Aerial image of Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

Longyearbyen, Svalbard: Leading the Way

By Barbara Nielsen, Senior Director of Communications



05 Dec 2022

As Polar Bears International deepens its roots in Svalbard, Norway—where we conduct our polar bear Maternal Den Study every spring—several of our staff members recently took part in a four-day expedition organized by Hearts in the Ice, a climate-action organization founded by Sunniva Sorby and Hilde Falun Strom, the first two women to overwinter solo in Svalbard. 

Set against a backdrop of stunning fjords and glaciers, the gathering offered the chance to network and form partnerships with others committed to sustaining the sea ice that polar bears require.

The Polar Bears International team on a boat in Svalbard

Photo: Kt Miller / Polar Bears International

From greening Arctic cruises to a plan to switch to renewable energy, Longyearbyen is committed to becoming carbon neutral. Polar Bears International staff, shown here, spent a productive four days networking with others committed to climate action.

One of the most inspiring presentations was a panel discussion featuring representatives from Longyearbyen, Svalbard—the northernmost community of more than 1,000 people. Founded as a coal mining town in 1906, Longybearbyen has reinvented itself as a center for Arctic research and education, as well as a departure point for wilderness adventures and eco-cruises. The town of 2,600 is also committed to becoming carbon neutral and has set a goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2030.

”It’s impressive to see Longyearbyen positioning itself as a model for others to follow,” said Krista Wright, executive director of Polar Bears International. “Despite the challenges of its remote location, and the harsh conditions in winter, the town is taking an innovative approach to operating as sustainably as possible.”  

A fleet of electric delivery cars in Svalbard

Photo: Tore Hole Oksnes / Posten Norge AS

Despite the challenges of Arctic conditions and its remote location, Longyearbyen has launched an all-electric delivery fleet, providing a model for others to follow.

Changes already apparent in Longyearbyen include an all-electric postal fleet and cargo forklift system, challenging the belief that the town’s remoteness and the Arctic’s extreme cold would make this impractical. Longyearbyen has also invested in energy-efficient construction for houses and buildings; has a goal of greening departing cruise ships and limiting those ships to small vessels; and plans to switch to renewable energy within the next seven years, transitioning from highly polluting coal to diesel fuel by the fall of 2023 (which will cut its emissions by 50 percent) until the new renewable system is in place in 2030.

“Svalbard’s distribution system is 100 percent electric,” says Olaf Ervik of Bring Cargo Svalbard AS. “If it’s possible here, it should be possible in the rest of the world.”

Olaf Ervik of Bring Cargo Svalbard AS, in front of his fleet of electric delivery vehicles

Photo: Tore Hole Oksnes / Posten Norge AS

“If it’s possible here, it should be possible in the rest of the world.” - Olaf Ervik, Bring Cargo Svalbard AS

With Svalbard warming four times faster than the rest of the planet, the community is motivated to do its part to reduce emissions. Recent climate impacts in the town include avalanches and mudslides, buildings that are sinking due to thawing permafrost, and changing wildlife patterns—all threats to the way of life that make Longyearbyen so unique.

“When you are living in these conditions and seeing the changes around you, of course you think that you should have acted a long time ago,” says Deputy Mayor Stein-Ove Johannessen. “Even so, it’s important to do something now that will have an impact rather than doing nothing. And if we all are doing something, then we can limit global warming and improve conditions for all of us.”