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Isfjord

Spitsbergen's largest fjord: an overview

Map Isfjord

Clockwise: T = Trygghamna, P = Pyramiden, L = Longyearbyen, G = Grumantbyen, C = Colesbukta, G = Grønfjord, B = Barentsburg.

This page is just for a first overview. There are more pages about various places in Isfjord which you can access by clicking on the map above or on the following links:

For more, detailed information: the Guidebook Spitsbergen-Svalbard

Guidebook Spitsbergen-Svalbard

General

Isfjord is Spitsbergen’s largest fjord. It is cutting more than 100 km into the island with a lot of different branches. The landscape and history are varied, and most settlements of Spitsbergen are here. The climate is favourable, at least for Svalbard standards, as the gulf stream keeps the fjord largely ice-free and temperatures mild. The effect of increasing continentality is noticeable deeper in the fjord, with colder winters and warmer summers. Whereas the Isfjord was often completely frozen during the late winter in the early 20th century, this happens today only in exceptionally cold years, but the smaller side fjords on the north side and in innermost Isfjord (Billefjord, Tempelfjord) still freeze in most winters, although not as reliably as in the 20th century.

Most human activities in Svalbard are concentrated in Isfjord, which puts some pressure on the environment. This includes mining, the settlements in general and a growing tourism industry with a lot of snow mobile traffic in the late winter (late February-early May).

Isfjord: Longyearbyen

Most of Spitsbergen’s settlements, such as Longyearbyen, are in the Isfjord area.

Protected areas

There are several protected areas in Isfjord, including bird sanctuaries, which may not be entered at all during the breeding season (15 May-15 August). Make sure you know where you may go and where not – boundaries are not marked in the field, there are no signs etc. As with everything about Spitsbergen – refer to the guidebook Spitsbergen – Svalbard (see picture and link above) for further information.

Geology

Varied. In this large area, almost the whole geology of Svalbard is represented from the basement over Devonian Old Red to Permocarboniferous carbonates and evaporites (anhydrite and gypsym) to the Mesozoic-Tertiary clastic sediment cover. Because of the steep dip of the strata, you can find quite complete successions near the west coast within a small area, for example the Festningen section. In the west, the rocks have been strongly deformed during the Alpidic orogeny in the lower Tertiary, whereas the strata are mostly horizontal in central and eastern parts, at least on the south side of Isfjord. For further information, see individual areas (click on the map).

Recommended book for further, well-digestable (really!) info about geology and landscape of Svalbard.

Landscape

Very varied due to differences in geology and climate. There are wide coastal plains at the west coast, behind which there is a glaciated, alpine mountaineous scenery on the northern side of Isfjord. On the south side, the occurrence of pointed mountains is more or less limited to two N-S stretching mountain chains west of the Grønfjord. East of Grønfjord, the scenery is dominatey by the characteristical plateau-shaped mountains, which are topped by wide plateaus in 400-600 metres altitude. Only few mountains rise over this plateau level, showing what kind of rocks once covered the whole are with a thickness of many hundred metres or probably kilometres, but have fallen victim to erosion. Central and eastern parts of Nordenskiöld Land (that is the area between Isfjord and Bellsund from the west coast almost to the east coast) feature large ice-free valleys with very rich tunda areas, more than anywhere else in Svalbard. Thus, the area offers good hiking opportunities also for longer trekkings, but crossing rivers can be very difficult and even dangerous or impossible.

Isfjord landscape: Ymerbukta

Some typical landscape elements in Isfjord (here seen in Ymerbukta):
flat tundra (foreground), moraine (centre), glacier and mountains.

Nordenskiöld Land between Isfjord and Bellsund is amongst the least glaciated areas of Svalbard, whereas there is a number of calving fronts and a strongly glaciated ‘hinterland’ on the northern side of the Isfjord.

Sveabreen

Glacier in Isfjord (Sveabreen).

Flora and fauna

The flora is rich – at least for Svalbard standards – in many places, there are large tundra areas especially on the coastal plains and in the large, ice-free valleys. For example, Colesdalen and Reindalen belong to the biologically most productive areas of Svalbard, with high biodiversity, a dense cover of thick vegetation and accordingly a strong reindeer population, foxes, ptarmigans etc.

On steep cliffs near the coast, there is a number of bird colonies with Brünich’s Guillemots, Kittiwakes and, in places, Puffins which are otherwise rather rare in Svalbard. Polar bears may well be seen year-round, and it is not unusual to encounter one also near the settlements, so the safety routines – most importantly, appropriate weapon and experience – have to be observed everywhere in Isfjord as soon as you set a foot out of any settlement.

History

Long and varied. There are many remains of Pomor hunting stations, who may have been here before Spitsbergen was discovered by Willem Barentsz in 1596. The name ‘Ice Sound’ was given in 1610 by the English whaler Jonas Poole ‘because it was covered with Ice’ (makes sense, doesn’t it?).

During the 19th and 20th century, a number of scientific expeditions have visited the Isfjord that makes it impossible to mention all of them here. Norwegian trappers have had their hunting ground here, a tradition that has partly survived until today. Legendary hunters such as Hilmar Nøis and Arthur Oxaas lived in Isfjord for many years in the first half of the 20th century. Mining started in the late 19th century, but most of the many little mines didn’t survive the stage of exploration and trial mining. All of today’s settlements in the Isfjord were founded as coal mining settlements, Barentsburg and Longyearbyen are the ones which are still in use.

Isfjord gallery

Just a very few pictures for a first taste. As mentioned above, there are more pages (click on the map or on the links at the top of this page) about various places within Isfjord.

Click on thumbnail to open an enlarged version of the specific photo.

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Kapp Linné Grønfjord, Colesdalen, Grumantbyen Adventfjord, Longyearbyen Tempelfjord, Sassenfjord Dickson Land, Billefjord Isfjord northern side
last modification: 2020-09-14 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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