The mapping of Svalbard

The detailed mapping of Svalbard started a little over 100 years ago. At this time Swedes and Russians carried out a major survey in the area of Storfjorden and Hinlopenstredet, along the western side of Nordaustlandet and up to the islands further north. This was part of a project to determine the size and shape of the Earth. The Norwegian mapping of Svalbard started a few years later, in 1906–07, under the leadership of major Gunnar Isachsen. The area for this mapping was the land between Kongsfjorden and Raudfjorden. More expeditions were carried out in the following years.

Mapping from aerial photography

Gunnar Isachsen's expedition to Svalbard in 1909

Gunnar Isachsen's expedition to Svalbard in 1909. Isachsen and his team made the groundwork for the Norwegian activity that soon followed in the archipelago.
  Photo: Norwegian Polar Institute

Large parts of Svalbard were mapped before NSIU (Norges Svalbard- og Ishavs-undersøkelser) was established in 1928, but better survey and mapping methods and the needs of the mining industry led to a demand for maps of better quality.

During the summer of 1936 large parts of Svalbard were photographed from the air with a tilted camera. The same year NSIU bought a Zeiss Stereoplanigraf so these new photographs could be used in map construction. Old maps were replaced by new ones. Till the mid-fifties oblique photography was most common. In 1960 vertical photography replaced the old technique, and this led to further map improvements. In 1968 a new map-drawing instrument was bought, a Wild A7 autograf. By then most of Svalbard was covered by aerial photographs at scales from 1 : 30,000 to 1 : 50,000.

In 1990 most of Svalbard was covered by aerial photography at a scale of 1 : 50 000. In addition, some areas were covered at scale 1:15 000. A new stereo map construction instrument for digital air photos was purchased in 1993. Another digital instrument was taken into use in 1999.

Geodetic work

GPS measurement on Hopen, Svalbard

These days we use GPS to map Svalbard. This is taken from a measurement on the Hopen island. Photo: Harald Faste Aas / Norsk Polarinstitutt

Accurate positions in the field are an important part of the basis of the maps. The trigonometric network in Svalbard has been established over many years by accurate measurements of angles and distances, and by the now preferred method of GPS measurement. All over Svalbard more than 1000 reference points enable the fixing of co-ordinates to a uniform reference system. Measurements to map the magnetic declination as well as tidal measurements are included in the geodetic activity.


In former days, map drafting was done by hand, with pen and ink. From 1965 all new maps were produced by scribing and assembly on Stabilene foils. At the end of the 1980s the adoption of digital techniques in the cartographic work started. Old foils were digitized and the construction instruments were modified to produce digital output. Powerful computer programs now let us produce maps faster than ever. However, much effort has to be put into the establishing and maintenance of the digital map databases. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) we are now able to store, maintain and utilize map data in a very efficient way.


The survey of the Svalbard waters started in 1906-07 in Raudfjorden and Krossfjorden. From that time the hydrographical surveys became an important part of the summer fieldwork. In the years 1928-32 surveys were carried out in the waters around Bjørnøya (Bear Island), and in the first part of the 1930s surveys were carried out in East Greenland. From 1937 and to the start of World War II NSIU carried out more modern and systematic surveys. These surveys were resumed in 1947. In 1963 the Norwegian Polar Institute acquired an electronic system (Hi-Fix) which allowed positioning independent of the weather, and a separate vessel was hired to carry out hydrographical surveys. In 1972 a new similar system for detailed surveying (Motorola) was acquired.

In 1984 the responsibility for the hydrographical surveys was transferred to the Norwegian Mapping Authority. The Svalbard archipelago is a large area, and there are still large areas which are not properly surveyed.