Svalbard, a Norwegian dependency, lies in the Arctic Ocean north of mainland Europe. It consists of a group of islands ranging from 74° to 81° North, and 10° to 34° East; it forms the northernmost part of Norway.
Vikings and/or Russians may have discovered Svalbard as early as the 12th century. Traditional Norse accounts exist of a land known as Svalbard - literally "cold edge". But the Dutchmanman Willem Barents made the first indisputable discovery of Svalbard in 1596. The islands served as an international whaling base in the 17th and 18thth centuries. They also provided the headquarters for many Arcticexploration expeditions.
By the terms of the Svalbard Treaty of February 9, 1920, international diplomacy recognized Norwegian sovereignty and designated the area as demilitarized. Norway took over administration of Svalbard in 1925. However, under the terms of this unique treaty, citizens of various other countries have rights to exploit mineral deposits and other natural resources "on a footing of absolute equality". As a result, a permanent Russian settlement, more or less autonomous, grew up at Barentsburg. The Russians abandoned another settlement at Pyramiden in 2000. At one time, the Russian (or Soviet) population of Svalbard considerably exceeded the Norwegian population, although this no longer applies.
An appointed Norwegian governor, the sysselmann, based in the town of Longyearbyen, administers the territory.
Svalbard consists of a group of islands in the Arctic Ocean; ranging from 74° to 81° North, and 10° to 34° East, it forms the northernmost part of Norway. The islands cover an area of 62,050 km². Three large islands dominate: Spitsbergen (39,000 km²), North East Land (14,600 km²) and Edge Island (5,000 km²).
Svalbard also serves as the breeding ground of the barnacle goose and a variety of other birds; best seen from cruise ships. Four mammal species inhabit the archipelago: the Svalbard field mouse Microtus epiroticus, the Arctic fox, the Svalbard reindeer (a distinct sub-species), and polar bears. Since polar bears occur very commonly on Svalbard, all people need to take precautions when outside the settlements: this includes carrying a rifle. Nevertheless, the law protects polar bears, forbidding anyone to harm or disturb them.