Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Beat the summer heat in the northernmost towns on Earth

A row of houses in Longyearbyen, Norway
A row of houses in Longyearbyen, Norway
Photo: Getty (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: List of northernmost Settlements

What it’s about: Superman. Santa Claus. Black metal bands. All the best people live up north. Way, way, way up north. Despite blistering cold and either depression-inducing endless nights or madness-inducing endless days, humans have proved their limitless adaptability by living at the very highest latitudes.

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Biggest controversy: America even stole land from native people 10º north of the Arctic Circle. In 1952, the Air Force built Thule Air Base in northwest Greenland. To do so, they forcibly relocated the local Inuit populations of Pituffik and Dundas, who were moved even farther north to Qaanaaq, a coastal town of about 650 people, which is the northernmost town in Greenland with a year-round population, and the second-northernmost in the world with a population of more than 500.

While Donald Trump famously tried and failed to buy Greenland from Denmark, the U.S. already has a presence there, as we also own Camp Century, a military research base around 150 miles inland from Thule. While defunct since 1967, it once had the northernmost nuclear reactor in the world.

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Strangest fact: The very northernmost settlement isn’t even on land. Camp Barneo, referred to here as a “Russian Ice Camp,” has a population of around 100 in the summertime and is empty the rest of the year. It’s at 88º-89º N (the North Pole is 90º), but the location changes somewhat every year because of the drifting Arctic sea ice. While Russia has sent people into the extreme cold of the far, far north either as punishment or for scientific study, Barneo is actually a tourist destination—famous visitors include Albert II, Prince of Monaco, and champion figure skater Miki Ando. So if you’re planning a vacation and hell is overbooked, consider a vacation spot in one of the most punishingly cold places on Earth!

Thing we were happiest to learn: True to their reputation, the Norse embrace the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. While there are research stations, military outposts, and tourist traps farther north, the northernmost regular town is Ny-Ålesund, on the island chain of Svalbard, located in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between Norway and the North Pole. Ny-Ålesund only has a population of around 35, but it’s large enough to boast the northernmost post office in the world.

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South of Ny-Ålesund on the same island is Longyearbyen, a town of over 2,300, which is the northernmost settlement with more than 1,000 people. (Yuryung-Khaya in Russia, Upernavik in Greenland, and Pond Inlet on Baffin Island in Canada each have 1,100 to 1,200 people and lie roughly 6º farther south than Longyearbyen). Longyearbyen is also home to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which aims to preserve biodiversity in the face of any one of our current globe-threatening crises.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Our Cold War elders would be horrified to learn we’ve fallen behind the Russians. You have to pass five Russian towns of over 1,000 people (plus one in Canada, one in Greenland, and Longyearbyen), before you get to Utqiagvik, on the northernmost tip of Alaska’s north coast. (The town was called Barrow during the 20th century, but in 2016, it reverted back to the Iñupiaq name that had been used since the town’s founding 1,500 years ago.)

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Also noteworthy: Only two actual cities lie north of the Arctic Circle, both of them in Russia. Norilsk (pop. 175,365) is due north of the direct center of the country, and Murmansk (307,257) is just off the northern coast of the Scandinavian peninsula, close to the border Russia shares with Norway. Norilsk was previously a mining complex (it sits near the largest known nickel-copper-palladium deposits in the world) and a center for gulag labor camps, and residents have to deal with acid rain and smog from the city’s nickel ore smelting, on top of an average temperature of -9.6ºF. (It can get up into the teens in the summer!) Murmansk, by comparison, is a bustling port city with museums, an aquarium, and a football (soccer) team in the Russian Second Division (at least, until it went bankrupt in 2014). And while the average yearly temperature is just barely above freezing, the water generally stays ice-free.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Let’s go back to Thule Air Base, built on land stolen from indigenous Greenlanders (by invitation from Greenland’s government in 1940, which hoped to enlist the United States to protect the island after Denmark fell to the Nazis). To this day, it remains a key part of NORAD’s missile warning system, and now hosts a detachment of SPACE! FORCE! (in less ridiculous times, the Air Force’s 23rd Space Operations Squadron, most of which is based in New Hampshire). Thule was also the site of a 1968 crash by a B-52 carrying four nuclear bombs. The bombs did not detonate, but the crash nevertheless caused radioactive contamination—the northernmost such contamination in the world. Yes, we’re as tired of the word “northernmost” as you are.

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Further down the Wormhole: The Mounties always get their man, even if their man is only 500 miles from the North Pole. Ellesmere Island (Nunavut’s northernmost island, separated from Greenland by a narrow strait), was once home to two outposts of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. While no longer mounted outside of ceremonial events, the RCMP have served as Canada’s federal law enforcement since 1920, and are seen in a heroic enough light that Marvel Comics’ Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight are considered in-story to be auxiliaries of the RCMP.

While Marvel is currently the jewel in the Disney empire’s crown, the company went through rough times financially, including multiple sales of the company in the late ’80s. One of the buyers was New World Pictures, Roger Corman’s exploitation film factory that launched countless acclaimed directors, and did everything from introduce American audiences to foreign film to helping legitimize the Fox network. We’ll look at Corman’s unlikely legacy as we celebrate the seventh anniversary of Wiki Wormhole next week.

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Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in early 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.

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