(Nigel Richardson/Telegraph, 30 December 2009) -- In the autumn of 1921, a Norwegian trapper called Georg Nilsen went polar bear hunting on the island of Spitsbergen, high in the Arctic Circle. He promised he would be back for Christmas, but he was never seen alive again. The mystery of Nilsen's fate persisted until 1965 when his skeletal remains were found along with his rifle, which had a cartridge jammed in the chamber. Betrayed by mechanical malfunction, the hunter had become the hunted. Nilsen was killed and eaten by a polar bear. His jammed rifle now on display in Svalbard Museum on Spitsbergen is a powerful symbol of the hardship, danger and mystery of this forbidding place. I thought of Nilsen as I stood on Cape Linné, in the far west of the island, where a radio station was built in 1933 to link Spitsbergen with the world. ...
Like the Wild West, the Arctic North has attracted characters and deeds of mythic proportions. Spitsbergen is the main island of the archipelago of Svalbard, 24,000 square miles of rock and glacier lived on by 2,500 people and considerably more polar bears. For centuries Svalbard belonged to every nation and none. Dutch, Russians, Scandinavians and British all came here to kill whales and bears for blubber and fur, dig for coal, and prove themselves equal to some of the most arduous living conditions on earth. Since the Svalbard Treaty of 1920, the archipelago has officially belonged to Norway, but the 39 signatory nations including the likes of Afghanistan and Venezuela as well as the major industrialised countries have equal rights with Norway in terms of industrial, maritime and mining activities. And you can be sure that many have kept their finger in this particular frozen gateau.
In other words, Svalbard is still the Wild West and a new frenzy of claim and counter-claim is about to break over its snowy head. As global warming melts the polar ice cap, competing nations are searching for oil beneath it where an estimated quarter of the world's reserves are thought to lie and shipping lanes through it.
# - Amanda Graham - 31 December 2009; 9:20:33 AM -