Unravelling the mysteries of Svalbard
Svalbard is a rugged cluster of Arctic islands located halfway between Norway and the North Pole. It is an area of untouched beauty, a unique wilderness that has long fascinated travellers. But even if you’ve been there, some of these Svalbard facts may have still eluded you.
You can watch the northern lights while you eat lunch
Over the period November to February, most of the islands are frozen over and the area is pitch black. At this time, the northern lights can be seen dancing across the skies in a spectacular colour-fest. The lights are a result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere and charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. The colours that are produced from these collisions include pale yellow-greens, reds, blues, and purple-reds. But you don’t have to wait until night time to see the lights: They can be seen at various parts of the day, including lunchtime!
At another time of year, you can also see the midnight sun
If you embark on a Svalbard cruise between mid-April to mid-August, you can see the wonders of the midnight sun at its best. Here are some tips to capture memorable images:
- Because the colours are so vivid in the midnight sun, it’s a good idea to keep the picture you are taking simple, keeping your viewfinder on two or three colours.
- Use foreground images to frame your subjects so that it creates a better sense of 3D.
- Maximise the impact of the light on the landscape by composing the picture in the viewfinder and keeping the horizon a third of the way from the bottom, ensuring your camera will expose properly.
There are loads of fossils in Svalbard
Svalbard has a rich, diverse, and long geologic history, making the islands perfect for geologists. There is a great variety of geological events that can be studied, including tectonic plate movements as well as continental drift. Many rocks also contain fossils of marine creatures that once lived in the Lapetus Ocean. Later in geological time, when Svalbard began sinking and rivers eroded the Caledonian Mountains, sandstones and conglomerates were deposited on near-shore environments as well as lakes and deltas. In these deposits you might find primitive fish and plants.
Arctic terns are in abundance there
The Arctic tern is a small species that has a circumpolar distribution and is the most northern of terns. In the Arctic region, terns can be spotted along the coast of Svalbard, with the birds found mostly in the western and northern parts of Spitsbergen. Arctic terns breed as single pairs or most commonly in colonies, with pairings numbering in the hundreds. What is amazing is that the birds spend most of their winter in the pack ice of the Antarctic Ocean before returning to Svalbard in the last days of May or the beginning of June. They then head back between the end of August and mid-September.
Svalbard is a summer paradise for birds
Svalbard is one of the world’s greatest locations for bird-watching cruises, with millions of birds attracted to the islands due to its abundance of food. With these ample food supplies, various species of birds can breed and raise their young in relative safety before heading south for warmer temperatures during the Arctic winter. Bird watchers heading to Svalbard are recommended to arrive in early May and June, when the ice retreats and the tundra clears of snow. During this time up to 3 million birds call the islands home, with the majority coming from continental Europe and the UK.
There is a reindeer endemic to Svalbard
While reindeer have a circumpolar distribution, with seven sub-species occupying different Arctic regions, Svalbard is home to its own species of reindeer. A subspecies of Rangifer tarandus, the Svalbard reindeer is found in nearly every non-glaciated area of the islands, with high population densities found in Nordenskiöld Land, Edgeøya, and Barentsøya. The Svalbard reindeer thrive on a variety of vegetation, foraging during the winter months along ridges, mountain slopes, and plateaus where there is little snow. In the summer they feed on the lush vegetation that sprouts up nearly everywhere on the islands. When food supply is low in winter, Svalbard reindeer can feed on their own body reserves, including both fat and muscle.
Svalbard is as dry as a desert
Svalbard is as cold and dry as a desert, with parts receiving less than 200mm (7.87 inches) of precipitation per year. (Anything below 250mm, or 9.84 inches, is considered a desert.) This means that parts of the islands do not appear to have any vegetation and look from a distance to be cold, inhospitable, and barren. However, they are far from barren. In fact, scientists have mapped which parts of the islands are considered to be an Arctic polar desert based on zonal plant distribution, with the Svalbard poppy being a characteristic species of the Arctic polar desert zone. This little poppy produces more than 10 flowers, each having 40 or more seeds. It is a hardy species and rarely damaged by bad weather.
Polar bears roam from Svalbard to Russia
If you visit Svalbard, you may see polar bears roaming around in nature. The islands are home to nearly 3,000 of them. These polar bears occupy a region from Spitsbergen all the way to the Russian archipelagos of Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya. They are called the Barents Sea population. Female polar bears on the east coast of Svalbard often display two types of behaviour: Some roam over a large area that stretches from Svalbard across to Russia, spending most of their time hunting for seals in the southern limits of the Arctic ice, while others have a smaller home range and just stick to Svalbard and its waters.
Svalbard is home to roaming foxes
The little Arctic fox is commonly seen roaming across Svalbard. The species is found on all the islands, ranging from drift ice to the Svalbard mountains. They do, however, prefer to be in the tundra near bird cliffs during the summer. They eat a variety of food depending on food availability and are happy to eat baby seals, seabirds, and geese during the spring and summer. In the winter, they turn their attention to carrion from seals and reindeer.