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Natural and human history

Map: Grønfjord-Colesbukta

Map: Grønfjord-Coles­buk­ta.


This page is about the natu­ral and human histo­ry of the Grønfjord area and the Isfjord coast fur­ther east. The­re is a dedi­ca­ted page about Barents­burg. In ear­lier times, Grønfjord was known as Green Har­bour. Both names mean the same.


Grønfjord from abo­ve as a snow land­scape in March.
Seen from the sche­du­led flight, view to the nor­thwest.

But the area is, of cour­se, hea­vi­ly influen­ced by Barents­burg and the aban­do­ned dou­ble sett­le­ment of Coles­buk­ta and Gru­mant­by­en. You will find traces of acti­vi­ties rela­ted to the­se sett­le­ments, most­ly mining, almost any­whe­re. This is some­ti­mes inte­res­t­ing and some­ti­mes rather annoy­ing, when it comes to indus­tri­al was­te, often harmful to wild­life, that is just left in the arc­tic envi­ron­ment.

Barentsburg, Grønfjord

View over Barents­burg and into Grønfjord: snow land­scape in the ear­ly win­ter (Octo­ber).

Nevert­hel­ess, the area has one of Spitsbergen’s richest tun­dra envi­ron­ments, in Grønfjord, Coles­da­len and other lar­ge val­leys. The­re and near Gru­mant­by­en it is recom­men­ded to boil water tho­rough­ly befo­re drin­king it or using it to prepa­re food or other hygie­ni­cal­ly sen­si­ti­ve pur­po­ses, as the­re are intro­du­ced mice that can spread fox tape­worm (Echi­no­coc­cus mul­ti­lo­cu­la­ris). An infec­tion is unli­kely, but if this kind of dis­as­ter hap­pens to strike, then it is extre­me­ly dan­ge­rous.

The area has good oppor­tu­ni­ties for sum­mer hiking and win­ter expe­di­ti­ons, from day hikes – from Bjørn­da­len to the west or start­ing in Barents­burg – to lon­ger trips. Hiking from Lon­gye­ar­by­en to Barents­burg (or the other way around), inclu­ding tra­vel­ling the other way by boat, is an opti­on for a first seve­ral-day hiking tour in Spits­ber­gen. But I have to admit that I pre­fer the hiking oppor­tu­ni­ties and the sce­n­ery in Dick­son Land, which is also reason­ab­ly acces­si­ble from Pyra­mi­den.

Hiking terrain, Grønfjord

Hiking in Grønfjord. The­re are ple­nty of the­se stee­p­ly incis­ed litt­le river val­leys in the area, which requi­re time and ener­gy espe­ci­al­ly when you have to nego­tia­te them
with a hea­vy bag­pack.

The coas­tal area bet­ween Grønfjord and Coles­buk­ta is a fre­quent­ly used win­ter rou­te as it is one of two main snow mobi­le rou­tes bet­ween Lon­gye­ar­by­en and Barents­burg. The­re is ano­ther rou­te fol­lo­wing some inland val­leys (the­re is a detail­ed descrip­ti­on of this rou­te and other ones in the gui­de­book Spits­ber­gen-Sval­bard). Both rou­tes may also be used on hiking tours in the sum­mer, but they will include various ter­rain chal­lenges inclu­ding river crossings and wet tun­dra in Coles­da­len.

Snow mobile tour, Grønfjord

On snow mobi­le tour in Grønfjord, on the way to Barents­burg.

But the cos­tal rou­te bet­ween Coles­buk­ta and Grønfjord – local­ly often refer­red to as the Kapp Lai­la rou­te – is not at all a beach walk or, in the win­ter, a dri­ve along the coast. The coast its­elf is most­ly a low cliff. And the­re is a cou­ple of ter­rain chal­lenges in shape of seve­ral deep­ly incis­ed river val­leys which can be dif­fi­cult to nego­tia­te, now mat­ter how you are tra­vel­ling. During a snow mobi­le trip, navi­ga­ting the slo­pes around the­se val­leys can be pret­ty chal­len­ging espe­ci­al­ly for beg­in­ners.

Motorschlittentour nach Barentsburg: Nordhallet

Snow mobi­le tour to Barents­burg: Nord­hal­let, the slo­pes south of the Isfjord coast bet­ween Coles­da­len and Hol­len­dard­a­len. Loo­king west, towards Hol­len­dard­a­len.

A lot depends on the wea­ther during the days befo­re the trip: in case the ground is icy and slip­pery, the stee­per slo­pes, espe­ci­al­ly tho­se rela­ted to the abo­ve-men­tio­ned, can be dif­fi­cult or even dan­ge­rous and impos­si­ble. This poten­ti­al­ly tri­cky slo­pe area bet­ween Coles­buk­ta and Hol­len­dard­a­len is cal­led Nord­hal­let; the area is more of an obs­ta­cle than any­thing else, the most scenic aspect being the wide view over Isfjord. Other than that, the­re are ple­nty of other parts of Spits­ber­gen that are more sceni­cal­ly attrac­ti­ve than Nord­hal­let. And con­side­ring the dif­fi­cul­ties and poten­ti­al dan­gers, it is cer­tain­ly recom­men­ded to join a gui­ded tour unless you have rele­vant expe­ri­ence and know­ledge, or at least pay good atten­ti­on to local advice.

For more, detail­ed infor­ma­ti­on: the Gui­de­book Spits­ber­gen-Sval­bard

Guidebook Spitsbergen-Svalbard

Pro­tec­ted are­as

The only legal­ly pro­tec­ted area in the regi­on is the Fest­nin­gen geo­to­pe, a geo­lo­gi­cal sanc­tua­ry on the Isfjord coast west of Grønfjord. But it does not include access rest­ric­tions.


Sand­stone cliffs at Fest­nin­gen at the ent­rance to Grønfjord.


The bed­rock on the west side of Grønfjord con­sists most­ly of stee­p­ly til­ted sedi­men­ta­ry rocky, main­ly fos­sil-rich lime­s­to­nes from the upper Car­bo­ni­fe­rous and lower Per­mi­an. The­se lay­ers are run­ning through the moun­ta­ins Pro­duc­tu­stop­pen, Bra­ganz­a­top­pen and Var­de­borg to Kapp Sta­ros­tin, giving them a spe­cial struc­tu­re and appearance. See sec­tion geo­lo­gy (Kapp Sta­ros­tin) on the page Kapp Lin­né-Fest­nin­gen.

Geology Grønfjord

Moun­tain cliffs of hard sedi­ment lay­ers (Car­bo­ni­fe­rous-Per­mi­an) south of Grønfjord.

East of Grønfjord, we find bed­rock con­sis­ting of most­ly hori­zon­tal lower Ter­tia­ry lay­ers. The­re are alter­na­ting lay­ers of sand-, silt- and clay­stone; the sand­sto­nes are coal-bea­ring and part­ly rich in fos­sils (imprints of lea­ves like from hazel­nut trees etc.). The chan­ge from sand- to clay­stone is due to chan­ging rela­ti­ve sea level and thus of chan­ging depo­si­tio­nal envi­ron­ment from del­taic to deeper shelf and can nice­ly be seen in the slo­pes, espe­ci­al­ly when you ascend one of the few moun­ta­ins towe­ring abo­ve the wide-ran­ging pla­teau, which is 400-500 met­res high. In some of the sand­sto­nes, you can find nice ripp­le marks and other sedi­men­ta­ry struc­tures.

Sediment layers, lower Tertiary, Finneset

Lower Ter­tia­ry sedi­ment lay­ers at Fin­nes­et.

The lay­ers are most­ly hori­zon­tal and tec­to­ni­cal­ly undis­tur­bed, but the­re are some smal­ler faults. A thrust cuts the rocks just east of Gru­mant­by­en and is nice­ly visi­ble from the Isfjord. This fault cau­sed dif­fi­cul­ties for the Rus­si­an mine in Gru­mant­by­en, which was one of the reasons for clo­sing the mine in 1962.

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


View from Grønfjordfjellet

View from Grønfjord­fjel­let south of Barents­burg over inner Grønfjord.

The cha­rac­te­ristic land­scape in most parts of Nor­dens­ki­öld Land east of Grønfjord includes pla­teau-shaped moun­ta­ins with wide pla­teaus in an ele­va­ti­on bet­ween 400 and 600 met­res. Few moun­ta­ins tower abo­ve this pla­teau and reach a good 1000 met­res abo­ve sea level; other­wi­se, the rocks once cove­ring the who­le pla­teau have been ero­ded. The area is most­ly ung­la­cia­ted and has some lar­ge ice-free val­leys such as Coles­da­len and Grøn­da­len. The val­ley bot­toms are most­ly occup­pied by brai­ded rivers, the lar­ger bran­ches of which can be dif­fi­cult to cross. This also appli­es to some of the lagoon out­lets and melt­wa­ter rivers in inner Grønfjord.

Crossing meltwater river near Grønfjordbreane

Crossing a melt­wa­ter river near Grønfjord­brea­ne in inner Grønfjord.

The net-like rivers of the­se rivers form aeste­tic pat­terns, which are espe­ci­al­ly nice when seen from an ele­va­ted posi­ti­on. Ano­ther spe­cial­ty of the lar­ge, ice-free val­leys are pin­gos: per­ma­frost phe­no­me­na con­sis­ting of lar­ge, ice-fil­led cones, up to 30-40 met­res high. The­re are seve­ral pin­gos in Grøn­da­len.


View over lower­most Grøn­da­len.

Flo­ra and fau­na

The tun­dra near the coast is among­st the richest tun­dra are­as of Spits­ber­gen, espe­ci­al­ly in Coles­da­len, but some are­as around Grønfjord are also com­pa­ra­tively lush and green. Reinde­er are accor­din­gly abun­dant.

Reindeer antler, tundra

Reinde­er ant­ler on the tun­dra at San­defj­ord­ne­set.

Salt marsh tundra Tundra

Salt marsh tun­dra near the coast in inner Grønfjord in evening light, late August.

A fau­ni­stic spe­cial­ty in Sval­bard, which is other­wi­se free of rodents, are mice which live in the sett­le­ments. Sur­pri­sin­gly, they have sur­vi­ved until today in Gru­mant­by­en, alt­hough the sett­le­ment was aban­do­ned in 1962. They do spread bey­ond the for­mer sett­le­ment area and the­re are records of them as far away as Advent­da­len, but during the win­ter, they seem to be rest­ric­ted to Gru­mant­by­en, at least so far. They may spread para­si­tes (tape­worm), so it is stron­gly recom­men­ded to boil drin­king water tho­rough­ly in this area.

Walrus on drift ice floe

Wal­rus on drift ice floe: both are rare visi­tors in Grønfjord.

Barents­burg has its own influence on the vege­ta­ti­on and wild­life, for exam­p­le due to the intro­duc­tion of new plant spe­ci­es. The Sys­sel­man­nen is try­ing to con­trol or, whe­re pos­si­ble, era­di­ca­te them.

Cat, Barentsburg

Cat in Barents­burg: not real­ly part of Spitsbergen’s natu­ral envi­ron­ment.


Isfjord was one of the first parts of Spits­ber­gen to be dis­co­ver­ed and used exten­si­ve­ly. The name Hol­len­dard­a­len tells alre­a­dy that Dutch 17th cen­tu­ry wha­lers fre­quen­ted the area, which was later also used by both Pomors and Nor­we­gi­an trap­pers. The­re are, howe­ver, not many visi­ble remains from the­se ear­ly peri­ods, which is in part due to the more recent infra­struc­tu­re.

At Fin­nes­et south of Barents­burg, the­re was a wha­ling sta­ti­on in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, and a radio sta­ti­on for com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on with the main­land. The radio sta­ti­on was in 1933 moved to Kapp Lin­né becau­se of the topo­gra­phy which was more sui­ta­ble for radio com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on.

As is evi­dent from the name, Barents­burg was ori­gi­nal­ly foun­ded by a Dutch mining com­pa­ny (Neder­land­sche Spits­ber­gen Com­pa­gnie = NeSpi­Co), but after a few years it was sold to the Rus­si­ans. It is the only acti­ve Rus­si­an mining sett­le­ment in Spits­ber­gen, with a gro­wing empha­sise on tou­rism in recent years. See the page about Barents­burg for fur­ther infor­ma­ti­on.

Mine entrance, Barentsburg

Old mine ent­rance on the south side of Glad­da­len direct­ly abo­ve Barents­burg.
The first mine in the area, from the Dutch years, must have been in this area.

Gru­mant­by­en was ano­ther coal mining sett­le­ment, ori­gi­nal­ly Bri­tish-Rus­si­an an later enti­re­ly Rus­si­an and at some point the lar­gest sett­le­ment of Spits­ber­gen with a good 1000 inha­bi­tants, which is hard to belie­ve when you see the few hou­ses which are left at the steep coast. The mine and con­se­quent­ly also the sett­le­ment were aban­do­ned in 1962. Becau­se of the lack of sui­ta­ble ancho­ring posi­ti­ons and har­bour faci­li­ties at Gru­mant­by­en, the coal was ship­ped from Coles­buk­ta. The old sett­le­ment the­re was the har­bour for Gru­mant­by­en.

The­re is a page about Coles­buk­ta with more infor­ma­ti­on about that place.

Gal­lery Grønfjord

Some impres­si­ons from the area around Grønfjord. Dif­fe­rent kinds of trips, dif­fe­rent sea­sons.

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



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last modification: 2020-10-26 · copyright: Rolf Stange