Spitzbergen : the great white paradise
It is the main island of Svalbard archipelago, extremely north of Norway. Larger than Belgium and the closest to North Pole, this kingdom of ice is one of the last accessible and wild Arctic territories.
It is not surprising that Spitzbergen annual average temperature is of-5°C.
Sky is often cloudy and there is no tree there. Winds blowing down from the mountains to the sea can reach 80 km/h but showers are rare. Two thirds of the island is covered in moving glaciers which, in summer, pour tons of enormous ice cubes in the sea.
Spitsbergen is a vast cold desert; the diversity and the magic of its mineral landscapes impress.
Like a puzzle mixing frozen peaks, tundra near coast, glaciated valleys and wide plains in the center of the island.
Scandinavia expert at 66°nord and mastered in polar zones, Nicolas Bichet specifies "the nature is raw. Spitsbergen was finally little colonized by man who has really no place here … Here, we are alone fronting elements. In a way, it is the edge of the world. "
Pack-ice, Permafrost and midnight sun
The landscape is shaped by glacial relics old of 10 000 or 1 000 years.
Even if in summer the ground can thaw out till 2m, an invisible ice sheet exceeding 100 meters thick persists almost everywhere, it is called permafrost.
The pack-ice and its majestic cliffs surround the archipelago until April and leave the northwest of Spitsbergen between June and August. Very unpredictable, it sometimes drifts on hundred kilometers within the day.
The long winter hosts the polar night from November till January, with sweet moonlights and glittering Northern Lights.
Finally, from April till August, the sun reasserts and shines continuously. We go out of the darkness and we lose time marks in the lightness of the midnight sun.
A white and very alive desert …
Near the pole, the nature is very vulnerable in the outer impacts and man has to remain discreet. The Svalbard archipelago shelters 3 national parks, nature, ornithological and botanical reserves.
To be there is a privilege which makes the adventure absolutely amazing.
Spitsbergen is barren but so alive!
Concerning flora, weather conditions and frozen ground almost all year long let all the same some 170 species of plants push, as the Arctic willow, a funny crawling tree and of course multiple lichens and mosses. Concerning fauna, we could not imagine the diversity of species living here.
Would it be an exploration zone for ornithologists? The list of sea birds nesting in Spitsbergen in summer is impressive: Arctic tern, guillemot, petrel, puffins, barnacle goose, sparrows, ptarmigan and even some very rare seagulls.
Sea mammals also populate the region. The whale, victim of an intensive hunting up to the 19th century became rare. But we can often admire benches of belugas sliding along the west coast, some narwhals in the East and these small whales called finback in the fjords.
The kayakers will also have to be careful in the very curious walruses which, protected for 65 years, are multiplying, and also the seals whom they will meet regularly.
Ashore, the Arctic fauna in Spitsbergen also has its symbols.
The mutineer polar fox, searching for food, appreciates the company of bird colonies.
As for the Reindeer of Svalbard, you can meet him nowhere but here. Solo or in any small groups, he often approaches inhabited places.
But the strongest symbol is the polar bear, lord of the ice floe.
Protected species, he is always the object of a hunting quota; nonetheless, there are approximately 2 500 polar bears in Spitsbergen.
Ice melting in spring pushes him to migrate northward in search for pack-ice and food.
Nicolas Bichet confirms "we often meet polar bears. Powerful and curious, he inspires deep respect. Being able to admire a female and her bear cubs hunting the seal, it is a crazy chance. "
The animal is not naturally aggressive but as the explorer owes to be careful to end its journey, when we camp near the coast, we schedule night patrols not to be surprised by this impressive visitor!
… Also having a history and some inhabitants.
Trappers and whalers arrived on the Svalbard archipelago during the 16th century; Then, the first mining activities around coal and the great expeditions towards the North Pole. Today, Spitsbergen counts nearly fewer people than bears!
Rather than cities, we find here communities of interest governed by the Norwegian law.
The "major" city and administrative center, Longyearbyen, is at first and until 1989 a mining city created in 1906 by the American pioneer and businessman, John Munroe Longyear.
Today, it became an appreciated stopping-off place and counts nearly 2 100 inhabitants native of 50 different countries.
At the same time modest (by its size) and modern, her very Arctic character can be a surprise. We meet frequently some reindeers walking in the bend of a street and in town, there are roads dedicated to snowmobiles. Reminding of the mining traditions, we remove its shoes by entering the hotel or the restaurant and during the polar night, we leave to the work with a headlamp!
50 km south, Barentsburg shelters a Russian community about 400 souls, arisen from the mining.
In the northwest of the island, Ny Alesund can boast being at the same time the most northern community of the world and an international scientific center which welcomes 40 permanent residents.
In Spitsbergen, you do not have to be afraid of losing you in the crowd but the living conditions in polar environment will make you appreciate the smiles and the human heat.
Invitation to the polar adventure, Spitsbergen is (as told in a famous French song) a white paradise where the air remains so pure that we bathe inside ♪♪ ♫ ♪
For more info about Spitzbergen, you can follow the below links:
Agence 66° Nord, agency specialised in Polar travel
Nicolas Bichet, Polar regions specialist
Paul Nicklen, Animal Photograph