Svalbard's Dilemma

by Simon Roper


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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon



If I could bottle the sense of open landscape, the sense of wilderness, the daily contrasts in the weather, the light and the smell of the fresh air I would convince people instantly that they, too, would love to see this special place. But there is the dilemma: more people, less wilderness. That is why I am involved with a UK charity that only takes small groups, once a year, to the high arctic.

Fraser Rush and I have led tours to Svalbard since 1993, just two years after we first set foot on the piece of land halfway between the north coast of Norway and the North Pole. It all began in 1991 and 1992 when we led small groups of friends via the world's most northerly international airport (Longyearbyen) to the high arctic tundra. On each occasion we walked in the interior, where massive 600 metre snow-capped mountains rise from sea level and vast tundra-covered valleys seem to stretch forever into the distance.

All sense of scale is lost in the impressive landscape and features that appear to be within reasonable walking distance actually turn out to be some days of walking instead. This is a wilderness like none other on earth because here you quickly gain a real sense that life is lived on the edge.

In this environment one comes to appreciate how physical factors such as prevailing wind direction and altitude affect which plants grow where, and how important it is for scavengers such as the glaucous and ivory gull and the arctic fox to investigate every new thing they find in their environment (including humans) just in case it is a new source of food. During those visits we fell for what we understand the locals on Svalbard say is 'Once Svalbard, always Svalbard'. Since then, we have introduced many people to the same experience and noticed that Svalbard does indeed cast a spell on all who visit.

In winter, 24-hour darkness interrupted only by the brighter phases of the moon and the appearance of the northern lights along with temperatures as low as -30 °C, or even colder, make this an inhospitable land with virtually no signs of life. Contrast this with the brief summer when the islands suddenly come to life with swathes of exquisite arctic plants and vast numbers of birds making maximum use of the 24-hour daylight. The enormous gulf between these extremes makes the period of transition possibly the most exciting time to visit Svalbard.

On alternate years, Fraser and I lead two visits to Svalbard: one in April in year one, the other in July in year two.

April sees the return of the midnight sun and the first stirrings of life after the winter freeze. Against a backdrop of enormous mountain ranges, fjords and glaciers, arctic wildlife is here in its true element. Huge colonies of birds return to their breeding grounds. Male ptarmigan are establishing their territories and snow buntings arrive from further south. At this time there is also a very good chance of seeing arctic fox, Svalbard reindeer and possibly polar bear. With most areas still snow covered, Svalbard's awe-inspiring landscape is at its best. The clarity of the air and bright sunny conditions combine to make every scene something to capture on film.

The coastal and inland areas around Longyearbyen are accessible both on foot and by snowmobile. These two-stroke, belt-driven 'bikes' are easy to drive, great fun in the snow and allow you to travel much greater distances than could be accomplished on foot in the summer months. One of the best experiences I have ever had, however, was when we stopped with a group of participants in the middle of arctic landscape miles from local civilisation. As the noise of the snowmobiles fell away it was replaced with a glorious silence, the quality of which can only be heard when snow blankets the area for miles around. As we stood still to listen, the clouds above began to release yet more snow and the distant horizons gradually disappeared from view.

In July the conditions are quite different. Most of the snow has gone, apart from a few fields on the mountain tops and at sea level. The tundra is blooming and each tundra type has is own associated plant communities comprising saxifrages, drabas and other fragile and exquisite arctic plants. Bird species also vary from one tundra type to another, with drier areas dominated by purple sandpiper and wetter areas supporting dunlin. Red-throated diver, skua and grey phalarope are found in very wet areas with pools. Some of the valleys have breeding pink-footed or barnacle geese, while the rocky areas are home to snow bunting and ptarmigan.

Coastal areas provide examples of Svalbard's huge seabird colonies, with tens of thousands of little auk, kittiwake and Brünnich's guillemot as well as blue phase fulmar, black guillemot and the ubiquitous glaucous gull. Common and king eider, long-tailed duck and ivory gull are not uncommon. The mammal species are fewer but sightings of reindeer are certain and arctic fox, ringed seal and beluga whale are all distinct possibilities.

The main settlement on Svalbard is Longyearbyen, which is home to around 1,500 Norwegians. Coal mining was the main occupation but times change and tourism is fast becoming a major source of revenue. While Svalbard is governed by Norway, there are also Russian mining interests which focus around the settlement of Barentsburg, home to around 1,000 people.

The Longyearbyen glacier (Longyearbreen in Norwegian) is a day's excursion from the main settlement. With care you can walk on along the terminal moraine and up on to the glacier itself. This is an amazing experience. On one of our early trips Fraser and I walking right across the glacier, about halfway along its length, as part of our return journey to Longyearbyen. Walking across solid frozen ice and looking through transparent sections to free-flowing water underneath can be disconcerting! To understand that there may be hundreds of metres of frozen water underneath you takes time. What we noticed most was the chill of the wind on the glacier.

At all times there are two key factors that visitors must be aware of. Firstly, the cold: the average April temperature is -10 °C, while in July you may experience freezing temperatures but wind chill is more likely to reduce the temperature to near that of April's ambient. Adequate clothing is essential. Thermal underwear, fleece lined trousers, fleece jumpers and a duvet jacket are all on the equipment list. Remember the Norwegian saying 'There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing'! April clothing is really a few additions to the July list.

Secondly, there is always a good chance of encountering a polar bear. These animals can be dangerous and safety precautions must be followed. When in the field, the group must always be conscious of each other's relative positions and no one must stray further than 30 m (90 ft) from the core group. If anyone wishes to leave the group for a specific reason, they must seek the permission of the leaders. Fraser and I always give safety briefings; we carry rifles and flare guns for protection and have studied polar bear behaviour and understand early warning signs of aggression (such as bear teeth chattering). We have also been trained by the Territorial Army in the UK in the use of weapons.

Visitors should be aware that some arctic foxes on Svalbard carry rabies. This is, however, a minor health risk such that routine inoculations are not considered necessary. No other inoculations are essential for visiting Svalbard, but visitors are nevertheless advised to check that their tetanus cover is up to date.

The most usual way to travel to Svalbard is either by ship or plane. Ships are either cruising multi-destinations or specifically visiting and/or attempting tocircumnavigate Svalbard. Flights to Longyearbyen arrive via Norway. From the UK the usual route is via Oslo/Bergen and Tromsø.

Visits to this remote location are by invitation of the Governor of Svalbard. It is indeed a privilege to experience the magic of this iced wonderland, and all those who visit concur that it is the 'trip of a lifetime'.

© Simon Roper 2002. Simon is a co-leader for the Field Studies Council (FSC), an educational charity that promotes environmental understanding for all. Every year, the Overseas section of the FSC moves some 400 people to a range of destinations around the world. Svalbard is FSC's most northerly destination. All are educational tours, focusing on wildlife and environmental themes.

For more information contact the Field Studies Council Overseas on +44 (0) 1743 852150, e-mail: or Simon Roper on


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