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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
© 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
or Simon Roper on email@example.com