The biggest little city in the Arctic

People | Longyearbyen is smaller than most populated places. But that doesn’t mean its mayor – or its people – don’t have big plans for their future

The mayor, and the kingdom she surveys (Photo: Grete R Haldorsen)

Elías Thórsson

Above the Arctic Circle, far from the European mainland, lies Norway’s northernmost point: the island chain of Svalbard, home to rugged terrain, polar bears and the extremes of never ending summer sun and all encompassing darkness in winter.

It is also home to around 2,600 people, some 80 percent of whom live in Longyearbyen, named after John Munro Longyear, a Michigan-born Arctic mining entrepreneur.

Given its location, you’d expect Longyearbyen to be nothing but a forsaken outpost. Instead, though, it is the town’s internationalised name that sets the tone for the outlook of the people living there.

“It is a very, very small urban metropolis,” Christin Kristoffersen, the mayor, says. “The last time we counted there were people from 44 different countries living here and there are plenty of cultural activities. I actually doubt you will find any other place of the same size that has as active a cultural life as we do. We have concert halls, three choirs, any number of sports activities and a culture centre.”

Ms Kristoffersen is originally from the mainland. Unlike other small towns, being from away isn’t an issue in Longyearbyen.

“Everyone here is from somewhere else. People come to live here temporarily and currently the annual turnover rate is 20 percent,” she says.

Such a large number of people moving away each year also means that there are few long-time residents in Longyearbyen. In fact, the average length of time people live there is six years. Ms Kristoffersen herself moved there in 2009.

That she’s stayed might have something to do with her ability to make herself at home in the town she calls “the jewel of Norway”. But even though she has fallen in love with Longyearbyen and its international population, she warns potential newcomers that it might not be for everyone.

“You need to want to be here,” she says. “You have to adopt the cold climate and adapt to the light. Some people find it harder to adjust to the intense daylight in the summer than the never-ending darkness in the wintertime.”

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Ms Kristoffersen admits that when she came to Longyearbyen, becoming mayor was not something she had ever considered. But after her predecessor called on her to run she decided to step down as head of the research department at the local university and enter politics.

It was then that she found out that just as living in a place like Longyearbyen takes special consideration, so too does running it.

“One very specific challenge we face up here is the distance to everything. This makes it very expensive to develop infrastructure, because of the need for specials skills and for the development of equipment,” she says.

Such hurdles, however, are not stopping Longyearbyen. It is building a 200 million kroner ($32 million) port facility, which will help it service the increasing shipping traffic in the region.

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And, Ms Kristoffersen, armed with the findings of a study looking into the town’s potential for growth, will soon head off on a promotional tour aimed at showing other countries what Longyearbyen has to offer.

“I want the town to become a driving force in the development in the high Arctic,” she explains. “When I first moved here I found a place that impressed me with the knowledge and the skills its people possess. But it also struck me that this was not something that was known outside of Svalbard, and I want to change that.”

And it is the skills that are to be found in the highly educated local population that Ms Kristoffersen is counting on when it comes to dealing with the challenges of the Arctic in a period of rapid global warming.

“We see that everyone looks at the Arctic as the last emerging market in fields like oil, minerals and fisheries, but we need to strike a balance between developing the resources and taking care of the environment. The best way to achieve that is to develop a knowledge-based economy, and that is one reason why I am so proud to be a part of such an innovative community.”

While many worry about the future of the Arctic and its peoples, Ms Kristoffersen remains upbeat.

“I think that the challenges we face are manageable; they will force us to evaluate the way we work and think, but I see more potential than problems. As long as we keep the peace, a constant dialogue and set common goals, then we are slowly walking forward to a very bright future.”

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

The Rasmussen’s People articles are interviews or profiles of the individuals who shape – and are shaped by – the region.

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