Bjørnøya (Bear Island) is located at 74.30° N and 19.01° E, about midway between the Norwegian mainland and Spitsbergen. Most of the island's 176 km2 are flat, with some mountainous areas in the south. The Miseryfjellet mountain is the tallest with 536 m. Approximately 600 small lakes are scattered around the island.

A bird colony on Bjørnøya

A bird colony on Bjørnøya. The southern tip of the island house some of the largest bird colonies in the world. Photo: Hallvard Strøm, Norwegian Polar Institute

Flat lunar landscape on Bjørnøya by Amfiet

There is a big contrast between the bird colonies of the southern tip of the island to the flat, barren lunar landscape found near Amfiet. Photo: Odd Harald Selboskar, Norwegian Polar Institute

Bjørnøya has a steep, almost unapproachable coastline which serves as a popular nesting site for colonies of sea birds. Around the southern tip of the island lies some of the biggest bird colonies in the world.

There is only one usable harbor on the island, Sørhamna. The climate is relatively warm, considering the latitude. The mean temperature for the warmest month (August) is 4.4°C and -7.4°C for the coldest month (January). This is due to the polar front that often surrounds the island on the eastern, southern and vestern side and which provides a growth in plankton that gives benefits up the food chain.

Bjørnøya nature reserve comprise the entire island except a small area surrounding the meteorological station. It was established in 1918 as a radio- and weather station and is still in use today.

History and cultural remains

The railway on Bjørnøya transported coal between Tunheim and Austervåg

The railway on Bjørnøya transported coal between the mines in Tunheim and the harbor in Austervåg. Today only the tracks remain. Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute

Cultural remains on Bjørnøya, houses in ruin

Bjørnøya has several cultural remains of human activity, like these abandoned houses photographed in 2007. Photo: Odd Harald Selboskar, Norwegian Polar Institute

The history of the island is tied to hunting and capture of walrus, polar bears, seal, whale and sea birds. It was first discovered by the Dutch sea captain Willem Barentsz in 1596, and this is also when the island got its name. Bjørnøya was also the scene of the first great walrus hunt. In later periods the island was used for both Norwegian and Russian winter hunting. This human activity throughout several hundred years has left its marks on the island, and there are several cultural remains from these periods. There is found blubber ovens used in the slaughter of walrus, among other things. The Russian Pomors came to Bjørnøya to hunt in the late 1700s, and has left several remains of houses and grave sites. The oldest kept hunting cabin on Svalbard, the Hammerfest House, is also found on Bjørnøya. It was built in 1822.

As on Spitsbergen, mineral excavation was also attempted on this island. The German Theodor Lerner first tried to dig for coal in 1898 near Kvalrossbukta without succeeding. Several such attempts would follow. Bjørnøen AS ran a coal mine complex called Tunheim in the period 1916–1925. From 1923 the place also doubled as a meteorological station. Tunheim was evacuated and destroyed by the allies during World War Two.

As with the rest of the archipelago of Svalbard, Bjørnøya became a Norwegian territory in 1925.