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Australians take up life in town where polar bears outnumber people

Ellen Whinnett, May 14, 2018 8:28AM News Corp Australia

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Polar bear warning sign and city distances outside Longyearbyen airport. Picture: Ella Pellegrini media_cameraPolar bear warning sign and city distances outside Longyearbyen airport. Picture: Ella Pellegrini


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Welcome to Longyearbyen, Svalbard, where there are more polar bears than people.

The island of Svalbard is just 1000km from the North Pole, which makes Longyearbyen the most northern town in the world. In winter, when it is dark day and night for four months, temperatures can fall to minus* 30C and for four months over summer it is light all night.

a reindeer in Svalbard. Pic Ella Pellegrini media_cameraA reindeer on Svalbard. Picture: Ella Pellegrini

It’s a beautiful place to look at and many tourists* visit. Cruise ships visit in summer and there is an airport with flights from Norway and Russia when weather allows. People come to try dog-sledding, snowmobile riding and try to see a polar bear, arctic fox and reindeer. In winter they also come to see the Northern Lights — also called aurora borealis — which is an amazing natural display caused by the way sunlight hits the earth around the North Pole.

But such a remote* and harsh environment means life can be challenging*.

For starters, Svalbard’s 2600 residents don’t lock their doors. That way, you have somewhere to run if one of the 3000 polar bears come after you.

Longyearbyen in Svalbard seen from the top of the hill. PIc Ella Pellegrini media_cameraLongyearbyen, the town on Svalbard. Picture: Ella Pellegrini

You can’t be born in Longyearbyen because it’s too far to hospital if something goes wrong.

You can’t die from old age there, because elderly* residents must go to aged care homes on mainland Norway.

And if you do die there, you can’t be buried as your body would freeze. To be buried your body must be taken elsewhere.

The 2600 residents — including 260 children at the grade 1-7 school — come from 51 different countries. That’s because the government encourages anyone to live there as long as they have a job. There are no unemployment* payments if you can’t find a job and most of the houses are owned by the employers*, so you need a job to get a house.

It was once a base for whale and seal hunters and coal miners, but now many people work in tourism*. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is also near Longyearbyen. It’s a safe storage place for samples of millions of the world’s plant seeds in case of disaster.

Longyearbyen church in SValbard. Pic Ella Pellegrini media_cameraLongyearbyen church in Svalbard. Picture: Ella Pellegrini

The island is part of Norway and it’s about as far from Australia as you can possibly go and still stay on earth. Incredibly, locals think there are about seven Australians living there, including wildlife cameraman Jason Roberts.

Mr Roberts, who is 49, is from the little country town of Hexham, in western Victoria. He is an expert on filming polar bears and sometimes spends up to six weeks camping on the ice filming to get maybe only three minutes of film.

Polar bear media_cameraPolar bear on Svalbard. Picture: supplied

He has been working with Sir David Attenborough for 30 years on programs such as Blue Planet.

“It’s very specialised* filmmaking,” he said.

He has had a few scary moments with polar bears.

“Thirty years dancing with polar bears, you get the occasional hiccup*,’’ is all he will say.

“Most of the time we are not a target species* and they’re making a mistake.’’

It’s much easier to film a polar bear in a zoo than out in the wild. It’s also fun to see how much it loves snow and ice!



minus: below zero

tourists: people on holiday

remote: a long way away

challenging: difficult

elderly: old

unemployment: without a job

employers: businesses and government groups providing jobs

tourism: holiday travel

specialised: expert, concentrates on that thing

hiccup: jerky breathing-in sounds your throat makes sometimes, also spelled hiccough

species: a group of the same sort of animal; humans are one species



1. What’s in Longyearbyen?

Longyearbyen is a bit different to most towns because of its very cold weather and the fact that it has parts of the year where it doesn’t get dark or doesn’t get light for months on end. There are also only 2600 people who live on Svalbard so they don’t have all of the facilities you might find in a larger town. The article tells us some of things we will and won’t find there and we can use our common sense to predict what other things we would or would not find in Longyearbyen. Make two lists, one of things you would expect to see there and one of things you wouldn’t see.

Extension: Use your list of things you expect to find in Longyearbyen to help you draw a map of how you think the town might be laid out.

Time: Allow 15 minutes

Curriculum links: English, Geography, Mathematics

2. Postcards from Longyearbyen

Create a postcard that a tourist visiting Longyearbyen might send to a friend. On one side of your postcard draw a picture of one of the tourist attractions and on the opposite side a note to your friend with some details about your visit to the town.

Extra resources: Postcard-sized pieces of card and drawing materials

Extension: Research more about the Northern Lights and write a more detailed explanation of how this phenomenon occurs.

Time: Allow 25 minutes

Curriculum links: English, Science


After reading the article, with a partner, highlight all the openers you can find in blue.

Discuss if they are powerful and varied openers or not. Why do you think the journalists has used a mix of simple and power openers? Would you change any, and why?


Please do not use one-word answers. Explain what you enjoyed or found interesting about the article. Use lots of adjectives.

Extra Reading in geography