The Archipelago of Svalbard was discovered by the Dutch captain Willem Barentsz in 1596. Most parts of the area are untouched wilderness, but throughout history Svalbard has been the scene for fishermen and hunters, mining companies and science expeditions. The Treaty on Svalbard was signed in Paris 9 February 1920, and since 17 July 1925 Svalbard has been part of The Kingdom of Norway.

Facts about Svalbard

The archipelago of Svalbard comprises of Spitsbergen, Nordaustlandet, Barentsøya, Edgeøya, Kong Karls Land, Hopen, Prins Karls Forland, Bjørnøya and all the other islands, rocks and shears between 74° and 81° northern latitude and 10° and 35° eastern longitude. The land mass is about 61 020 square kilometers, something that almost equates to the size of the Norwegian counties Troms and Nordland put together. The sea area around the islands out to the territorial border of 12 nautical miles is about 90 700 square kilometers.

As much as 60 percent of the landmass is covered in ice, and less than ten percent has any vegetation. Svalbard is surrounded by a shallow sea-shelf. The average depth of the Barents Sea is 230 metres, and the shallowest areas lie between Bjørnøya and Edgeøya. To the west and north of Svalbard, the Norwegian Sea and the Arctic Sea plummet to more than 2000 metres in depth.

While there still was a busy hunting industry on Svalbard up-to around the Second World War most areas had hunters present. Research, expeditions and mining industry have also left marks in the landscape. On Spitsbergen one will still find the permanent settlements of Longyearbyen, Barentsburg, Ny-Ålesund and Sveagruva. In addition to these, there are also smaller research stations and meteorological stations in Hornsund, on Hopen and on Bjørnøya.

For tourists and visitors to Svalbard

The Cruise handbook for Svalbard provides visitors to Svalbard with quality-assured information about the natural environment, history and cultural heritage sites along the coasts of the archipelago.

The Svalbard Treaty

A Soviet mine in Barentsburg, 1932

A Soviet mine in Barentsburg is covered in ice, 1932. The Svalbard Treaty made it possible for citizens of the signatory states to conduct commercial ventures in the archipelago. Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute

The Svalbard Treaty, which was signed in Paris on 9 February 1920, granted Norway full and absolute sovereignty over Svalbard. The Treaty of Svalbard became effective on 14 August 1925, and according to the Act of 17 July 1925, Svalbard is part of the Kingdom of Norway. At the same time, the Treaty also gives other countries extensive rights. Citizens from signatory countries to the Treaty have the same rights as Norwegian citizens to engage in industry, mining, fishing, hunting and other maritime and commercial activities. The Treaty stipulates that the taxes that are collected in Svalbard are to be used in the archipelago. Military activities are not permitted.


The Mittag-Lefflerbreen glacier in Svalbard

The Mittag-Lefflerbreen glacier lies between Dickson Land, Olav V Land og Ny-Friesland in Wijdefjorden, in the end of Austfjorden in Svalbard. Glaciers are important indicators of global warming, and can reveal possible anwers as to what the climate was like up to several hundred thousand years ago. Photo: Bjørn Frantzen, Norwegian Polar Institute

Frequent low-pressure passages and the warm Atlantic Ocean water make the climate on Svalbard milder than in other areas at the same latitude. The annual average temperature in Longyearbyen is -4º C, but the climatic differences in the archipelago are greater. The highest measured temperature in Svalbard is 21.3° C, and the lowest is -46.3° C. Stiff breezes are common in the winter half-year, while fog is a typical summer phenomenon. There is little rainfall; in Longyearbyen there is less than in the driest areas on the mainland. Longyearbyen has the Midnight Sun from 20 April until 23 August, and the Polar Night from 26 October until 15 February.

The fjords and sea areas north and east of Svalbard are covered with ice for 8–9 months of the year, while the fjords on the west side of Spitsbergen can be ice-free for large parts of the winter. The majority of rainfall on Svalbard comes with polar eastern winds from the Barents Sea, and there is three times as much rainfall on the south coast of Spitsbergen as in Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund. Svalbard has a permafrost layer that goes down to 450 metres. During the summer, only the upper layer of the soil defrosts, down to a maximum of one metre.

Protected areas

The protected areas of Svalbard, 2010

The protected areas of Svalbard as per 2010. It is a national goal to preserve a representative range of Svalbard's nature. Map: Norwegian Polar Institute

The first plans to protect the environment on Svalbard were launched in 1914. Two flora protection areas were established as early as in 1932. Three national parks, two national reserves and fifteen bird reserves were established in 1973. Moffen nature reserve was established in 1983. The protected status of the two flora protection areas from 1932 and one from 1984 were dropped in 2003. The same year three new national parks, two new nature reserves and one geotop protection area were established. The last national park, Inner Wijdefjorden, was established in 2005.

The nature preserves of Svalbard today comprise around 65 percent of the total land mass of the archipelago, and around 85 percent of the territorial waters out to 12 nautical miles. Svalbard has 29 protected areas, and these are protected by the Svalbard Environment Law which was passed the 1st of july 2002.