Svalbard’s Arctic Environment

Those enjoying a tour to the remote islands of Svalbard will be greeted with austere beauty, which includes a land whitened by vast glaciers and ice fields. The mountains are stark and rugged, and Newtontoppen, the archipelago’s highest peak, rises 5,650 feet above sea level on Spitsbergen, the largest island. Western Spitsbergen is also the location of unusual stone structures, which scatter in labyrinthine circles across the landscape. While these intricate patterns are intriguing enough to be the work of fairies or elves, they are actually the result of the cyclic freezing and thawing of the ground, a process called ‘frost heaving.’

Though Svalbard’s climate is moderated by the warm North Atlantic Current – keeping the surrounding water open and mostly navigable – the Arctic ice pack still surrounds the islands in some of the colder winter months. Deep and jagged fjords punctuate the western and northern coastlines of the islands of Svalbard, forming excellent breeding grounds for the millions of birds that migrate there each year. During your Svalbard tour, keep an eye out for the five different species of trees found on the islands; four are willows and one is a dwarf birch. Because of the Arctic climate, the trees stay very small—travelers will not find the towering oaks or Douglas firs they may be accustomed to. At times, in fact, the grass of these northern islands grows higher than the trees.

Summers are short and cool on Svalbard, giving the flora little time to make seed. Instead, most of the plants propagate by stolons or rhizomes. While the flowers, like the trees, are dwarfed by the climate, tiny bits of color spread across the summer landscape, scattering purple and yellow and white blossoms. A tour of Svalbard also offers stunning views of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), which dance green and blue and red in the sky on long winter nights.

Svalbard’s natural resources include deposits of coal, iron ore, copper, zinc, and phosphate. There is also abundant wildlife, from walruses to polar bears to reindeer to Arctic foxes, and the surrounding seas are full of fish and other marine life. None of the land is arable, and because of the brevity of the growing season, the region grows no permanent crops.