F = Fridtjofbreen (-glacier), Fridtjofhamna (the bay near Fridtjofbreen), S = Sveagruva, M = Midterhukfjellet
General: Scenically very varied fjord system with several branches. There are some historically interesting sites. The land south of Bellsund and Van Keulenfjord is part of the South Spitsbergen National Park.
Geology: Geologically, this is for me the ‘classical’ west coast fjord, with a nice cross section through Earth history of Spitsbergen from the west coast to the inner part of the fjord. Near the west coast, you find the pre-Devonian basement with quarzites, phyllites and shist. There are different kinds of ores and minerals, which led to exploration and trial mining in the early 20th century, but without any results. The devonian Old Red is missing in the area, so Carboniferous konglomerates and breccias lie directly on the basement, followed by a succession similar to the famous ‘Festningen section‘, with sediments spanning the period from Carboniferous to lower Tertiary. The tertiary sediments are exposed east of the line Fridtjofbreen-Midterhuken, they contain thick coals seams (similar to the geology around Longyearbyen), which are mined in Sveagruva.
The tectonic deformation of the sediments is interesting. Tectonic activity during the opening of the north Atlantic took place west of the west coast (well, makes sense, as that’s where the Atlantic is). The nearer to the coast, the stronger are uplift and deformation of the rocks. Close to the coast, uplift was strong enough to expose the basement, which is buried under several kilometres of sedimentary cover in central Spitsbergen. Close to the basement, the sedimentary cover rocks are strongly deformed and dip vertically with a N-S trend and expose nice folds and faults, especially beautiful on the northern slope of the Midterhukfjellet. The deformation becomes very obvious whereever the rocks are very hard, such as the Permian limestones of the Kapp Starostin Formation at Akseløya. Further to the east, where the sediments have preserved their original, horizontal position, you find the classical plateau-shaped mountains.
Folded layers exposed on the northern slopes of Midterhukfjellet.
Recommended book for further, well-digestable (really!) info about geology and landscape of Svalbard.
Landscape: Nicely varied because of the geological history. A wide range of ‘typical Svalbard-landscapes’ can be seen within a relatively short distance, starting with the coastal plains forming the west coast to the jagged mountains nearby to the plateau-mountain landscape of central and eastern Spitsbergen as well as Barents– and Edgøya. The transition zone is especially fascinating, with its strongly deformed sediments. Hard, vertically dipping sediments stand out like walls in the landscape and form the elongated Akseløya as well as part of the Midterhukfjellet with its beautiful fold patterns to some nice capes and islands in the Van Keulenfjord. Should you ever have the chance to go inland into Folddalen just southeast of Midterhukfjellet, you will see some nice waterfalls cascading down the hard, steep-standing sedimentary layers.
The ‘hinterland’, especially in the southern part, is more strongly glaciated than the surroundings of Longyearbyen, but less so than northwestern Spitsbergen or the Hornsund-area. This means that the Bellsund is not exactly the classical place in Svalbard to experience large glaciers, but there are still some nice ones, such as the Fridtjofbreen which can be reached within a few days trekking from Longyearbyen or Barentsburg.
Near the west coast, you find wide coastal plains, which may appear to be barren and boring, but have a lot to offer to those who can appreciate the many beautiful, little details: a nice piece of driftwood, an old whalebone near the beach, a tranquil tundra pond with a breeding Red-throated diver and other birdlife, well-developed series of old beach ridges (which are partly very nice to walk on) etc. Especially nice fossil beach ridges with very obvious ice wedges can be seen in the entrance area of the Van Keulenfjord.
Panoramas Nathorstbreen, Van Keulenfjord
During 2008 and 2009, Nathorstbreen (-glacier) in innermost Van Keulenfjord advanced rapidly over several kilometres: a phenomenon called „surge“. In September 2012, Nathorstbreen’s glacier front was still heavily broken.
Recherchefjord and Chamberlindalen
View from Observatoriefjellet south of Recherchefjord over Chamberlindalen
View from Observatoriefjellet south of Recherchefjord over Chamberlindalen (left side), Recherchefjord and, in the distance, Midterhukfjellet (centre) and Recherchebreen (-glacier) and its lagoon on the right side. Fresh snow from the night before. Late August 2012.
Flora and Fauna: Very nice and rich tundra near Vårsolbukta on the northern side of Bellsund. The outer coast is under the influence of the gulf stream, and fertilisation by a nearby, large birdcliff will play a role. This tundra is an important place where geese gather in the early summer, and fox and reindeer are abundant. The birdcliff itself is high up on the cliffs of Ingeborgfjellet (west of Fridtjofbreen) and not directly accessible, but the noise level is impressive. There are nice tundra areas also in other places around the Bellsund (Recherchefjord, Van Keulenfjord). Polar bears roam the area – be careful…
History: Bellsund was one of the first fjords in Spitsbergen to be visited and used by whalers in the early 17th century. There are remains of whaling stations, e.g. in the Recherchefjord. On several occasions, whalers were forced to winter and survived miraculously. Also the Pomors used the area as a hunting ground for centuries; there are several remains of their hunting stations near the west coast, especially north of Bellsund. Here, some of them may be older than 1596, the date of Barents‘ discovery of Spitsbergen.
Norwegian trappers liked the area because of its strong fox populations. Even Belugas (white whales) were hunted in the Van Keulenfjord; today their bones are bleaching in the sun and remined us of the lack of wisdom of those days in Spitsbergen.
Beluga bones at Ahlstrandhalvøya, Van Keulenfjord.
In the early 20th century, mineral occurrences attracted more or less serious mining companies; some of these occurrences did exist, but turned out to be minor and/or of inferiour quality, other ones didn’t exist at all. There were hopes for zinc, gold, coal, iron, asbestos. Remains of trial mining can still be seen on both north and south side of the Bellsund, silent witnesses from the ‘gold rush period’ in the arctic (for more details, check out my book Rocks and Ice).