From mid-May until the end of July, the Midnight Sun shines over the polar cap and Svalbard, the West Virginia–size archipelago that lies 800 kilometers (500 miles) directly north of Norway in the Arctic Ocean. An apt name, Svalbard means “cold edge.” But under the Gulf Stream’s moderating influence, packed sea ice melts in the summer, and visitors are captivated by the rugged landforms and wildlife of one of the remotest places on Earth. Every year, the journey varies as changing ice floes dictate where ships can freely and safely sail up to the edge of the polar ice cap.
Many Svalbard place names are derived from English, such as Nelsonøya, for Admiral Nelson who came as a young midshipman and surely marveled at the polar bears, sea lions and walruses lazing about on floes and the three million birds that congregate. Only 45 kilometers (28 miles) of road lace the islands that are dominated by glaciers and serrated peaks and below which an endemic species of reindeer survives on the summer tundra when it explodes with wildflowers. After centuries of whaling, the region’s economy ultimately turned its focus to mining (which continues to this day), and thankfully whale species such as beluga, humpback, orca and narwhal are on the rebound.