Ho = Hotellneset (Airport, camping site), Afj = Adventfjord, L = Longyearbyen, H = Hjorthamn/Moskushamn, A = Advent City
General: Most densely populated part of Svalbard. Longyearbyen is residence of the Norwegian administration (Sysselmannen = Gouvernour), services and infrastructure (airport, port, hospital, shops, hotels etc), science (Polar institute, university, museum etc.), tour operators. The area has a lot to offer for everybody interested not only in history and today’s settlements, but also in landscape, flora and fauna.
There are some rules regarding protection of nature, cultural heritage and tourists and to make tourism tolerable for everybody, also near and in the settlements. See here.
Geology: Lower Cretaceous and lower Tertiary (upper Cretaceous is missing in Svalbard). Mostly undeformed sediments, gently dipping to south. Because of this, the slopes on the northern side of the Adventfjord are mostly Cretaceous except from the highest parts. The Cretaceous Festningen-Sandstone is a prominent layer of quartzitic sandstone, which often forms protruding cliffs due to its relative hardness. This is nicely visible on the northern side of the Adventfjord, where there are two cliff-building, hard layers in the higher slopes. The lower one is the Festningen sandstone, the upper one a similar layer of lower Tertiary sandstone (‘Firkanten Formation”).
Both Cretaceous and Tertiary consist lithologically of shallow marine and coastal sand-, silt- and claystones. The sandstones are derived from deltaic sediments, the claystones point to stronger marine influence in a larger distance from the coast. Obviously, there were several transgressional/regressional cycles (relativ sea-level rise and fall). This becomes nicely clear during a daytrip on the Nordenskiöldtoppen, a mountain more than 1000 metres high near Longyearbyen towering above Platåfjellet. Here, dark claystones alternate with silt- and sandstone. The claystones represent phases of higher sea level, when the coast was far away and only fine grains were deposited here. When the coast got nearer again due to a relative drop of sea level, sand was deposited which was washed into the sea by rivers. Some of the sandstone layers are very fossil-rich, leaves similar to those of nazelnut trees are very common there (check the morains of the glaciers which bring everything together or, which is easier, the museum in Longyearbyen).
Both Cretaceous and Tertiary are coal-bearing. The hard coal was mined during the 20th century on both sides of the fjord (see below).
Horizontal layers of sediment (sandstone, siltstone) from the lower Tertiary. Fuglefjellet, west of Longyearbyen.
Recommended book for further, well-digestable (really!) info about geology and landscape of Svalbard.
Landscape: Most striking, at least in comparison with other parts of Svalbard, is the dense land-use, but this does not mean that nature does not have anything to offer here. The landscape is characterised by the plateau-shaped mountains which are so typical for central and eastern Svalbard, with high plateaus 400-500 metres above sea level. The plateaus are wide stone-deserts, partly with frost-patterned ground and largely free of vegetation.
Most rocks above this level have been eroded – in other words, they have been there at some time. But now, only a few mountains tower higher than the plateau such as the Nordenskiöld-Toppen and Trollsteinen near Longyearbyen. Here, one can still see what kind of rocks once covered the whole area, but the highest (youngest) ones are still lower Tertiary. Around Longyearbyen, the lower Tertiary sandstone of the ‘Firkanten Formation’ forms conspicuous cliffs which are cut into regular, spectacular towers by erosion. The slopes are mostly covered with scree (rocks with mostly sharp edges, from frost shatter). Compared to other regions within Svalbard, Adventfjord and Longyeardalen may appear to be a bit grey-brown in colour with little contrast, which is due to the colour of the rocks, and there are only few and relatively small glaciers.
Plateau in an elevation of 4-500 metres near Longyearbyen (in the foreground the mountain Sarkofagen, Longyearbyen to the left just outside the photo. Adventdalen in the background).
Flora and Fauna: Both are surprisingly rich, despite of the presence of more than 1500 humans. There is nice tundra in Bjørndalen and on the lower slopes between there and Longyearbyen as well as in Adventdalen. There, you may even find the polar birch, which is rare in Svalbard – good luck 🙂 You can find the polar birch in Endalen after a few minutes walking from the road.
Near Longyearbyen, there are small colonies of Little auks nesting on the higher slopes. They breed under boulders, so you don’t see them nesting, but you see the birds flying in and out and sitting on rocks. If you want to see Arctic terns, Kittiwakes, Snow Bunting and, with some luck, even Grey phalaropes, then the camping site near the airport and the artificial lagoon between the camping site and the coast is a good place to visit (keep your distance from breeding birds, don’t disturb them, see rules). In Adventdalen, you may see King Eiders near some small ponds around June. The elusive Ivory gull may be seen near the dogyard just outside Longyearbyen in the Adventdalen. It is not unusual to see arctic fox and reindeer even inside Longyearbyen.
All in all – near Longyearbyen, you can see quite a lot of arctic flora and fauna. You can spend several days here, if you know where to look – consider to you hire your own guide, for a number of interesting places, you will also need a rifle, transportation etc.
History: Mostly characterised by mining. American John Munro Longyear saw the coal seams during a cruise and founded the Arctic Coal Company Ltd. Mining in ‘Advent Bay’ started in 1906. Longyear sold everything to the Norwegian ‘Store Norske Spitsbergen Kullkompani’ (SNSK) in 1916 because of the development of the global markets as well as local difficulties. The SNSK, now state-owned, still exists under the name ‘Store Norske’ (Great Norwegian) and is the landowner in Longyearbyen. Mining has been reduced to a more symbolic level in mine 7 in nearby Adventdalen. The centre of Norwegian coal-mining is Sveagruva.
During, the war, there have been fights in Spitsbergen on several occasions. Most settlements, including Longyearbyen, were destroyed.
Life on Svalbard changed significantly when the airport was opened in 1975.
Tourism has also a long history in the area. A hotel was even opened in the late 19th century for a few years, the place is still called Hotellneset. Today, you find the camp site here, there are no remains of the old hotel.
Longyearbyen ‘downtown’ with supermarket (left) and glacier (background).