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Longyearbyen was founded by Mr. John Munro Longyear, who came up to this area with his family on a cruise ship in 1901. He was so enthusiastic about the possibility of coal mining in this area, that he bought land from a Norwegian company and in 1903 founded Longyear City. Walking around in town one still can see the construction of the cable cars that brought the coal from the mines into the harbor. Today only one mine is in use. Others are closed or used for other functions like, for example, for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This vault is located just one kilometer from the airport half way up on the slope in a former coal mine. The aim of the vault is to preserve seeds of food and agriculture plants from all over the world. At this stage, around 400,000 samples with 500 seeds each are stored in the vault.
Today Longyearbyen is the capital of Svalbard and the Sysselmann, the governor of Svalbard has its office here.
The museum in Longyearbyen is real a highpoint of a visit here. It has an excellent exhibition on life and nature in the Arctic, and gives the visitor information on the ecology of the region as well as on the traditional life and current scientific work, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Longyearbyen features a polar climate, with chilly "summers" and long and bitterly cold winters. "Summers" in the city are chilly, with average high temperatures being 7°C in July. Winters in Longyearbyen are very cold with the average low temperatures of -21°C in February.