Known as Longyear City until 1926, the town was established by and named after John Munro Longyear, whose Arctic Coal Company started coal mining operations in 1906. Operations were taken over by Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani in 1916, which still conducts mining. The town was almost completely destroyed by the German Kriegsmarine on 8 August 1943, but was rebuilt after the Second World War. Traditionally, Longyearbyen was a company town, but most mining operations have moved to Sveagruva since the 1990s, while the town has seen a large increase in tourism and research. This has seen the arrival of institutions such as the University Centre in Svalbard, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and Svalbard Satellite Station. The community is served by Svalbard Airport, Longyear and Svalbard Church.
In 1896, Vesteraalens Dampskibsselskab started tours to Hotellneset. To accommodate tourists, they built a prefabricated hotel, but it was not profitable and was closed after the 1897 season. However, two families overwintered in 1898–99 and Norway Post operated a post office at Hotellneset from 1897 to 1899. The first commercially viable coal on Svalbard was harvested by Søren Zakariassen in 1899. In 1901, Bergen-Spitsbergen Kullgrube-kompani started mining coal in Adventtoppen.
The American industrialist John Munroe Longyear visited Spitsbergen as a tourist in 1901, where he met with an expedition prospecting for coal. He returned to Spitsbergen 1903, where he met Henrik B. Næss in Adventfjorden, who gave him samples and information on coal fields. Along with his associate Frederick Ayer, Longyear bought the Norwegian claims on the west side of Adventfjorden, and expanded the claims significantly the following year. In 1906, the Boston-based Arctic Coal Company, with Ayer and Longyear as the main shareholders, started mining in Mine 1a, after having built docks and housing. The company had American administration, but mostly Norwegian labourers, and named the town Longyear City. Coal was transported the 1.2 kilometers (0.75 mi) from the mine to the port using an aerial tramway. In 1913, the company started preliminary work to open Mine 2a.
Following financial difficulties during the First World War, the mining operations were bought by Store Norske, which was incorporated in Oslo on 30 November 1916. That year, SNSK built five new barracks, including one that was made into a hospital. SNSK introduced its own money with approval from Norges Bank, consisting entirely of banknotes at par with Norwegian krone. The American community buried their dead at Hotellneset. In 1918, eleven people were killed by the Spanish flu and a graveyard was established in Longyear City. Two years later, 26 men were killed in a coal dust explosion in Mine 1. This resulted in the mine being closed and electric operation being taken into use in Mine 2. The same year, the first truck was delivered for use in the mining operations.
The Church of Norway appointed Thorleif Østenstad as Svalbard's first vicar and teacher in 1920. A school was established as a cooperation between the church and SNSK and had an inaugural eight pupils. The first Svalbard Church opened on 28 August 1921, and the church's reading room was from then used as a school. Longyear City was renamed Longyearbyen in 1926.
The Norwegian Telecommunications Administration established a coast radio station, Svalbard Radio, at Finneset in 1911, which was moved to Longyearbyen in 1930. The town's tourist industry started in 1935, when SS Lyngen started calling regularly during the summer season. In 1937, SNSK established Sverdrupbyen to house workers for Mine 1b and operation of the mine started in 1939. In 1938, Longyearbyen's first road was completed, between the town center and Sverdrupbyen. Operations at Mine 2b, a different entrance to Mine 2a, started in 1939.
Svalbard remained unaffected by the German occupation of Norway in 1940. However, from 1941 the archipelago became of strategic importance in the supply chain between the Allied powers, as well as a source of badly needed coal. The Norwegian government-in-exile rejected a Soviet–British occupation; instead the British Army started Operation Gauntlet to evacuate Spitsbergen. On 29 August 1941, the entire population of Ny-Ålesund was evacuated to Longyearbyen, and on 3 September 765 people were evacuated from Longyearbyen to Scotland. Later the last 150 men were also evacuated. With Longyearbyen depopulated, a small German garrison and air strip was established in Adventdalen, mostly to provide meteorological data. After the British Operation Fritham regained control of Barentsburg, the German forces left Longyearbyen without combat.
In September 1943, the Kriegsmarine dispatched two battleships, Tirpitz and Scharnhorst, and nine destroyers to bombard Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Grumant. Only four buildings in Longyearbyen survived: the hospital, the power station, an office building and a residential building, in addition to Sverdrupbyen. Longyearbyen remained unsettled until the end of the war, with the first ship from the mainland leaving on 27 June 1945.
Plans were laid during the war to ensure a quick reconstruction and commencing of mining. By 1948, coal production reached the pre-war level of 480,000 tonnes (470,000 long tons; 530,000 short tons) per year. Nybyen was established in 1946 and consisted of five barracks, each housing 72 people. The first issue of Svalbardposten was published in November 1948. Until then, there had irregularly been published various wall newspapers. In 1949, Longyearbyen received telephone service with the mainland via a radio connection between Svalbard Radio and Harstad. In 1949, a farm was built in Longyearbyen to hold cattle for milk, pigs and hens. A local radio station started broadcasting in 1950. The burial ground remained in use until 1950, seeing 44 people buried. However, it was discovered that the bodies were failing to decompose because of the permafrost. Bodies have since been sent to the mainland for burial. The community center Huset opened in 1951.
Mining in Mine 1b was terminated in 1958, but operation in Mine 5 started the following year. Preliminary work on Mine 4 started in 1954, and from 1960 it was used as a reserve mine. The Norwegian Air Force started serving Longyearbyen with postal flights in the 1950s. In 1959, a man fell seriously ill, so a landing strip was prepared in Adventdalen. From the same year, Braathens SAFE started serving the tundra airport with irregular winter flights. In 1957, a principal was hired at the primary school and a new church was opened on 24 August 1958. From 1961, the primary school was supplemented by a private middle school. A branch of Tromsø Sparebank opened in 1959.
In the 1960s, the town's farm was closed and replaced by industrial liquifying of powdered milk. The first serial-produced snowmobile was taken into use in 1961. By 1969, there were 140 registered snowmobiles and only 33 registered cars. From 1962 to 1984, a recreational centre was run at Sverdrupbyen. Ordinary operation in Mine 4 started in 1966 but was terminated by 1970, two years after Mine 2b closed. Operations in Mine 6 commenced in 1969. Television broadcasting equipment was installed in 1969, with the schedule of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation being aired with a two-week delay.
In 1971, a new school building, with a combined primary and lower secondary school, was opened, along with a new gymnasium and a 12.5-meter (41 ft) swimming pool. The Svalbard Council was established on 1 November 1971. It consisted of 17 non-partisan members that were elected or appointed in three different groups—SNSK employees, government employees and others, although the ratio changed several times. Operations of Mine 3 started in March 1971 and operations in Mine 7 commenced the following year. In 1973, the Ministry of Trade and Industry bought a third of SNSK. It continued buying additional shares until reaching a 99.94 percent ownership in 1976. The airport was opened in 1975 and initially provided four weekly services to mainland Norway and semi-weekly services to Russia. In 1978, the community received satellite communications with the mainland. The same year, an upper secondary program was introduced at the public school. From 1984, television programmes were broadcast live via satellite.
Store Norske underwent a gradual change during the 1980s. Since 1980, Spitsbergen money has been taken out of circulation and replaced with ordinary Norwegian currency. Mine 6 closed the following year. From 1982, SNSK permitted private individuals to own and operate cars. By 1990, there were 353 registered cars and 883 snowscooters. On 1 July 1983, SNSK moved its head office from Bergen to Longyearbyen. Svalbard Samfunnsdrift (SSD), a limited company that was responsible for public infrastructure and services, was established by SNSK on 1 January 1989. Responsibilities included healthcare, the fire brigade, the kindergarten, roads, rubbish disposal, power production, the water and sewer system, the cinema, cultural actives and the library. Ownership was taken over by the Ministry of Trade and Industry on 1 January 1993.
During the 1990s, the authorities started a process to "normalise" Longyearbyen by abolishing the company town scheme and introducing a full range of services, a varied economy and local democracy. Commercial enterprises included a shopping mall replacing SNSK's provision store in 1992. Similarly, Esso opened a commercial fuel station in 1994. The Svalbard Council changed its regulations from 1993 and allowed parties to run for election. In a step to increase tourism, Svalbard Polar Hotel opened in 1995, and a year later mining of Mine 3 terminated. Longyearbyen Community Council was established in 2002, replacing the Svalbard Council and assimilating SSD, and took on many of the responsibilities and the structure of a municipality.
This period also saw the rise of a number of scientific establishments. The Agricultural University of Norway had established a primitive seed bank in 1984. The University Centre in Svalbard opened on 6 September 1993 and had 30 students in its inaugural semester. Telenor Mobil established GSM coverage in 1995, and in 2004 the Svalbard Undersea Cable System opened, providing fiber optic cable connection to the mainland. The European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (EISCAT) opened a radar in 1996, followed by Svalbard Satellite Station in 1999 and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in 2008.
Longyearbyen, the largest settlement in Svalbard, is located in the lower portion of the Longyear Valley, along the Longyear River. The lower parts of the town lie along the southwestern shore of the bay of Adventfjorden, a 7-by-4-kilometer (4 1⁄2 by 2 1⁄2 mi) branch of Isfjorden. Longyearbyen is on the Nordenskiöld Land peninsula of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago. It is the world's northern-most town, with all settlements further north being research or meteorological outposts. Across the bay lie the ghost towns of Advent City and Hiorthhamn.
Longyearbyen is divided into several neighbourhoods. On the west side of the river, along the bay, lies the port and affiliated utility and industrial services. The western part of this area is called Bykaia and the eastern part Sjøområdet. Above lies Skjæringa, the site of the Governor's offices. Slightly up the valley on the west side lies Gamle Longyearbyen ("Old Longyearbyen") and the church. Even further up lies the graveyard, then Huset and the cinema, and finally Sverdrupbyen. Most of the residential, commercial and cultural institutions are located on the east side of the river. Along the bay the area is called Sjøskrenten. Further up lies the university centre and Gruvedalen, the largest residential area. Southwards from there is the main shopping area as well as the town hall. To the east is the residential area Lia and further up Haugen, which is also the location of the school. Furthest up in the valley is Mine 2b and Nybyen, which is mostly used as student housing. Westwards out of town towards Hotellneset is the airport and Mine 3. The remaining mines are located in Adventdalen, to the east of town.
Svalbard's climate is a combination of an Arctic climate (Köppen: ET) tempered by the North Atlantic Current. Nordenskiöld Land is the warmest and wettest part of the archipelago, caused by the convergence of mild and humid air from the south and cold air from the north. Average summer highs are typically 3 to 7 °C (37 to 45 °F) while average winter highs are −11 to −13 °C (12 to 9 °F). Longyearbyen experiences midnight sun from 19 April to 23 August, polar night from 27 October to 14 February and civil polar night from 14 November to 29 January. However, due to shading from mountains, the sun is not visible in Longyearbyen until around 8 March. Snow typically covers the town from November to March. The warmest temperature ever recorded in Longyearbyen was 21.3 °C (70.3 °F) in July 1979 and the coldest was −46.3 °C (−51.3 °F) in March 1986. Svalbard and Longyearbyen are among the places in the world that have warmed fastest in the latest decades. The average temperatures in the table below are based on 1961–90. In the more recent period 1981–2010, winter has warmed 3.4 °C (6.1 °F) and summer 1 °C (1.8 °F) compared to 1961–90.
As of 2015, Longyearbyen had a population of 2,144 people. The largest regional group of Norwegians are from Northern Norway, particularly Nordland and Troms, which make more than 40 percent of the population. Roughly 300 people (16 percent) are non-Norwegian citizens, with the largest nationalities being from Thailand, Sweden, Russia and Ukraine. Because of the dominance of the mining industry, the gender distribution is skewed with 60 percent of adults being males. Longyearbyen has an over-average share of its population between 25 and 44 years old, but nearly no residents over 66. The number of children in relation to the population is at the national average, but Longyearbyen has significantly fewer teenagers than the national average.
As of 2014 the Thais, numbering at 120, were the second largest group of residents after the Norwegians; there were 60 in 2006. Thais first came to Svalbard when men brought their wives from Thailand during the 1970s. A RT (Russia Today) article stated that a Thai emigré named Sompong Haug, who married a man and arrived in Svalbard in the 1980s, was "the founder of the Thai community" in Longyearbyen and "the unofficial president of the burgeoning Thai community." In 2006 most of the Thais worked as cleaners, and as of 2011 most stay for terms of two to three years to save funds. In 2007 10 students at the Longyearbyen School were Thai. The Thai community holds festivals each November, and the community has a Thai restaurant and a Thai supermarket.
Longyearbyen experiences a very high turnover; in 2008, 427 people (23 percent) moved away from the town. The average person lived in Longyearbyen for 6.3 years, although it is 6.6 years for Norwegians and 4.3 years for foreigners. In 2009, about a quarter of the population had lived in the town since before 2000, and can thus be regarded as permanent population. The longest residing people tend to work in the mining industry, followed by local government employees. The shortest tenures are held by students and employees in higher education, tourism and the state.
Seventy percent of households consist of a single person, compared to forty-one percent on the mainland, giving an average 1.6 people per household. The difference is largely caused by persons working on Svalbard while their family remains on the mainland. Longyearbyen's population is more highly educated than the national average: 54 compared to 43 percent have upper secondary education and 30 compared to 26 percent have tertiary education. Among women, 40 percent have higher education.
Longyearbyen Community Council has many of the same responsibilities of a municipality. It is organised with a 15-member council that since 2011 has been led by Mayor Christin Kristoffersen of the Labour Party. The council's main responsibilities are infrastructure and utilities, including power, land-use and community planning, education from kindergarten to upper secondary level and child welfare. It operates three kindergartens in addition to the 13-grade Longyearbyen School.
No care or nursing services and welfare payments are available. Norwegian residents retain pension and medical rights through their mainland municipalities. The University Hospital of North Norway operates a clinic, Longyearbyen Hospital. Other public offices with presence on Longyearbyen are the Norwegian Directorate of Mining, the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Norwegian Tax Administration and the Church of Norway. Longyearbyen is subordinate Nord-Troms District Court and Hålogaland Court of Appeal, both located in Tromsø.
The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 established full Norwegian sovereignty over the archipelago. The treaty came into effect in 1925, following the Svalbard Act that established the institution of the Governor of Svalbard. She or he holds the responsibility as both county governor and chief of police, as well as holding other authority granted from the executive branch. Duties include environmental policy, family law, law enforcement, search and rescue, tourism management, information services, contact with foreign settlements and judge in some areas of maritime inquiries and judicial examinations—albeit never in the same cases as acting as police. Kjerstin Askholt has been governor since 2015; she is assisted by a staff of 26 professionals. The institution is subordinate to the Ministry of Justice and the Police, but reports to other ministries in matters within their portfolio.
Because of the special treaty status of Svalbard, Longyearbyen is subject to Norwegian legislation, but citizens of any signatory country may conduct commercial activities and live in town. However, people without a source of income can be rejected by the governor. The treaty limits Norway's right to collect taxes to that of financing services on Svalbard. Therefore, Longyearbyen has a lower income tax than mainland Norway, and there is no value added tax. The treaty has resulted in Longyearbyen being a demilitarized zone and is not part of the European Economic Area nor the Schengen Area like the rest of Norway.
The community council runs a number of cultural activities, such as a cinema, a youth club, a library and a gallery. The town's sports club is Svalbard Turn. Svalbardhallen is an indoor sport centre that includes a multi-sport hall large enough for handball or three badminton courts, a shooting range and a 25-meter (82 ft) swimming pool. Svalbard Church of the Church of Norway has the entire archipelago as its parish. The congregational hall is 126 m2 (1,360 sq ft) while the sitting room is 112 m2 (1,210 sq ft). The church is built in half-timber. Svalbardposten is a weekly newspaper published on Friday. Printing takes place in Tromsø and the majority of subscribers live on the mainland. Icepeople, an alternative newspaper in English, is also published weekly. There are two museums in town, Svalbard Museum and the Spitsbergen Airship Museum. Dark Season Blues has been held annually in October since 2003.
The only mining still taking place in Longyearbyen is at Mine 7, located 15 kilometers (9 mi) up Adventdalen. It produces 70,000 tonnes (69,000 long tons; 77,000 short tons) of coal annually, of which 25,000 tonnes (25,000 long tons; 28,000 short tons) is used to fuel Longyear Power Station, Norway's only coal-fueled power station. Most of Store Norske's production is done at Sveagruva, located on Van Mijenfjorden, 60 kilometers (37 mi) south of Longyearbyen. No roads connect the communities; instead, workers live in dormitories in Svea. Seventy percent commute home to the mainland while thirty percent commute to Longyearbyen. Mining has not been profitable and Store Norske relies on state subsidies to retain production.
The University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) has 350 students and a permanent faculty of 40 professors and assistants and 120 guest lecturers. UNIS does not offer degrees, but instead offers semester courses in biology, physics and geology. Student housing is located at Nybyen. The college is part of the 12,000 m2 (130,000 sq ft) Svalbard Science Centre, which also features the Norwegian Polar Institute, EISCAT and Svalbard Science Forum. In 2006, about 9,000 research days were spent in Longyearbyen, most of which were by Norwegians. This made Longyearbyen the second-largest research outpost on Svalbard, marginally below Ny-Ålesund. In contrast, Longyearbyen has almost only Norwegian research, while Ny-Ålesund is roughly evenly split between Norwegian and foreign.
Svalbard Satellite Station was built because of Longyearbyen's excellent location to download data from satellites in polar orbit. Located at Platåberget above Hotellneset, it was built as a cooperation between NASA and the Norwegian Space Centre, but has since 2001 been operated by Kongsberg Satellite Services. EISCAT operates an incoherent scatter radar to study the northern lights. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, administered by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, is a secure underground facility capable of storing millions of crop seeds. The facility has been designed to protect against natural and human disasters, including global warming, floods and fires and nuclear holocaust. The site was chosen for a number of factors including its remoteness, sound geology and the ambient temperature of the permafrost.
Longyearbyen is the centre of tourism on the archipelago, although most tourism is generated based on natural experiences rather than visiting the town itself. However, Longyearbyen does provide supplies, accommodation and several museums. In 2008, Longyearbyen experienced 89,000 guest-nights, up from 30,000 in 1995. The average guest stayed 2.2 nights and 60 percent of the capacity was used by tourists. About 40,000 tourists flew into Longyearbyen. Two-thirds of the tourists come from Norway. In 2007, the tourism industry had a revenue of NOK 291 million and produced 200 man-years.
Longyearbyen School serves ages 6-18. It is the primary and secondary school in the northernmost location on Earth. Once pupils reach ages 16 or 17 most families move to mainland Norway. There is a non-degree offering tertiary educational institution in Longyearbyen, University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), the tertiary school in the northernmost location on Earth, co-located with the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Svalbard Museum, and the Svalbard Science Forum.
Longyearbyen has a road network stretching 50 kilometers (30 mi), but the network does not extend to any other communities. In 2008 there were 1,481 registered road vehicles and 49 percent of all households had a car. Cars are registered with ZN on the registration plates. There is a single workshop, Svalbard Auto, which is also a Toyota dealer.
Snowmobiles are a popular mode of transport and there are more snowmobiles than residents. In 2008 there were registered 2,672 snowmobiles and 69 percent of households owned at least one. Off-road motorized transport is prohibited on bare ground, but snowmobiles are used extensively during winter—both for commercial and recreational activities. Transport from Longyearbyen to Barentsburg (45 km or 28 mi) and Pyramiden (100 km or 62 mi) is possible by snowmobile by winter, or by ship all year round.
Svalbard Airport, Longyear is located at Hotellneset, 3 kilometers (1.9 mi) northwest of town. It has a 2,483-meter (8,146 ft) long runway and is the only airport that is permitted to serve aircraft from off the archipelago. Scandinavian Airlines operates daily flights to Oslo and Tromsø, while there are irregular flights to Russia. Lufttransport operates regular charter services to Svea Airport and Ny-Ålesund Airport, Hamnerabben. Arktikugol operates helicopters to Barentsburg and Pyramiden. There are two quays in Longyearbyen, one for export of coal and one for general goods. From 1907 to 1987, the mining companies operated a network of aerial tramways to transport coal from the mines to the port. In the years 1907/1908 the then worldwide leading German wire ropeways company Adolf Bleichert & Co. from Lipsia built a material cableway from mine 1 to the ship's loading station, which was later supplemented by a cableway to mine 2. The remains of these wire ropeways and later successors to other mines are still visible today.