Even though, at first sight, Svalbard may seem barren and desolate, the archipelago has a great variety of scenery and natural history, and quite unique biodiversity. To safeguard this diversity, 65 per cent of the land area has been protected as national parks and nature reserves. Competition for the resources and increasing pressure to experience and investigate exotic places may, nevertheless, be threatening the pristine natural environment.
A great deal of wilderness and large protected areas
Svalbard has large wilderness areas, yet people have left many signs of their former presence there. Remains from earlier research work, hunting, mining and expeditions are found in many places. Most of Svalbard is, nonetheless, undisturbed by major infrastructure. Roughly 98 per cent of the land area may be considered wilderness lacking major infrastructure. Most of the everyday activity is now concentrated in the settlements of Longyearbyen, Barentsburg, Ny-Ålesund, the Svea mine, the research station in Hornsund, and the meteorological stations on the islands of Bjørnøya and Hopen. People also live at a few hunting stations.
Svalbard, with its 7900 islands and islets, and its waters out to 12 nautical miles, covers some 151 000 square kilometres. About 65 per cent of the land area and 87 per cent of the marine area are protected.
Pressure on the wilderness is increasing
An important objective of the protected areas is to secure sites in Svalbard where a number of animal and plant species can live. Developments of major, new infrastructure near the settlements, along with mining, pose the greatest threats to the Svalbard wilderness. Traffic, the building of weekend cabins, the setting up of research installations and major oil slicks which reach the shores may also spoil the experience of wilderness.
The Petrozavodsk, a freezer ship, foundered in 2009 on the southern tip of Bjørnøya, in the middle of one of the most important nesting areas for seabirds in the far North.
Commercial activity, settlements and science
Competition for energy resources and more fisheries, research and tourism put greater pressure on natural areas in Svalbard. Even though large parts of Svalbard are protected, scarcity of resources may result in these assets coming under great pressure. Climate change may make it easier to reach parts that are today poorly accessible for exploitation, no matter whether this concerns oil, gas, fisheries or tourism. In the settlements, more and more development, calls for better infrastructure and a growing population are all factors which impact on habitats and biodiversity.
The natural areas in Svalbard are very varied. Some are lush and rich; others have enormous glaciers and barren mountains. The photograph shows the Nordenskiöld glacier at the head of Billefjorden.
High environmental targets give fewer encroachments
Norwegian authorities have stated that Svalbard must be one of the best-managed wilderness areas in the world:
• the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act makes it difficult to undertake new encroachments on the Svalbard countryside. The purpose of the Act is to maintain a virtually pristine environment in Svalbard as regards continuous wilderness, for example. For instance, it demands impact assessment studies for measures that may have more than an insignificant impact on the natural environment outside the settlements and areas covered by existing plans
• the Governor’s Office has three field inspection teams performing surveillance in the protected areas and providing guidance to summer visitors. Two of the teams are in national parks. In addition, surveillance is maintained by boat, snowmobile and helicopter
• a brochure on the protected areas was published in 2009
• stringent demands are placed on the quality of fuel used in vessels sailing within the large protected areas and a maximum figure is fixed for the number of passengers on cruise vessels in the reserves on the east coast
• the aim is to store data on all research installations in a central database
• after they cease to be used, research installations must be removed and the sites cleared
• coal mining should take place near existing infrastructure, and when it ends the natural state must be restored
The Ministry of the Environment requires the Governor’s Office to prepare management plans for the national parks and nature reserves.