Arctic > Ortelius

Arctic Expedition Aboard Ortelius

Spitsbergen is an Arctic archipelago about 650 kilometres (400 miles) north of Norway. The archipelago ranges from Bear Island at 74° North to Rossøya at 81° North. It is by far the largest wilderness area of Europe; it covers an area of about 62,500 km², about the size of Ireland. About 60% of the land is glaciated. Since 1925 Norway has sovereignty over Spitsbergen according to the international Spitsbergen Treaty. The Norwegian name for the archipelago is Svalbard.

The name Spitsbergen was given by the Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz, who discovered the islands in 1596 during a mission to find a new sea route to the fabled land of Cathay, the Far East. The meaning of the name Spitsbergen in the Dutch language is "Jagged Peaks" because of the sharp pointed mountains that Barentsz met in the north-west of Spitsbergen. Spitsbergen, which has a population of about 3000 in 4 settlements, is still today virtually an unspoilt wilderness. Imagine a place the size of Ireland with only about 50 kilometres. (30 miles) of road.

The main settlement is Longyearbyen, which has approximately 2000 inhabitants and is one of the world's northernmost villages. Longyearbyen is a modern village with a wide range of facilities such as a supermarket, tourist shops, several pubs and hotels, a cinema, a swimming pool, a sports hall and a church. Longyearbyen even has its own university, the UNIS, that offers Arctic studies.

In the beautiful Kongsfjord the northernmost of the four settlements on Spitsbergen can be found. Ny-Ålesund even boasts being the northernmost settlement in the world at latitude 78° 55′ North. Originally a mining settlement it is now a privately owned village that sells services to scientists - it is a village for scientists, an Arctic laboratory. Ny-Ålesund is inhabited by a permanent population of approximately 35 persons. In summer up to 120 international scientists work here. Their research includes environmental studies, for instance climate change, geology, biology, oceanography, zoology and more.

Although Spitsbergen is close enough to the North Pole to become an Arctic freezer in winter, it has a remarkable mild climate. This is due to the Gulf Stream, a huge Atlantic surface current that delivers warm water to the Spitsbergen coast and moderates the climate. The average temperature on the west coast in summer is around 5°C (41°F), and in winter, -12°C (10°F). In general the temperatures on the east side are lower than on the west as the warm Gulf Stream does not reach the east coast that much. As Spitsbergen lies far within the Arctic circle, it experiences the midnight sun from April to August. At this time of year the sun is above the horizon for 24 hours a day!