Geography & Climate

Svalbard's vital statistics are suitably impressive: 13% vegetation, 27% barren stone and an astonishing 60% glacier. Svalbard's latitude ranges from 74°N at Bjørnøya in the south to over 80°N on northern Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet.

The archipelago is about the size of Ireland and consists mainly of glaciated and eroded sedimentary layers that were deposited beneath the sea up to 1.2 billion years ago. It's difficult to imagine but between 300 million and 60 million years ago, Svalbard was lush and tropical. Rich layers of organic matter built up on the surface, then metamorphosed under great heat and pressure into coal. Continental drift shifted it to its present polar location, and most present-day landforms were created during the ice ages of the past two million years. Its highest points are Newtontoppen (1713m) and Perriertoppen (1712m).

Most of Svalbard's glaciers are retreating, especially Paierbreen, Hornbreen, Besselbreen and Svitjodbreen. According to the American Geophysical Union, Hinlopenbreen, in northwestern Spitsbergen, retreated by 7km between 1990 and 2016.

The archipelago enjoys a brisk polar-desert climate, with only 200mm to 300mm of precipitation annually. Although the west coast remains ice-free for most of the summer, pack ice hovers just north of the main island year-round. Snow and frost are possible at any time of year; the mean annual temperature is -4°C, and in July it's only 6°C. On occasion, however, you may experience temperatures of up to 20°C. In January the mean temperature is -16°C, but temperatures of -30°C aren't uncommon.

In Longyearbyen the midnight sun lasts from 19 April to 23 August, while the sun never even peeks above the horizon between 28 October and 14 February.

Wildlife

In addition to polar bears, Svalbard is home to other emblematic Arctic species. The species you're most likely to see are the Arctic fox (also known as the polar fox) and Svalbard's unusually squat reindeer.

Svalbard's reindeer are genetically akin to their distant Canadian cousins and some have been found bearing Russian tags, proving that they walked in over the ice. Unlike their cousins on the mainland, they don't live in herds but in family groups of two to six animals. As they have no predators other than humans, they thrive and the estimated population of around 10,000 is kept constant by an annual cull. Most Svalbard reindeer starve slowly to death when they're about eight years old, their teeth having been ground to stumps by the stones and pebbles they mouth along with sprigs of edible matter.

Despite having been hunted to the brink of extinction in centuries past, whales can still be seen on occasion in Svalbard's waters, while seals are also common. Walruses, too, suffered from relentless hunting, although a population of between 500 and 2000 still inhabits Svalbard.

Polar Bears Under Threat

Polar bears are one of the most enduring symbols of the Arctic wilderness – loners, immensely strong and survivors in one of the world's most extreme environments. But for all the bears' raw power, some scientists predict that they could be extinct by the end of this century if the world continues to heat up.

Polar bear numbers had been in decline since the late 19th century, when intensive hunting began. But ever since the 1973 treaty for the Conservation of Polar Bears and their Habitat, signed by all the countries whose lands impinge upon the Arctic, polar bear numbers have been gradually increasing again and latest estimates by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) suggest that there are between 22,000 and 31,000 left in the wild; Svalbard has a population of around 3500.

But as is the case throughout the Arctic, Svalbard's glaciers are retreating and the ice sheet, their natural habitat and prime hunting ground for seals, the mainstay of their diet (an adult bear needs to eat between 50 and 75 seals every year), is shrinking. In 2017, a particularly bad year, even most of Svalbard's north coast remained ice-free throughout the winter – one polar bear that was being tracked by the WWF remained stranded on the island of Storøya, off the archipelago's far northeastern coast, after sea ice that usually connects the island to the rest of Svalbard failed to form.

Shrinking sea ice matters because although polar bears are classified as marine mammals and are powerful swimmers, many risk drowning as they attempt to reach fresh ice floes that are ever more separated by open water. Less sea ice also means that some populations will become isolated and inbred, weakening their genetic stock. The birth rate may also fall since females need plenty of deep snow to dig the dens in which they whelp. And hungry bears, on the prowl and desperate for food, could lead to increasing confrontations with humans.

Your chances of seeing one, unless you're on a cruise and observing from the safety of a ship, are minimal, especially in summer. In any event, contact is actively discouraged, both for your and the bear's sake (if a snowmobiler gives chase, for example, he or she will be in for a stiff fine). Bears under pressure quickly become stressed and overheat under their shaggy coats and may even die of heat exhaustion if pursued.

Should you come within sight of one on land, don't even think about approaching it. An altogether safer way to track polar bears is to log onto www.panda.org/polarbears, managed by the WWF. Here, you can track the movements of bears that scientists have equipped with a collar and satellite transmitter.

Books About Svalbard

  • Wild Norway: With chapters on Spitsbergen, Denmark, etc (1897) Abel Chapman
  • No Man's Land: A History of Spitsbergen 1596–c.1900 (1906) Martin Conway
  • Amid Snowy Wastes: Wild Life on the Spitsbergen Archipelago (1922) Seton Gordon
  • Arctic Airmen: The RAF in Spitsbergen and North Russia, 1942 (1987) Roy Conyers Nesbit & Ernest Schofield
  • Innocents in the Arctic: The 1951 Spitsbergen Expedition (2005) Colin Bull
  • Svalbard Exposed (2015) Roy Mangersnes & Ole Jørgen Liodden
  • Out in the Cold: Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada (2017) Bill Murray