General: Spitsbergen is the name of the main island, whereas, Svalbard is the official name of the whole archipelago between 76°26’N (Bjørnøya = Bear Island) and 80°50’N (Sjuøyane) and 10°30’E and 28°10’E. Earlier, the main island was called Vest-Spitsbergen; this name is abandoned. The total land area is 62,450 km2, thereof 39,500 km2 on the main island Spitsbergen, Edgeøya with 5,150 km2, Barentsøya 1,300 km2, Prins Karls Forland 650 km2. Svalbard is under Norwegian administration and souvereignty, but citizens of all signatary nations have full access (see Spitsbergen Treaty). To protect the environment and the cultural heritage and to ensure safety of travellers, there is a number of rules which Norwegian legislation and, mostly, also common sense provide (see here).
Geology: Very varieted; many chapters of earth history as well as a wide range of different rocks are represented in a relatively small area. This includes some fossil-rich sediments as well as minerals of economic interest, mostly coal. Other valuable minerals have been investigated during the 20th century, but were not mined with success. Exploration continues until today (see the individual areas, click on the map above). There is no active volcanism in Spitsbergen.
Sedimentary layers at Fuglefjella west of Longyearbyen
Climate: The climate is strongly influenced by two important oceanic currents. This makes the climate a polar-maritime one, with winters less cold and summers cooler than in more continental parts of the arctic such as northern Canada. The annual mean temperature in central Spitsbergen (Isfjord) is -7,5°C, which is warm regarding the position close to the pole between 78°N and 80°N. This is because of the effect of the gulf stream (see below). The midnight sun shines at 78°N for approximately 4 months, from 20th April to 20th August.
The West Spitsbergen current is the northernmost branch of the Gulf Stream and brings relatively warm water up to the north along Spitsbergen’s west coast. This makes the climate of Spitsbergen’s western and northern coasts relatively mild, with little sea ice. The central west coast (especially Kongsfjord) is accessible for ships during most parts of the year. Eastern parts of Svalbard are influenced by a cold current coming from the northeast, bringing cold polar water masses and a lot of ice from the polar ocean even in the summer. This cold current brings drift ice from the northeast to the south cape of Spitsbergen. The ice can drift around the south cape and up north along the west coast. This means, that the southern fjords at the west coast of Spitsbergen are often closed by drift ice, when the northern onces are already ice-free. There can be fields of drift ice in Isfjord at any time of the year, although this is rare during the later summer.
Landscape: The landscape is very varied because of the geology and the climate. Near the west coast of Spitsbergen, the landscape is very alpine with pointed mountains, which gave Spitsbergen its name. Central, northern and eastern parts of Svalbard tend to be more wide and open, with plateau-shaped mountains. The highest mountains are in northeastern Spitsbergen (Ny Friesland): Newtontoppen is 1,713 metres high, but is not very conspicuously towering above the surrounding, heavily glaciated high plateau – at least, when seen from a distance. The mountains near the west coast, towering above sea level still more than 1000 metres directly next to the fjords, appear to be more spectacular, such as Hornsundtind in Hornsund, south Spitsbergen’s highest mountain with 1431 metres.
Plateau-shaped mountains in central Spitsbergen (Dickson Land)
Glaciated mountain landscape in northwestern Spitsbergen (Raudfjord).
About 60% of Svalbard’s land area are glaciated, with an decreasing tendency because of climate change. The glaciated varies locally because of the local climate; precipitation and thus glaciation increase generally with altitude and to the west, which is the main source area for moist air. Also northern air masses bring a lot of snow, which is the reason for the vast glaciation of Nordaustland and Kvitøya with their wide ice caps.