Svalbard Demilitarized

Svalbard Demilitarized

On this day in 1920, the Spitsbergen Treaty was signed, demilitarising the arctic archipelago of Svalbard and recognising Norwegian sovereignty over the region.

Historically, Svalbard was a nation-free territory, with people from many different countries, including the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway, participating in fishing, whaling, mining, and tourism. The nations cooperated on resource extraction for some time, but eventually continual conflicts created the need for a government. Thus, on 9 February 1920, during the Versailles negotiations following WWI, the Spitsbergen Treaty was signed in Paris. The treaty recognised Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard, which became a part of the Kingdom of Norway. It also initiated taxation, environment controls, and military restrictions (though not full demilitarisation) of Svalbard. There were fourteen signatories to the treaty, which gave each signatory rights to engage in commercial activities on Svalbard and its islands.

Svalbard lies in the northernmost reaches of Norway, an icy arctic archipelago, of which Spitsbergen is the largest island. More than half the archipelago–some 60 percent–is a glacier and its islands are studded with picturesque mountains and fjords, making it a popular tourism spot. The islands off Svalbard were used as a whaling base in the 1800s and 1900s, after which coal mining took over as a primary economic activity. Today Norway and Russia conduct coal mining on the islands off Svalbard.

As an Arctic territory, Svalbard experiences extremes in daylight: midnight sun in the summer and polar night in the winter. As such, flora found on Svalbard has evolved to take full advantage of the long midnight sun (which lasts 99 to 141 days, depending on the latitude) to bank up energy to make it through the polar night (84 to 128 days). The archipelago is known as a breeding grounds for many seabirds, as well as polar bears, reindeer, and marine mammals. Two-thirds of Svalbard is covered by seven national parks and 23 nature reserves, protecting the fragile environment.

Photo Credit: Ralph Lee Hopkins
Photo Caption: Svalbard is teeming with wildlife such as polar bears, reindeer, migratory birds, and marine animals such as whales and walruses.