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Spitsbergen (Svalbard)Tundra Travel

Spitsbergen is the biggest wilderness area in Europa, an Arctic archipelago just 1000 km south to the North Pole.

Spitsbergen (Svalbard)

Svalbard archipelago's general information.

 

Spitsbergen, Spitzberg or Spitzbergen is the biggest island of the archipelago Svalbard, located about 650 kilometres (400 miles) north of Norway, in the Arctic Ocean. The arctic archipelago ranges from Bear Island at 74° North to Rossøya at 81° North. It is by far the largest wilderness area of Europe; it covers an area of about 62,500 km², about the size of Ireland. About 60% of the land is glaciated.

 

Since 1925 Norway has sovereignty over Spitsbergen according to the international Spitsbergen Treaty. The Norwegian name for the archipelago is Svalbard.

 

The name Spitsbergen was given by the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, who discovered the islands in 1596 during a mission to find a new sea route to the fabled land of Cathay, the Far East. The meaning of the name Spitsbergen in the Dutch language is "Jagged Peaks" because of the sharp pointed mountains that Barentsz met in the north-west of Spitsbergen. Spitsbergen, which has a population of about 3000 in 4 settlements, is still today virtually an unspoilt wilderness. Imagine a place the size of Ireland with only about 50 kilometres. (30 miles) of road.

 

 

Longyearbyen.

 

The main settlement is Longyearbyen, which has approximately 2000 inhabitants and is one of the world's northernmost villages. Longyearbyen is a modern village with a wide range of facilities such as a supermarket, tourist shops, several pubs and hotels, a cinema, a swimming pool, a sports hall and a church. Longyearbyen even has its own university, the UNIS, that offers Arctic studies.

 

 

Ny-Ålesund.

 

In the beautiful Kongsfjord the northernmost of the four settlements on Spitsbergen can be found. Ny-Ålesund even boasts being the northernmost settlement in the world at latitude 78° 55′ North. Originally a mining settlement it is now a privately owned village that sells services to scientists - it is a village for scientists, an Arctic laboratory. Ny-Ålesund is inhabited by a permanent population of approximately 35 persons. In summer up to 120 international scientists work here. Their research includes environmental studies, for instance climate change, geology, biology, oceanography, zoology and more.

 

 

Svalbard archipelago's climate.

 

Although Spitsbergen is close enough to the North Pole to become an Arctic freezer in winter, it has a remarkable mild climate. This is due to the Gulf Stream, a huge Atlantic surface current that delivers warm water to the Spitsbergen coast and moderates the climate. The average temperature on the west coast in summer is around 5°C (41°F), and in winter, -12°C (10°F). In general the temperatures on the east side are lower than on the west as the warm Gulf Stream does not reach the east coast that much. As Spitsbergen lies far within the Arctic circle, it experiences the midnight sun from April to August. At this time of year the sun is above the horizon for 24 hours a day!

 

 

Svalbard archipelago's flora & fauna.

 

With its rugged mountains, sweeping tundra, ice-caps and glaciers, Spitsbergen is a true high-Arctic archipelago, and only 1000 kilometres (600 miles) from the North Pole. Spitsbergen is still today a virtually unspoilt wilderness with abundant wildlife. This wildlife was once a huge draw for whalers and trappers, but now discerning visitors are discovering the attractions of huge Arctic seabird colonies and the chance to enjoy and photograph species such as walrus, the indigenous Svalbard Reindeer, Arctic Fox and, of course, Polar Bear. Several whale species, such as the magnificent Beluga, Minke Whale and Fin Whale, are also found in the waters surrounding Spitsbergen.

 

The huge bird cliffs along the Spitsbergen coasts are a major attraction. Spitsbergen is a breeding ground for large numbers of guillemots such as the Brunnich's and the Black Guillemot. Other bird species such as Atlantic Puffin, Little Auk, Northern Fulmar and Kittiwake can also be found on or around the cliffs, while the Arctic Tern, Ringed Plover, Purple Sandpiper and four species of skua prefer the tundra. On top of the list of many birders are the rarely seen, elusive gulls - Ivory, Sabine's and Ross's.

 

 

The Spitsbergen west coast.

 

The west coast of Spitsbergen, with its deep fjords and towering glaciers that calve with a thundering noise, its sharp mountains (1000+ meters, 3000+ feet) in the north and the south and its lush tundra full of flowers has a lot to offer to wildlife lovers and hikers. Due to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream temperatures on the west coast are relatively high. Spitsbergen therefore has an Arctic flora and fauna. In the far north-east, where the Gulf Stream is much less strong, it is High Arctic. There is an amazing variety of plants, 164 species of flowering plants having been identified. The fauna is also abundant. Huge bird cliffs with tens of thousands of kittiwake and guillemots, and lush tundra with Svalbard Reindeer and Arctic Fox. The coastal seas are abundant with several seal species such as the Bearded and Ringed. In several areas walruses can be found, hauling out on ice-floes or on beaches. And Polar Bears are frequent visitors to the west coast.

 

 

The Spitsbergen north-east coast.

 

The north-east coast of Spitsbergen has a different topography to its west coast. Less sharp, more rounded hills, consisting of softer sediments. Without the warming effect of the Gulf Stream the glaciers and ice-caps have become considerably larger. The landscape is more barren and empty: this is the real High Arctic. Here the pack- ice keeps the adjacent seas in an icy grip for more than 6 months of the year. There is almost no lush tundra, often just barren rock. Yet, amazingly, there is still life here, sometimes even abundant life, due to the rich seas that provide food for birds and sea mammals. Elusive Arctic species such as Ivory gull, walrus, Polar Bear and Beluga can frequently be seen here.

 

 

The Spitsbergen south-east coast.

 

The south-east coast of Spitsbergen is rather mild compared to the north-east. Here you can find table-mountains with small ice-caps and green valleys full of reindeer. Whalebones thousands of years old litter the beaches, bird cliffs are crowded with birds and there are good chances of seeing walruses and Polar Bears. This area has been an important hunting ground for Russian and Norwegian trappers who went after walruses, Arctic Foxes and Polar Bears. Remains of their settlements and huts can be found here.

 

 

Frequently visited places on Spitsbergen's west coast are (from south to north):

 

Hornsund. An Antarctica-like fjord with jagged mountains and huge glacier fronts. Good chances of seeing Brunnich's Guillemot, Arctic Fox, Polar Bear and Beluga.

 

The lush Bellsund with its evidence of ancient and modern whaling and hunting. Good chances of seeing Little Auk, reindeer, Polar Bear, Beluga and Minke Whale.

 

Isfjord, with Longyearbyen and the Russian mining settlement Barentsburg, and its vast tundra and abundant reindeer population. Good chances of seeing Atlantic Puffin, geese, skua, Svalbard reindeer, Arctic Fox, Beluga.

 

The majestic Kongs and Kross Fjord, with the settlement of Ny-Ålesund and the Tre Kroner (typical pyramid shaped peaks, also called nunataks, that stick out of the ice-cap). Fjords with great hiking opportunities, evidence of daring mining adventures, beautiful glacier fronts and overcrowded bird cliffs. Good chances of seeing guillemot, Kittiwake, skua, puffin, Ivory gull, geese, Svalbard reindeer and Arctic Fox.

 

Magdalena Fjord, famous for the steep mountains that surround this frequently visited fjord. Good chances of seeing Little Auk, Ivory gull, Bearded seal and Polar Bear.

 

Liefdefjord, a deep fjord in the far north-west. It is appropriately named after a Dutch whaling ship with the name “Love”, as it has a remarkable red colour due to red sedimentary sandstones. Great scenery and large glacier fronts. Good chances of seeing lots of bird life, Bearded seals, Polar Bear, Minke Whale and Beluga.

 

 

Frequently visited places on the north-east of Spitsbergen are:

 

Nordaustlandet (North-East Land) is the biggest island in the far north of Spitsbergen. Most of its surface is covered by a huge ice-cap. The ice-front of this ice-cap extends along the coast for about 150 kilometres. Nordaustlandet is completely uninhabited and is a nature reserve. In the coastal regions of Nordaustlandet and its adjoining islands there is a great deal of Arctic wildlife. Here you can experience the real High Arctic, but with good chances of seeing Ivory gulls, Arctic Foxes, Bearded seals, Ringed seals and walruses, Polar Bears, Minke Whales and Belugas.

 

Sjuøyane (the Seven Islands) are located at latitude 80º 49\' North and are as far north as you can get in Europe. Here you are about a 1000 kilometres (600 miles) north of the famous Norwegian Nordkapp, which is often seen as the most northerly point of Europe. These rocky, barren islands do have a lot to offer besides having the real "Nordkapp". It is a wild place with amazing scenery and high chances of seeing walruses, Polar Bears.

 

Hinlopen Strait. A beautiful sea strait between Nordaustlandet and the main island of Spitsbergen. For the Around-Spitsbergen Expeditions Hinlopen Strait is sometimes a bottleneck because of the pack-ice which can clog up in the strait. On the pack-ice and around the islands in the strait there are good chances of seeing walruses, Polar Bears and whales. Even the elusive Bowhead Whale is sometimes seen here.

 

 

Frequently visited places in the south-east of Spitsbergen are:

 

Barentsøya was named after the Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz. The island is situated south-east of the main island and is separated from it by a couple of narrow sounds, including the spectacular Heleysundet. About 100 kilometres (60 miles) to the east of Barentsøya are the Kong Karls Islands. These islands, which are closed of for visitors, are main denning areas for Polar Bears. The pack-ice delivers large numbers of bears from the Kong Karls Islands to Barentsøya and also to Edgeøya. That is why these islands are particularly good for spotting Polar Bears. Besides Polar Bears there are also good chances of seeing many bird species, as well as Arctic Foxes, Svalbard reindeer and Belugas.

 

Edgeøya is the third largest island of Spitsbergen. The large variety of landscapes makes Edgeøya very interesting place to visit. Canyons full of birds, thousands of years old whalebones on beeches, green tundra with herds of Svalbard reindeer, remains of Russian settlements and beeches where walruses haul out. Good chances of seeing Arctic Foxes, Polar Bears, walruses, Belugas and Fin Whales.

Corporate image:Xavier Marlí

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