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The islands that call Svalbard home

by Robert C. Brears Blog

Svalbard is located between the North Pole and the Norwegian mainland and is home to some of the most dramatic and isolated landscapes in the world.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Arctic

Destinations: Svalbard

The islands that call Svalbard home

Svalbard is located between the North Pole and the Norwegian mainland and is home to some of the most dramatic and isolated landscapes in the world. These landscapes are spread over a variety of islands, the five largest of which are as follows:

Spitsbergen, the largest of the islands

Spitsbergen, covering over 39,000 square kilometres out of Svalbard’s total 62,000+ square kilometres, is the largest island in the group and is the only island with a permanent population. The island is mountainous with deep fjords that almost create new islands.

On the western part of the island, the landscape is considered a wild alpine one with glaciers that fall into the sea and high peaks that reach more than a 1,000 metres in height. Meanwhile, in much of the eastern part of the island there is fewer fjords and a thick ice cover.

The thick ice comes from the lack of Gulf Stream – the ocean current from the east is cold – and the snowfall that comes from the east by the winter winds. In the central part of the island, it is sheltered from rain and snow and so is drier. While there is less ice here there are still glaciers in the valleys between the high mountains, some of which reach 1,000 metres in height. It is these relatively ice-free areas of Spitsbergen that are the most fertile parts of Svalbard feeding reindeer and geese.

The ice-free areas are also popular destinations for hikers as there are less glaciers to worry about. The most popular parts of the island for scenery is the west and north coast between Isfjorden and Woodfjorden as these areas not only contain natural scenes but historic sites too. For the nature-lovers, the island contains natural reserves, national parks, bird sanctuaries and a geologically-protected area that covers most of the island.

Northeast Land

Nordaustlandet – or Northeast Land – is the second largest island of Svalbard at nearly 15,000 square kilometres. Because its north coast is further north than the main island, the climate is considered High Arctic, as once again there is no Gulf Stream to keep the place warm.

The island is typically iced-over during the long, cold winters and partially frozen over in warmer years. Even during the summer the place can be covered in ice. The ice is so thick that even boats with reinforced hulls cannot circumnavigate the island during the summertime.

Nonetheless, the northern part of the island is usually ice free due to wind and ocean currents. As such, in the north and west of the island, there are steep fjords that can be admired with the naked eye while in the east and south, the ice cover keeps the typography hidden from site: it is only known where radar measurements have been taken.

Northeast Land’s Seven Islands

Along the north coast of the Northeast Island there are the Seven Islands, a group of islands that are nearly vegetation-free and rocky. This is Norway’s most northernmost point, more than 1,000 km from the Norwegian mainland.

Nordaustlandet is very old geologically with rocks dating back over 1.2 billion years. While vegetation on the island is sparse, as could be imagined, wildlife is diverse with reindeer and arctic foxes roaming the area along with seabirds with breeding colonies. Out to sea, seals, walruses and polar bears too can be found.

The first humans to explore this area properly, via a circumnavigation of the island, was in 1864 when a hunting crew were trapped and rowed around the island on their way to Spitsbergen. Today the island remains uninhabited with just a few automated weather stations dotted around the place along with remains of cabins.

Edgeoya, home to polar bears

Edgeoya is the third-largest island at over 5,100 square kilometres. The island has a High Arctic climate that is influenced by the ocean currents from the east and so the sea south of the island is packed with ice even during the summer. The island is made of horizontally-layered sedimentary rocks and so the landscape is mainly a plateau that is cut by glaciers. The west and north parts of the island is typically ice-free, in contrast to the east that is thickly covered in ice.

There are no permanent settlements on the island, but there are a few cabins for scientific research. There are remnants of old cabins from whale and walrus hunters from a long time ago: in the middle of the 1600s to the mid-19th century, the island had many small settlements mainly full of Russian hunters who at times wintered-over. The island is home to many flat islets that serve as breeding grounds for geese, ducks, auks and various other types of seabirds. The walrus population has recovered from the hunting days with many out to sea along with many seals. In addition, the island is one of the most important polar bear breeding grounds.

Barentsoya’s the place to be for reindeer

Barentsoya is a 1,300 square kilometre island that dates back to the Triassic age. From the centre of the island – called Barentsjokulen – glaciers extend outwards in many directions, with a handful of them reaching the sea. Until 1858, it was believed that the island was part of Edgeoya until a channel was discovered separating the two.

The landscape of the island is volcanic with some saying it is similar to Iceland. Despite the island appearing to be sparse the tundra is at times very rich. This tundra enables the island to support a population of reindeer. Meanwhile, the island’s steep cliffs are home to colonies of Kittiwakes, which then attract arctic foxes. The island also serves as an important migration and denning area for polar bears.

Kvitoya, the egg-shaped island

Kvitoya is Svalbard’s fifth largest island at 700 square kilometres. The island is covered by a thick ice dome that can be in some parts up to 410 metres thick. The dome slopes down towards the sea where it ends in mostly glaciers.

While the island is very old, there has been very limited human exploration of it. In fact, most of our knowledge of the island stems from satellite pictures: up to the 1970s, it was believed the island was long and stretched, however, images revealed that in fact, the island was the shape of an egg.

Despite the island being surrounded by ice on most of its sides, it is home to a range of life including flowering plants, various birds, polar bears, seals and walruses.

Bear island home to birds…

Bjornoya, or Bear Island, is Svalbard’s most southerly island that lies about halfway between the southernmost point of Svalbard and the Norwegian mainland.

The coast of the small island – it is only around 180 square kilometres – is dramatic with formations in the cliffs. The most well-known formation is the Perleporten, which is a 200-metre tunnel under the Kapp Kolihoff. The island supports a range of flora and fauna due to its mid-latitudinal position, including birds that dominate the steep cliffs: some of these cliffs are home to the largest bird colonies in the Arctic. Some of the well-known species that make the island home include guillemot, little auk, kittiwake and a variety of gulls and seabirds. The sea is full of life and includes bearded and ringed seals.

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