Things to know about Svalbard

  • The Svalbard Archipelago sits halfway between the top of Norway and the North Pole, one of the world’s northernmost inhabited places
  • Svalbard is the name of the archipelago, while Spitsbergen refers to the largest island
  • The author Philip Pullman helped put Svalbard on the map as home to his ‘armoured bears’
  • It’s got a relatively mild climate compared to other areas at the same latitude, in spite of four months of winter darkness
  • 60% of Svalbard’s landmass is permanently covered by ice and less than 10% has any vegetation

Svalbard with Swoop Arctic

Guide to Svalbard travel

Wildlife

One of the Arctic Regions ‘wildlife hotspots’, alongside around 3,000 polar bears and the indigenous Svalbard reindeer, during the summer months arctic fox, walrus, seals and whales can be seen.

Activity peaks during high summer when the island plays host to a coterie of migratory wildlife, including millions of birds who come to breed on Svalbard’s famous bird cliffs.

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Climate

In spite of its northerly latitude and proximity to the North Pole, Svalbard has a mild climate due to the moderating influence of the Northern Atlantic gulf stream.

  • July is the warmest month with average temperatures between 3 - 7 °C (37.4 - 44.6 °F)
  • It’s not uncommon to have long periods during the winter where temperatures drop between -20 and -30 °C (−4.0 °F)
  • Periods of fog are quite common during the summer and autumn
  • Svalbard is technically an “Arctic desert” with annual precipitation of only 200–300 millimetres
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Jon says

Geography

Svalbard’s landscape is marked by its variety and the stark contrast between the different areas of the archipelago. Spitsbergen’s west coast has dramatic fjords and mountains rearing to over 1,000m/ 3,280 ft rising from sea level, while other parts of Svalbard tend to be more wide and open.

60% of the landmass is covered in ice, less than 10% has any vegetation, and trees are totally absent. Nearly two thirds of Svalbard is protected and consists of several nature reserves, national parks and bird sanctuaries. An advantage of it being so off the beaten track is that the majority of the land is still pristine and unsullied by either roads or other human activity.

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Our favourite Svalbard trips

There are many trips to Svalbard to choose from, varying in length and route as well as size and style of ship. Why not contact us for more options?

History

Svalbard is first mentioned in Icelandic texts in the 12th century, yet it was Dutchman Willem Barentsz who officially discovered the archipelago in 1596 while searching for the Northeast Passage.

Whaling: News of healthy whale and walrus populations soon got out following Barentsz’ discovery, triggering the first ‘oil rush’. The strong European demand lasted from approximately 1600-1750 and took bowheads whales to the brink of extinction.

Trappers: Russian Pomors from the White Sea area followed the whalers. Hardy to Arctic conditions, they exploited the winter furs of arctic fox and polar bears from the early 18th century to the mid-1800s. The 71 remains of the trapping stations are the most visible traces of that period. 

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Explorers: The remains of former expeditions are some of Svalbard's most famous cultural heritage sites. Of the 35 sites, of particular interest are the bases from where early explorers set out to attempt to reach the North Pole. Remains from the various balloon expeditions can still be visited, while the 1926 mooring mast for Amundsen, Ellsworth and Nobile’s semi-rigid airship Norge still stands at Ny-Alesund.

Mining: Not even Svalbard’s remote location left it immune from coal miners during the demands of the industrial revolution. Heavy setup costs and the short operating season caused many projects to fail, leaving impressively sized installations still very much visible. A few mines still operate today.

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Midnight Sun

The extraordinary light on Svalbard can be categorised into 3 phases, as the year progresses:

  • The Polar Night (26th October - 14th February) when there’s 24-hours of darkness and its possible to see the Northern Lights in the middle of the day
  • Twilight period between the seasons when the area experiences an eerie, blue light
  • The Midnight Sun (15th April - 26th August) describes the phenomenon of 24-hour daylight

Solfestuka marks the return of the sun after the dark winter is celebrated. The whole town gathers on the steps of the old hospital at 12:15 to await the first rays peeping over the mountains.

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