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Svalbard—Land of the Cold Coasts

Svalbard—Land of the Cold Coasts

 Svalbard​—Land of the Cold Coasts


WE ARE flying in the midst of a thick cloud layer, seeing nothing. Suddenly our plane emerges from the clouds and white, Arctic scenery appears below us. The view is magnificent! We gaze in fascination at glaciers, light-blue fjords, and snow-covered mountains. The wasteland of snow and ice stretches out as far as the eye can see. This is Svalbard, an archipelago near the North Pole, located between 74 and 81 degrees north latitude, and we have come here for a visit!

The name Svalbard, meaning “Cold Coast,” first appeared in 1194 in Icelandic annals. But “discovery” of the land 400 years later, in 1596, actually put Svalbard on the map. That year a group of Dutch explorers led by Willem Barents were sailing northward when the lookout man sighted unknown land on the horizon, a jagged row of mountains. These explorers had come to the northwest part of Svalbard, which Barents called “Spitsbergen,” meaning “Pointed Mountains.” That is now the name of the largest island of the archipelago. Barents’ discovery paved the way for an epoch of bustling activity in the Svalbard area, including whaling, sealing, trapping, exploration, and eventually coal mining, scientific research, and tourism. Over the years several countries have taken part in this activity, but since 1925, the archipelago has been under Norwegian sovereignty.

Permafrost Country and the Aurora Borealis

Our plane descends over the Ice Fjord and lands at Svalbard Airport. We pick up our rental car and drive to Longyearbyen, named after the American mining magnate John M. Longyear, who put the first coal mines in this area into operation in 1906. Longyearbyen is the largest community in Svalbard, with a population of about 2,000. Yes, in the midst of these vast areas of virtually undisturbed  nature, we find a modern township with such common things as a supermarket, a post office, a bank, a public library, schools, kindergartens, hotels, cafés and restaurants, a hospital, and a local newspaper. At more than 78 degrees north, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost community of such size.

We find lodging at a guesthouse that was formerly part of the coal miners’ quarters. It overlooks Longyearbyen, with a view of the majestic mountain Hiorthfjellet. It is October, and the mountains are shrouded in snow. The bottom of the valley is still snowless, but the ground is frozen solid. This is permafrost country. Only the surface soil thaws for a short period in the summertime. Still, because of favorable winds and ocean currents, the climate is milder here than in other areas at this latitude. From where we are staying, we can see sunshine on the mountains, while the valley is in a bluish shade. Around Longyearbyen the sun does not rise above the horizon between October 26 and February 16. But the aurora borealis, or northern lights, often brightens the winter darkness. On the other hand, Svalbard enjoys midnight sun in the spring and summer months, and in Longyearbyen this runs from April 20 to August 23.

Plants and Animals

It is 18 degrees Fahrenheit, and a sharp wind is blowing; but the sky is clear. We are ready for an excursion. Our guide takes us on a hike up to Sarkofagen Mountain and down the Longyearbreen glacier. As we climb the frozen hills, he tells us that a number of beautiful flowers grow here in the spring and summer. In fact, the vegetation is surprisingly rich in Svalbard, with about 170 flowering plant species. Two typical flowers are the white or yellow Svalbard poppy and the fragrant purple saxifrage.

Farther up the snowy mountainside, we cross some tracks of the Svalbard ptarmigan, the only resident bird in Svalbard. All the other birds, such as Brünnich’s guillemots, little auks, various gulls, and purple sandpipers, are migratory. Of special interest is the arctic tern. Many of these terns migrate all the  way to the opposite end of the globe, to Antarctica.

We also come across tracks of the arctic fox. This sly animal is a scavenger, eating carcasses and scraps, but it supplements its menu with young birds and eggs. The fox is one of the two true land mammals native to Svalbard. The other is the good-natured Svalbard reindeer. We see the latter at close range several times during our stay in Svalbard. It looks at us calmly and lets us get rather close to take photographs before it withdraws. This reindeer is short-legged with thick, warm fur. Now in the autumn it is quite plump​—its layer of extra fat is its food reserve, necessary for the cold winter.

The polar bear, the king of the Arctic, is considered by many to be a marine mammal, since it spends most of its time on sea ice hunting for seals. But you can meet lone bears roaming almost anywhere in Svalbard. Our guide hopes that we will not. The polar bear can be very aggressive, so our guide carries a rifle for safety. Since 1973 all hunting of polar bears has been banned, and any killing of a polar bear is investigated. Although the polar bear population is now rather large in the Svalbard area, there are serious worries about the future of this majestic animal. The Arctic may seem white, fresh, and pure, but toxic pollutants such as PCBs have impacted the environment. The pollutants accumulate in polar bears, since they are at the top of the food chain, and this appears to impair their reproductive ability.

We reach the top of Sarkofagen Mountain and are rewarded with a thrilling view of numerous white peaks in the distance. To the southwest is the impressive, rounded mountain Nordenskiöldfjellet, bathed in  sunlight. Far below us is Longyearbyen; and high above us, the light-blue Arctic sky. We truly feel that we are standing on the top of the globe. Some slices of bread and a cup of black-currant “toddy”​—a common hiker’s drink consisting of black-currant juice, sugar, and hot water—​give us refreshment, and we are ready for the descent by way of Longyearbreen glacier.

Coal Mining and Threatened Animals

A visit to an old coal mine is another interesting experience. Our burly guide, a veteran coal miner, shows us Mine 3, just outside Longyearbyen. Wearing overalls and hard hats with headlamps, we accompany him deep into the mountain. We are told that coal mining has been the cornerstone activity on Svalbard since the early 1900’s. For many years the miners led a very harsh existence. They would often crawl on their hands and knees in long drifts, or passageways, in horizontal coal layers that in some places measured just over two feet [70 cm] high. We get the opportunity to try it ourselves and really do not envy the miners. Their labor was hard, the air was full of coal and rock dust, the noise level was high, and there was an ever-present danger of explosions and cave-ins. Now more modern methods are being used. Coal mining is still an essential part of Svalbard’s economy, but for the past few decades, tourism has become increasingly important.

People have not always taken the vulnerability of the Arctic wildlife into consideration. At times, the hunting of whales, walrus, reindeer, polar bears, and other animals put some species in danger of extinction in Svalbard. However, preservation regulations have helped rehabilitate several threatened animal species.

A Geologist’s Paradise

Svalbard has been described as a “paradise for geologists.” Since the vegetation is very sparse, the landscape is like a geologic picture book. We notice the characteristic geologic structures in the mountains, which consist of clearly defined strata and look almost like huge layer cakes. Rocks are found from all epochs of earth’s history. Some were formed by sand and clay; others by organic material. Over the ages many dead plants and animals were covered by clay and preserved as fossils. In fact, fossils are found in rock from all geologic periods.

In the Svalbard museum, we study a number of fossils of thermophilic plants and animals, showing that the climate on the archipelago was previously much warmer than today. In some places in Svalbard, the coal layers are as much as 15 feet [5 m] thick! In the coal layers, fossil remains have been found of both coniferous and deciduous trees. Fossil footprints of a plant-eating dinosaur are another evidence that previously the climate was milder and the vegetation richer.

How can these big climatic changes be explained? We ask geologist Torfinn Kjaernet, representative of the Directorate of Mining in Longyearbyen. He tells us that most geologists think that the main reason is continental drift. Geologists say that Svalbard is situated on a tectonic plate that has drifted northward for a very long time, possibly from as far south as near the equator. According to modern satellite monitoring, Svalbard is still drifting northeast by a couple of centimeters a year.

As our plane leaves Svalbard, we feel that our visit has given us much to reflect on. The vast Arctic landscape, the well-adapted animals, and all the different plants make us think about the diversity of creation, man’s insignificance, and the way humans have handled their stewardship of the earth. Flying south, we get a last glimpse of the land of the cold coasts, where some snow-clad mountaintops jut up through the cloud layer and glow with a pale, pinkish hue in the afternoon sun.

[Map on page 24]

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North Pole









[Picture on page 25]

The community of Longyearbyen

[Picture on page 25]

Many flowering plants, such as the purple saxifrage, survive in the harsh Arctic climate

[Credit Line]

Knut Erik Weman

[Pictures on page 26]

The Svalbard ptarmigan, and the Svalbard reindeer

[Credit Line]

Knut Erik Weman