Ny-Ålesund is on the island of Spitsbergen, part of the remote and largely untouched Svalbard archipelago, the Arctic Crown of Norway. Ny-Ålesund started as a coal-mining settlement, but now it is an international center for scientific research, where several countries run research stations to study climate change. In the heroic age of exploration, Ny-Ålesund was the starting point for several expeditions to the North Pole.
The Hurtigruten Experience
Seeing land again after being at sea for some time can be a profound experience. As we approach Ny-Ålesund, the first signs of civilization we see are satellite installations. White antennas on the dark mountainsides, modern technological breaks with the wild Arctic nature. Then we begin to make out the contours of houses, with nothing between this small town and the North Pole but pure, Arctic wilderness. Discovering this tiny town, in all its splendid isolation, is almost magical.
To get here, the Hurtigruten ship has sailed past Prins Karls Forland and west into the Kongsfjord. At 16 miles long, Konsfjord is the largest fjord on the northwest coast of Spitsbergen. The exquisite landscape varies from large tundra plains to alpine peaks with dramatic glaciers tumbling into the ocean.
On our journey so far we’ve seen seabirds migrating north, and maybe even foxes, reindeer, and seals. But Ny-Ålesund has among the richest fauna and flora of the entire Svalbard archipelago, containing a variety of birds, especially waders, and mammals including the Svalbard reindeer, the Arctic fox, and even the ‘King of the Arctic’, the polar bear, the symbol of Arctic wilderness.
We are drawn on deck to see the first signs of civilization. Many stand with their closed eyes to soak in the strong, warm sunshine, even in the Arctic spring. Others get a closer look at the natural wonders through binoculars.
The little settlement becomes clearer and clearer. Colors separate themselves out from the white mountainside beyond the glassy-smooth fjord before us. The picturesque, quaint houses are turquoise, red, yellow, and blue. The colors seem extra intense because of the absence of civilization and the great white wilderness that surrounds them.
Only 30 people spend the winter here, experiencing the relentlessly dark, polar night, when the sun is below the horizon 24 hours a day, and only 130 people live in the town in the summer, under the midnight sun, when the sun is above the horizon 24 hours a day. These evocative natural phenomena are only experienced within the Arctic Circle.
We set foot on land at 79° North. The Arctic spring is so warm that we can leave our hats and gloves in our cabins. Spitsbergen has an Arctic climate with significantly warmer temperatures than other areas at the same latitude. This is due to the North Atlantic Current, a powerful warm ocean current that flows northward from mainland Norway and up the west coast of Spitsbergen.
A few of the residents stand out on the dock to welcome the ship. They may even gather a small band to play for us. Hurtigruten is the first large ship that docks in Ny-Ålesund for the year.
As we disembark we notice a couple rumble past in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Others pass by on a kick sled or skis. You’ll notice that snowmobiles are parked by the small houses and skis are stacked in the snow. These are the prinicipal modes of transport in the far north.
The town, if you can call a 40–50 building settlement that, has only one main street, covered in snow, causing a shining whiteness in the early sunshine. You’ll see a small hotel on the right, and the world´s northernmost post office on the left: a small, turquoise house. Not far beyond, you’ll find the town´s biggest apartment building, a red structure with two stories. This is where explorer Roald Amundsen lived in 1925–26, preparing for his polar expeditions.
The Race to the North Pole
A large mast rises into the sky some hundred feet behind Amundsen's apartment building. This is where Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile took off for the North Pole with the Norge airship in May of 1926. The airship was designed and constructed by Nobile, an Italian engineer, who flew it here from Rome. The Norge airship left Ny-Ålesund on May 11, 1926, with great fanfare, and passed the Geographic North Pole at 02:20 the next day. They continued their journey to Teller, Alaska. This is regarded as the first successful expedition to the North Pole, and one of a series of air expeditions launched from Ny-Ålesund to go to the North Pole. This is why Ny-Ålesund is so tightly connected to North Pole and one of our greatest polar heroes. You’ll even find a status of Roald Amundsen here!
This story is told at the Telegraph station, now a museum documenting and celebrating the settlement's rugged history of coal mines and polar expeditions.
Coal Mines to International Research
In 1610 the English whaler Jonas Poole first found coal in the Kongsfjord, where Ny-Ålesund is situated. But it wasn't until the period between the world wards that coal was in demand again. In 1916, Norwegian fishermen and other coal-reliant investors started the Kings Bay Kull Company in Ny-Ålesund. These mountains have rich deposits of the fossil fuel, but the business was shut down after a major accident in 1962, when 21 people died.
When the coal-mining companies moved out, the scientists moved in. Now Ny- Ålesund is a international center for scientific research and home to permanent research stations run by agencies from 10 different countires. They study climate change, pollution in the atmosphere, and monitor the environment from this unique vantage point in the High North. The scientists live in the houses around us, and typically spend their days out in nature doing fieldwork. Kings Bay is now a government enterprise run by the Norwegian Ministry of Trade and Industry, and they run the entire settlement of Ny-Ålesund.
Two ATVs are loaded with scientific equipment as we pass. They are headed out to a glacier nearby, where research is being done to determine the thickness of the ice, warming and melting. The scientific discoveries made here are broadcast to the world, just as the news of expeditions were some 100 years ago.
Then we go up toward the mines. We see the white structures at the foot of the mountain, physical evidence of the coal mines that were once active here. And beyond them, mountains, glaciers, snow, wilderness, and another polar bear.
An international scientific community has come together to fully understand the threats that face this extraordinatry place and our world. We take a moment to look around us and think about the fragile, natural beauty found here, and how we should do everything we can to perserve this special place.
How can you see Ny-Ålesund? Travel to Spitbergen on one of these Hurtigruten’s voyages:
Grand Svalbard Circumnavigation
Spitsbergen and Polar Bears – An Arctic Adventure
Norwegian Fjords and Spitsbergen – An Arctic Adventure to the High North
Circumnavigating the Realm of the Polar Bears