Longyearbyen and Svalbard Archipelago Preview


Longyearbyen is a great jumping-off point for experiencing the humbling power of the Arctic islands. Glaciers, mountains and primitive wildlife are the main attractions here. Be warned, though: Those polar bears look cuddly enough, but they are extremely dangerous and don't take kindly to gawking tourists.

-- TripAdvisor

If you have never heard of Longyearbyen or Svalbard, I would not blame you. I only got to know them by chance - at my previous job I worked on the Flight Management Systems (FMS) - essentially the navigators for the airplanes. On one particular project, we had customers that were flying in the extreme north latitudes in Canada and Norway so we had to make sure our system operated correctly there.

Svalbard is an archipelago quite a bit north of the mainland Norway and Longyerbyen is the town located on Sptisbergen island there. It holds the title of the north-most city on the planet, just 1333 kilometers/828 miles from the North Pole itself!

Svalbard Archipelago and Longyearbyen in relation to my European flight itinerary

True North vs Magnetic North

Because it is located so far north, the navigation equipment needs to operate in a different mode up there. Curiously, the Earth's Magnetic North is not a static point, but can shift as far as 40 miles a year. It is not a problem for most people as being thousands of miles away from there, 40 mile difference is just a drop in the bucket. But when navigational aids are located so close to the pole (less than a 1000 miles away!) these shifts could cause some major problems - trying to land 40 miles away from an airport is generally not a good idea!

So instead of using Magnetic North, pilots and avionics equipment need to determine position based on location of geographical or True North. I won't go into details of this, as it gets really nerdy really fast, let's just say that it took a room full of engineers and a few months of work to ensure things were running smoothly up there!

And that's how Svalbard got stuck in my head!


Longyearbyen is pretty small, with population of around 2000 people, and most of it can be seen on the panoramic camera broadcasting live at Borealis LiveCam. The site also stores images every 15 minutes so you can play with some cool timelapses as well as try to catch the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights from the comfort of your own home!

Longyearbyen today! Click to enlarge (courtesy of Borealis LiveCam)

Isn't that an awesome view?!

Quickly reading up on this place, it seems that there actually is quite a few things to do up there. Besides the amazing scenery and fjord cruises, the archipelago was originally developed to support mining operations so there are a few old mines one can tour, go snowmobiling or ride a dog sleigh, watch polar bears, whales, raiders and walruses in their natural habitat.

Longyearbyen Photos

Longyearbyen Photos

Longyearbyen Photos

Longyearbyen Photos

Longyearbyen Photos

Oh, and of course the famous polar nights with Northern Lights as well as polar days with light out the entire time.

Longyearbyen Photos

from Svalbard Blues

So What?

So why am posting about this at all? Pretty pictures and all is nice but I have not been there yet so you may wonder why I bother. And rightfully so!

During my round-the-world trip last year, I was hoping to try to get down to Ushuaia, Argentina to try to catch a cruise to Antarctica. But I ran out of time (and money) so that will have to happen another time.

However, while I was booking my  recent trip to Europe, I ended up tacking on a bunch of segments hopping around Norway. And that got me thinking. Wouldn't it be cool to try to visit a place that is so far north?

It was not easy to make that happen, but I did! And the more I read up on this place, the more glad I am for taking the time to make it work.

More on that tomorrow.

Edit: So I have just returned from my trip to Longyearbyen and it was simply amazing! Check out a series of posts I have written about it.