To be a community in the Arctic - Longyearbyen

Longyearbyen is the main town of Svalbard and Svalbarði's home base. With around 2000 residents, three quarters of the human population of Svalbard (we are fond of pointing out the polar bears outnumber the people) lives in this tight-knit community. The only other significant population centers are the smaller century-old Russian town of Barentsburg and the scientific research station of Ny Ålesund.

 

Students on a school outing look out over Longyearbyen from the top of Plateaufjellet mountain

 

Like a village, everyone in Longyearbyen seems to know everyone and wears multiple hats. A person might be a teacher at the local school, an accountant in their own private business, and a part time tourist guide all in one. Svalbarði partner Terje Aunevik for example is also the Managing Director of Pole Position Logistics (one of the largest logistics firms in the Arctic), the head of the local business association, and a member of the town council. And that's without getting into his busy family life and sport.

 

Svalbarði partner Terje Aunevik showing off his iceberg moving skills

 

This closeness is bred by the harshness of Arctic living. While everyone is required by law to be financially self-sufficient, people support each other in every way they can. Last week for example, one individual who had hurt himself posted an offer on Facebook to compensate anyone who could help him dig his car and snowmobile out after a blizzard. Within half an hour, 4 people had shown up and anonymously cleared it for him before disappearing. Beyond acts of service, the difficulty and high expense of bringing everyday goods to the Arctic also creates a vibrant resale and bartering market. Goods are recycled between friends, family, and newcomers sometimes over many years. Everything from kitchen utensils to polar bear protection equipment to snowmobiles finds a long life in Longyearbyen.

 

 

 Everything gets sold, given away or recycled so long as it still has a use

 

Perhaps the greatest challenge and example of community which Longyearbyen has experienced in many years came on December 19, 2015. After one of the strongest blizzards in 30 years, an avalanche struck. Multiple homes were destroyed and two people (a 2 year old child and a 42 year old adult) died in the disaster. Others were buried under the snow. The town mobilized immediately with people bringing their own shovels and hands to dig people out of the snow alongside the emergency services. Homes were opened up to house those who had lost their own. In the midst of tragedy, and in the middle of the months-long darkness of the polar night, people drew close together.

 

The 2015 avalanche turned lives upside down but also brought Longyearbyen closer together

 

Local Priest Leif Magne Helgesen captured this spirit at the one-year memorial service for the victims of the avalanche. After a traditional torch-lit procession to the site, he gave these words. "One year later we celebrate life. This is a commemoration of life. We celebrate all who were saved. Even though we lost two of our own, we did not lose love. Love lives on. Memories live on."