A Norwegian chain of islands just 1,200 km (750 miles) from the North Pole is turning its back on high-polluting coal mining that has been a backbone of the economy for decades, and is instead trying to attract tourists fascinated by the Arctic islands' numbing cold and total winter darkness.

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Workers' housing is pictured in Longyearbyen, SvalbardAnna Filipova/Reuters
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The northernmost non-military post office in the world in the Kings Bay research station in Ny-Alesund, SvalbardAnna Filipova/Reuters
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Dogs, some that are family pets and others that are used for dog sledges, are seen waiting in their yard outside the settlement in Longyearbyen, SvalbardAnna Filipova/Reuters

The new focus on winter in the Svalbard archipelago is part of a drive to attract tourism and environmental research to diversify the economy after a century of dependence on now-failing coal mines. "We're advertising the exotic side of being in the dark," said Arild Olsen, mayor of Longyearbyen, the main settlement with 2,200 inhabitants. Its winter temperatures are around -10 degrees Celsius.

Winter tourism can include night-time dog sled rides, visits to ice caves or cross-country skiing, with guns to protect against polar bears. And, of course, the northern lights are only visible in the dark. There were 60,000 tourist visitors last year, up from 41,000 in 2008.

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A sign warns residents of the Svalbard islands of the danger posed by roaming polar bearsBalazs Koranyi/Reuters
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The northern lights (aurora borealis) over Spitsbergen, Svalbard archipelagoiStock

Norway suspended most coal mining on the Svalbard archipelago in 2015 because of the high costs, and is looking for alternative jobs for about 2,200 inhabitants on the islands where polar bears roam.

"Research is definitely part of the solution" for Svalbard, said Unni Steinsmo, head of the board of Kings Bay AS, which runs Ny-Alesund, the world's most northerly permanent non-military settlement. Ice has been receding fast in the Arctic because of climate change. In Ny-Alesund, scientists from 11 nations including China, India, South Korea, Norway, Germany, France, Britain and Norway have research stations. Steinsmo said scientists were carrying out more winter research, such as into how plants and fish adapt to the polar darkness. The fjord by Ny-Alesund has been ice-free in recent winters, making marine research easier, she said.

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Radar dish and antennas systems are seen at the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association facility on Breinosa, Svalbard. The Eiscat facility studies the interaction between the Sun and the Earth as revealed by disturbances in the ionosphere and magnetosphereAnna Filipova/Reuters
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Radar antennas at the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association (Eiscat) facility on Breinosa, SvalbardAnna Filipova/Reuters
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Breinosa is seen from the research Zeppelin Observatory that is operated by the Norwegian Polar Institute and Norwegian Institute for Air Research in SvalbardAnna Filipova/Reuters
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Dawn at the scientific base of Ny-Alesund, SvalbardAnna Filipova/Reuters
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A weather station is seen in Ny Alesund, one of the most northerly settlements in the world, a base for international scientistsAnna Filipova/Reuters
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An aerial view of the Kronebreen glacier, on Spitsbergen island, SvalbardDominique Faget/AFP

Ny-Alesund was originally built around a coal mine which shut after 21 people died in an accident in 1962. Old wooden buildings still stand, and a train that used to transport coal stands marooned in the snow. "I think we'll manage quite ok after coal," Olsen said, adding that fishing, for crab and cod, could also help.

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An old train that was used for transporting coal is preserved as a monument at Ny-Alesund, in SvalbardAnna Filipova/Reuters
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An old train that was used for transporting coal is preserved as a monument at Ny-Alesund, in SvalbardAnna Filipova/Reuters
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Snow is seen on the research centre in Ny-Alesund, formerly a coal mining townAnna Filipova/Reuters
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Warehouses and the old part of the Ny-Alesund settlement from the coal mining period which closed in 1963Anna Filipova/Reuters
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Coal miners Morten Oernebakk, Oeivind Brenli and Tom Mortensen are pictured working in Mine 7 in Svalbard on 26 March 2012Berit Roald/Scanpix/Reuters

Norway, a member of Nato, wants to maintain settlements on the islands partly as a strategic foothold in the Arctic, all the more so since its neighbour Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014.