Take an Arctic Expedition to the Svalbard Archipelago


The Svalbard (which means Cold Coast) Archipelago consists of five large islands (West Spitsbergen, North Island, Edge Island, Barents Island, and Prince Karl Island) and many small ones. A common alternate name for the island group is Spitsbergen, but this is an incorrect name when applied to the entire archipelago. The Svalbard Archipelago (often referred to simply as Svalbard) is located 700 kilometers (440 miles) north of Norway, between 76° N latitude and 81°N latitude (well within the Arctic Circle). It has a total land area of about 62,000 sq. kilometers (24,000 sq. miles). The islands themselves are mountainous, and contain many coastal fjords. On the main island of Spitsbergen, one encounters many cliff faces in the fjords which have well exposed horizontally banded layers of ancient sediments. The western coastline consists of a line of mountains (Spitsbergen means pointed mountain), and more inland is a plateau of flat sedimentary layers which are below 600 m. The rocks of the islands are strongly folded in many regions. A significant proportion of the land (about 60%) is covered with glaciers and snow fields, and today much of the coastline is permanently icecovered. There are many glaciers within the fjords. Relatively few landing spots are available to ships, except for inside some of the fjords and on a low sand flat, which is up to 10 kilometers (six miles) wide which lies along parts of the coastline.

The ice free zones are predominantly alpine, although bogs occur in the southwestern part of the main island. The archipelago enjoys a relatively maritime climate because of the moderating influence of the North Atlantic Drift. Summer temperatures often reach 15° C (59° F), whereas Winter temperatures sometimes plunge to 40° C (40° F). Surprisingly, Svalbard has a rather rich flora with some 150 species of wild flowers. Plant life exists farther north here than anywhere else in the world. Because of its isolated location in a rich sea, the archipelago is extremely important for nesting sea birds.

The archipelago was discovered by the Dutch explorer William Barents in 1594, which was much later than the European discoveries of both Iceland or Greenland. At this time, Barents was attempting to find a Northeast Passage through the Arctic from the North Atlantic to the Pacific. Initially, he incorrectly believed Svalbard was a part of Greenland. Nonetheless, Barents was favorably impressed with the new land, and reported finding "leaves and grass and reindeer". Although ultimately unsuccessful with his quest for the Northeast Passage, he made the most important discoveries in the Arctic of the 16th century. He also discovered Bear Island (an isolated island which now belongs to Svalbard), so named for an unpleasant experience there with a polar bear. 

About a dozen years after Barents' discovery, Henry Hudson came to the islands. He gave enthusiastic reports on the excellent prospects for whaling and fishing around the archipelago. He also discovered Jan Mayen Land along the way. Hudson made several more voyages into the Arctic searching for both northeast and northwest passages, and demonstrated that Svalbard’s location was ideal as a base to be used by explorers and whalers operating in the Arctic. 

Russians, in the middle 16th century, were the first people to over-winter in Svalbard. They came to hunt and/or trap furbearing mammals (especially Arctic foxes and several species of seals), collect eider down, and hunt whales. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Basque, British, Danish, Dutch, French, and Norwegian whalers operated in and around Svalbard and maintained a seasonal whaling base here until the Greenland whale (now called the bowhead whale) was wiped out in the area. The commercial whaling declined rapidly in the 1800s, and the Russians all but disappeared. Norwegian trappers arrived in the mid 19th century, and still maintain a presence to this day. 

Svalbard became an important center of operations for numerous Arctic expeditions, being conveniently located for access to the North Pole and Arctic Ocean. In the early 20th century, American, British, Swedish, Russian and Norwegian companies started coal mining in the archipelago. Norwegian sovereignty over Svalbard was established by the Svalbard Treaty in 1920 and five years later, the Svalbard Act made the archipelago a full part of the Norwegian Kingdom, although several other nations managed to retain official rights to their settlements. Only the Norwegian and Russian settlements were still in existence after World War II. At about that time, Svalbard became very important in the international trade in polar bear skins, for which there was tremendous demand. Understandably, this had a drastic effect on the bear population, and they were finally given protection in 1972. There are important deposits of coal, copper, and asbestos in the islands and in the early 20th century, the U.S., Russia, and several other European countries, signed a treaty with Norway which allowed them to operate coal mines. Today, the Norwegian state-owned coal company employs about 60% of the island's Norwegian population, and provides most of the local services and infrastructure. Coal production now amounts to more than 2,000,000 tons per year. In 1962, an explosion occurred at the Ny Ålesund coal mine in which 21 men died and the mine was closed down permanently the following year. The site is now an important scientific post.

The archipelago has a population of about 2,500 people and settlements are found on only three islands, Spitsbergen, Bjørnøya, and Hopen. Most people, however, are concentrated on the western side of Spitsbergen, which is where the largest settlement of Longyearbyen is located.

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