No matter when you come, Svalbard and Greenland are always nice. Nevertheless, there is an extremely strong contrast between the seasons, regarding what you can see, do and experience.
Spring, that is March to early May. Temperatures are still mostly below zero, especially in March it can still be f….ing cold (temperatures vary actually a lot in the maritime Arctic and it can be thawing and rainy for a day or two at any season in Spitsbergen, something that is not getting better in times of climate change). But in contrast to the ‘real’ winter, the light is back again. In March, you will have a daily rhythm not too different from latitudes where most of us live. In late April in Spitsbergen the sun shines 24 hours a day. In late February and March, the light can be extremely beautiful, with endless combined sunset and sunrise, but it is still more or less dark during the night and it can be quite cold (down to -30°C, but that is very rare now at sea level). In May, the light becomes quite bright and hard. In April, there is nice light, no darkness anymore and the risk of very low temperatures is gradually decreasing. All this makes April an ideal time for all sorts of winter activities, be it with skies, dogsledge or snowmobile. There is a lot of snowmobile traffic in Spitsbergen, this season is quite busy, the locals potentially a bit stressed, hotels fully booked and no rental scooters available. This means you should either come before or after peak season or book early. Try dogsledging or cross-country-skiing in one of the snowmobile-free areas of Spitsbergen – extremely nice! In recent years, the boat season has started as early as March or April, so day-trips with small ships to Barentsburg or scenic cruises to on the of the bays in Isfjord become available (Pyramiden is usually not accessible until summer because the harbour is frozen). The season finishes with the snowmelt, usually around mid-May, but it can be sooner or later, depending on each individual year. In 2006, the snowmelt in Spitsbergen came about one month too early, in April. Generally, the snow- and ice conditions as well as the onset of the snowmelt vary greatly from year to year.
Late spring to mid-June. This is a bit between seasons. There is not enough snow and ice anymore for skiing or sledging (using dogs or fuel), but still too much for hiking or the boat season. Accordingly, the choice of activities is rather limited, but it is a calm season without too many tourists. On the other hand, the birds are quite busy, starting their breeding season. There is usually still a lot of snow in the landscape, which will make walking difficult, but it looks very nice. It is a good time if you want to spend some calm days in Longyearbyen, and it can be rewarding and rich with different experiences and impressions.
Early summer, about late June to mid-July. Slowly, the snow should disappear, and it is getting easier to do some walking in the field, although it is still quite early for long trekking tours (still some snow patches here and there, wet tundra, a lot of meltwater in the rivers). The midnight sun is shining brightly, the Arctic wildlife is mostly busy (all birds are breeding), many flowers make for lovely colour dots in the tundra. The shipping season has begun, and during a several day ship-based journey you are likely (not guaranteed, though) to see quite a lot of drift- and fjordice. If you want to be sure that you can sail around the whole main island of Spitsbergen, you should rather come a bit later, otherwise the ice may get between you and your dreams. Also for longer hiking tours (for example from Longyearbyen to the east coast of Spitsbergen and back), it may still be a bit early. On the other hand, snow and ice provide a very nice scenic background for many activities.
Spitsbergen seasons: early summer in Woodfjord (Andøyane)
Spitsbergen seasons: early summer in Woodfjord (Andøyane).
Late summer, about mid-July to late August. Snow at sea level should mostly have disappeared, and the tundra is getting drier. This is ideal for longer trekking tours as well as ship-based trips to the more remote parts of Svalbard, even though fields of drift ice can still get in the way, especially in the northeastern and eastern parts – nobody will give you a guarantee that you will be able to reach a certain destination. But chances should be good to get around, and conditions for longer hikes are good (dry terrain, no snow, less breeding birds). In August, flowers are getting scarce, and the tundra gets a nice, brownish-reddish colour (more intensive in Scandinavia and Greenland than in Svalbard).
Early autumn, early and mid-September. A relatively dry season, usually still good or excellent for longer trekking tours. Most flowers will be gone, but the tundra has a nice colour and is very dry. It is getting darker again during the night, and the low sund can provide a beautiful, warm light for hours on end. Most birds have left, and at some point the first storms will come with strong winds and snowfall and make the Arctic less attractive again for tourists.
Late autumn, October/early November. The days are getting shorter, more stormy and cold, but the light of the low sun can still be extremely beautiful. Options for activities are rather limited, but if you want to spend a while in Longyearbyen without too many other tourists around, it can still be a good season for you. Chances to get in touch with some locals can be better, and with some luck you may see the first northern lights (see below).
Polar night, late November to mid-February. The sun does not show above the horizon from late November to mid February. It will not surprise you to read that it is mostly dark and cold, although temperatures around or even slightly above freezing and some rain may occur every now and then. If you want to experience the polar night, then it may not be necessary to travel to Spitsbergen to do so; a winter night somewhere in the mountains of Scandinavia will provide a similar experience, where you will also find better infrastructure and at least some hours of weak daylight, allowing for more activities to be enjoyed, with a lower risk of suddenly being eaten by some big animal.
It should be mentioned, however, that a clear night, with stars and the Aurora Borealis casting some bleak light over the snowy landscape, is beautiful beyond imagination. Hotels make attractive offers during this mostly rather quiet period and tour operators are increasingly creative to offer activities. Many local say this is the most beautiful time. Everything is a bit calmer in Longyearbyen in the dark period, so it is a good time to meet people or to enjoy cultural events such as the Dark Seasons Blues Festival. It is an idea to rent a car for a day or two to be able to get out of Longyearbyen into Adventdalen or towards Bjørndalen (depending on the weather, the roads may be blocked by snow drifts at times). If you move around on foot, it is essential to attach reflectors to your clothing and rucksack to be visible for car drivers. Otherwise you are in for risk and the anger of local drivers. It is amazing how often people think the middle of the road is a good place to set up a tripod, but it isn’t. And while we are at it, it is really a good idea to bring a tripod, a fast aperture lense and a flashlight in the dark season.
Polar night in Borebukta, Spitsbergen
Transitional season between polar night and spring (late February-early March). Every day, the light is changing, daylight is getting longer and longer. It is still a bit too early for longer tours (skiing, sledging), quite dark and cold, but opportunities for interesting daytrips are increasing rapidly. The light can be extremely beautiful, and it is still relatively quiet, compared to peak winter (skiing-/snowmobile-/dodsledging-) season in late March and April.