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Svalbard - The author’s take
© Incredible Arctic, Shutterstock
The archipelago offers maybe the widest variety of Arctic nature – extremely varied landscapes, low to High Arctic, different ecosystems – within its relatively limited area, especially when compared to the vast stretches of Greenland, northern Siberia or the American Arctic.
Svalbard, Spitsbergen, Spitzbergen, Spetsbergen, Spitsberg – this High Arctic archipelago is an unusual place of interest. It is the largest area of wilderness in Europe, holding few human traces and even fewer settlements today.
This is, in fact, the reason for the primary difference between this guidebook and most others: whereas guidebooks for more developed parts of the world would have route descriptions, urban infrastructure, restaurant and hotel recommendations, these features remain almost entirely absent in this book, given that the area is virtually free of these amenities.
On the other hand, the archipelago offers maybe the widest variety of Arctic nature – extremely varied landscapes, low to High Arctic, different ecosystems – within its relatively limited area, especially when compared to the vast stretches of Greenland, northern Siberia or the American Arctic. And in terms of history, too – again in spite of the limited size – Svalbard is one of the most fascinating, truly Arctic regions: its surprisingly easy accessibility (despite an extreme northern position) allows human migration from a wide range of countries at considerably less cost than to other islands at similarly high northern latitudes around the Pole (eg: northern Greenland, the Russian Arctic archipelagos, the Canadian High Arctic).
This variety of immigrants from several nations is also reflected in the many names on the map of the archipelago and even in the different names for the archipelago itself – as this diversity illustrates, Svalbard is a very international place.
Being easier to access than all other equally northern Arctic regions creates a challenge on Svalbard regarding conservation of the fragile Arctic nature and the scarce traces of polar history. Many traditional human activities – whaling, hunting, mining and fishing – have already depleted, or are about to destroy, their own resources on and around the archipelago, with occasionally serious side effects.
Recently, growing activities such as adventure tourism and even scientific research have increased their impact on Mother Nature, and the visible effect is multiplied several-fold somewhere in this remote region. Norway has taken on the ambitious goal of making Svalbard one of the best-managed wilderness areas of the world, with high emphasis on environmental issues.
The aim is two-fold: that the archipelago be so well protected that the traces of human impact become negligible, and that the lands can serve as reference points for a true, unchanged Arctic nature. On land, strict regulations (especially regarding tourist activities and behaviour) have been put in place as one important step to secure this aim. Yet the main elements of Arctic nature – the marine environments – which also have a strong influence on the much more sparse life on land, are still surprisingly poorly protected due to the strong fishing lobby and, in the long term, perhaps the Norwegian oil industry too.