends like Britain and Norway having disagreements over the way the treaty has been interpreted. Norway has been given sovereignty and responsibility for administering the fishing rights and safeguarding the environment. But it is also meant to give other signatories to the treaty – Russia, the US, China and the UK – equal rights to exploit Svalbard's natural resources four miles onto the continental shelf."
As the climate changes and there is less sea ice areas of the Arctic become more accessible for mining and drilling. But who has access mining rights over which parts of the Arctic? The answers often lie within definitions used in the United Nations Convention on Laws of the Sea, which define territorial waters, economic zones and so on. But conflicts arise over some of the definitions and extents of each country's continental shelf, the natural extension of land under the ocean, leading to competing claims by Russia, USA and other countries bordering the Arctic sea as to where exactly they have mining and drilling rights. For the Cold Rush, like Nowhereisland, definitions of nation, territory and geology are closely related.
You can read more about this in the Nation section, including the fixing of a Russian flag on the North Pole seabed 2007.
No visit to a new place is complete without gathering souvenirs. As Tania Kovats remarks in her Resident Thinker contribution: “Souvenirs are little pieces of elsewhere that we cling to and keep close when we go ‘home’. To remove something from its place of origin means bringing the properties of that original space away. Totems, mementoes, fetishes and artworks.”
The 2011 expedition team mapped the island, documented the whole process and gathered the material to make Nowhereisland. These could be thought of as oversized ‘souvenirs’, not only taking a piece of elsewhere ‘home’, but forming a new place, and taking this on a journey south.