7 Svalbard Myths Debunked

The arctic island of Svalbard is home to many myths and legends. It’s certainly a strange island archipelago, but it’s a popular tourist destination nonetheless.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that there are lots of myths related to the island where you have a limit to the alcohol you can buy, where you are legally required to carry a gun if you step outside of the city limits, and where there are more ghost towns than inhabited towns.

Either way, we’re going to use this article to debunk some Svalbard myths once and for all! So keep reading to find out if your favorite Svalbard fun fact is in fact a Svalbard myth after all.

Homes on Svalbard
Homes in Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Photo by Peter Vermeij, published with permission.

Myth 1) It’s illegal to die on Svalbard

The myth that it’s allegedly illegal to die on Svalbard keeps popping up on Reddit, Facebook and other social media all the time, but it’s actually not true at all. You are legally allowed to die on Svalbard, and there are no laws or regulations preventing you from doing so.

The myth probably stems from the fact that there are next to no deaths on Svalbard due to the fact that all severely ill or injured patients are transported to mainland Norway for treatment. If the doctors on Svalbard believe that you have a risk of dying, they will send you to Tromsø hospital, so very few people actually die on the island.

That said, there are some deaths on Svalbard. For example, people die due to polar bear attacks or from natural causes every once in a while.

There’s also no active cemetery on Svalbard. The only cemetery there stopped accepted new bodies due to the permafrost preventing the bodies from decomposing. This has lead to people being transferred to mainland Norway or their home country for burial.

There are plans to make a new cemetery in the coming years, but it’s unknown if it will accept non-cremated bodies.

The cemetery on Svalbard. Photo by Ssu / CC BY-SA 4.0.
The cemetery on Svalbard. Photo by Ssu / CC BY-SA 4.0.

It’s also worth mentioning that there’s a similar myth that it’s illegal to give birth on Svalbard. Again, not true. It’s not illegal, but there are no midwives or doctors specialized in giving birth, so pregnant women are sent to mainland Norway a few weeks prior to their due date.

Myth 2) There are more polar bears than humans on Svalbard

A very common myth that you will hear multiple times if you’re ever on Svalbard is that there are more polar bears on the island archipelago than there are humans. After all, Svalbard only has a population of 2,700 inhabitants.

The myth probably stems from the fact that it’s often said that there are 3,000 polar bears on Svalbard. But this number is not enterily correct since it includes all the islands in the Barents Sea and the islands north and east of Svalbard (including parts of the North Pole ice sheets).

While Svalbard is the biggest island, only around 300 to 400 polar bears tend to occupy the island at a time, while the rest are on the ice sheets or closer to the other islands “nearby”. Most of these 3,000 polar bears are located on Russian-owned territories east of Svalbard.

Climate change has made it more difficult for the polar bears to migrate between these destinations, and it’s getting more and more likely that the 300 – 400 polar bears on Svalbard will be locked away there int he coming future as the ice sheets melt away.

This means that there are by far more humans on Svalbard than there are polar bears. And that is before we even begin to look at the number of tourists on the island (which are usually around 30,000 annually).

Polar bear
A polar bear. Photo published with permission.

Myth 3) Svalbard is technically lawless

For some weird reason, people seem to think that Svalbard is a lawless land. While Svalbard sovereignty is a bit tricky to explain, Norwegian law do apply for the most part. It’s just riddled with exceptions and additional regulations.

But Svalbard is in no way or form lawless. Anyone who are visiting Svalbard will need to adhere to regular Norwegian criminal records, so anything that’s illegal in Norway is illegal on Svalbard as well.

You will not get away with any crimes on Svalbard, and you could potentially end up in a Norwegian prison. There is no court or prison on Svalbard itself, but criminals are sent back to mainland Norway to face justice.

Norwegian flag
A Norwegian flag. Photo published with permission.

Myth 4) There is only a single cat on Svalbard

I often come across the funfact of “Kesha, the only living cat on Svalbard”. Cats are technically illegal on Svalbard, so they are very rare, but there are actually multiple cats living on the island.

As a matter of fact, the Russian town of Barentsburg has at least 3 known cats living in it. All these three spend most of their time indoor, so you won’t really meet any of them, but they’re still on Svalbard.

And when it comes to Kesha, this legendary cat that seemingly lived outside in Barentsburg has passed away. He was filled with myths and legends, and was supposedly smuggled on to Svalbard under the guise of being an arctic fox. I have not been able to confirm or deny this myth, so this part is not debunked.

But as for the “only 1 cat living on Svalbard” math, it’s clearly just a myth.

Norwegian forest cat.
Norwegian forest cat.

Myth 5) Svalbard is a frozen wasteland

Many people are under the impression that Svalbard is a frozen wasteland with neverending winter and ice covering the entire island archipelago. But that’s far from the truth.

While Svalbard is located in the far north, there are still summers with green grass and somewhat warm summer days. The snow melts away in the lowlands in late spring, but will stick around in the mountains until late summer.

But if you’re visiting Svalbard during the summer holiday, leave your skis at home, because it’s perfectly snow-free on the ground.

Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard
Ny-Ålesund on Svalbard. Photo by Patano / CC BY-SA 3.0.

Myth 6) Svalbard is the best place to see the northern lights

A common northern light myth is that you need to get as close as possible to the north pole to get the best view of the aurora borealis. But this is actually not true at all!

Due to the way the magnetic field above the earth works, the northern light tend to be both stronger and more common in Northern Norway compared to on Svalbard!

This means that it’s better to book a trip to Tromsø than to Longyearbyen if you’re after a spectacular aurora borealis show.

That said, the northern lights are still incredible on Svalbard, but not as incredible as it is further south in the northern part of mainland Norway.

It’s also worth mentioning that it’s a bit tricky to get a very good view at the northern lights on Svalbard since you cannot freely leave the city perimeters without a polar bear guard. This leaves most people to spectate the northern lights from inside Longyearbyen where there is a certain level of light pollution.

The aurora borealis.

Myth 7) There’s only a single city on Svalbard

Almost all of Svalbard’s population lives in the “capital” city called Longyearbyen. But there are more than just a single city on Svalbard!

The second biggest city on Svalbard is called Barentsburg, and it’s the main city of Russian and Ukrainian citizens living on Svalbard. This town has between 400 and 500 permanent inhabitants, and most of them are employed in the nearby coal mines.

Barentsburg on Svalbard
Barentsburg on Svalbard. Photo by Keith Ruffles / CC BY-SA 3.0.

You can visit Barentsburg if you’re visiting Svalbard, but it’s a bit of tension in the town right now due to the geopolitical situation between Russia and the western countries.

Anyway, there are also some small towns on Svalbard. These includes Ny-Ålesund (a Norwegian research station), Sveagruva (a defunct Norwegian mining town), Hornsund (a Polish research station), and the defunct Russian town called Grumant that is now entirely abandoned.

Sveagruva on Svalbard
Sveagruva on Svalbard. Photo by Vetle Nilsen Malmberg / CC BY-SA 3.0.

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