A strongly growing interest in oil, gas, coal and mineral prospecting in the 1960s along with increasing tourism led to an expansion of protected areas in Svalbard in the late 1960s. The work resulted in the establishment of three large national parks, two large nature reserves and fifteen bird sanctuaries in 1973.
The primary objective of the protection resolutions in 1973 were:
- “To protect the areas and their interconnected wildlife and flora, for their intrinsic value and for scientific and educational purposes.”
Another important objective, particularly in the national parks, was to provide for access to untouched and distinctive wilderness for recreational purposes. The protection of Svalbard’s untouched nature and character of wilderness are highlighted as a central motive for protection. The protection resolution states:
- “The Arctic land areas belong to the last untouched ecosystems left on Earth. As such, they have considerable value.”
- “It is stressed that the value of the Earth’s last untouched natural areas are steadily increasing, as access to these areas is so limited and is constantly decreasing.”
It is stated that these objectives necessitate strong restrictions on the exploitation of these areas.
In 1998 the protected areas in Svalbard were evaluated. The evaluation revealed among other things that the most biologically productive and species-rich land areas in the archipelago were also the most weakly represented areas among those that received protection in 1973. Based on this, a new protection plan was initiated in 1998 and completed through a protection act that was passed in the autumn of 2003. From 1 January 2004, an expansion of the territorial border around Svalbard from four nautical miles to 12 nautical miles was implemented, considerably enlarging the protected areas, which included a marine zone that extended out from land to the new territorial borders in the sea. In the autumn of 2005, a new national park was established in the inner fjord of Wijdefjorden.
The overall principle of the Svalbard Environmental Act of 2001 is that Svalbard should have protected areas that:
- include the full diversity of natural environments and types of landscapes
- contribute to protect areas of importance for natural or cultural history
- protect both marine and terrestrial ecosystems
- contribute to maintaining wilderness and untouched natural environments
Areas can be protected as national parks, nature reserves, protected areas for particular biotopes or geotopes (biotope protected area or geotope protected area) or cultural heritage sites. The current protected areas cover 65.2 % of Svalbard’s land area and comprise 39 815 km2 in total. Of the marine areas within the territorial border surrounding Svalbard, 84.7 % is now protected. The protected areas are:
Nordvest-Spitsbergen National Park
Total area: 9 914 km² Land: 3 683 km² Marine: 6 231 km²
This national park has magnificent landscapes filled with contrasts and characterized by nunataks, glaciers that calve into the sea, islands and sounds. In this area we find Svalbard’s largest strandflat, Reinsdyrflya. In the fjord of Bockfjorden there are hot springs and old volcanoes. The national park is rich in cultural remains from the whaling era, expeditions to the North Pole and from the trapping periods. Here are several areas of considerable cultural historical interest. A large number of bird cliffs are located in the area, along with various wildlife. There are several important nesting sites for ducks and geese. The bird sanctuaries Guissezholmen, Skorpa and Moseøya, and the Moffen Nature Reserve, with its important haul-out sites for walruses, lie within the border of the national park. The national park has the most visited tourist localities except for the settlements of Longyearbyen, Barentsburg and Ny-Ålesund. Traffic is high in the park in the summertime.
Forlandet National Park
Total area: 4 647 km² Land: 616 km² Marine: 4 031 km²
The whole island of Prins Karls Forland is included in the park. The island is characterized by a great mountain chain that spans from the north over more than half the length of the island. From the end of the mountain chain and southwards lies a great plain called Forlandsletta that stretches all the way south to the mountain at the southern end of the island. Beyond that, the landscape is characterized by steep glaciers and partly by moraines. The national park has great wildlife and several prominent bird cliffs, a small population of Svalbard reindeer and the world’s northernmost population of harbour seals. Here are also two well-known and often visited haul-out sites for walrus. The national park has several important cultural remains from the whaling time, from overwintering trapping and from periods of mineral exploitation. Traffic within the park is modest.
Sør-Spitsbergen National Park
Total area: 13 286 km² Land: 5 029 km² Marine: 8 257 km²
South Spitsbergen National Park is Svalbard’s largest national park and includes a magnificent natural environment with majestic mountains (especially south of Hornsund), large continuous glacier-covered areas and long coastal plains. While the east coast is characterized by glaciers and moraines with no vegetation, vegetated strandflats dominate the west coast. In the park there are plenty of small and larger nesting localities for seabirds, ducks and geese, both on bird cliffs and on islands and islets. The bird sanctuaries Sørkapp, Dunøyane, Isøyane and Olsholmen, with considerable nesting populations of eiders and geese, are all located within the park. Along the west coast there is a fair population of Svalbard reindeer. Hornsund is an important area for polar bears. The polar bears that come to Hornsund with the drift ice around Sørkapp in late winter/spring migrate from Hornsund towards Storfjorden. The national park has important cultural remains from whaling in the 17th and 18th centuries, overwintering trapping, mining, tourism (Giæverhuset), research and World War II. A Polish research station is located in Hornsund. The national park is often visited in the summer by cruise ships.
Nordenskiöld Land National Park
Total area: 1 362 km² Land: 1 207 km² Marine: 155 km²
This national park is quite diverse. In the west lie great coastal plains between Bellsund and Kapp Linné. Further in lie mountain ranges and glaciers, and, all the way to the east, Svalbard’s largest valley, Reindalen. This area is characterized by lush vegetation, some pingoes and moraines. In the lower Reindalen lies Stormyra, a 100 km2 wetland and delta area. The national park has lush vegetation. Important nesting and moulting areas for eiders, waders and geese and several bird cliffs are located in the west. Lower Reindalen is an important nesting area for waders and ducks. Within the national park there is a large Svalbard reindeer population, especially in the Reindalen and its side valleys. The cultural remains in the area originate in whaling times (homestead sites, tryworks and graves), remains from Russian overwintering trapping and cultural remains tied to mineral exploitation. There is substantial snowmobile traffic in the park in winter, but very low traffic in summer.
Sassen-Bünsow Land National Park
Total area: 1 230 km² Land: 1 157 km² Marine: 73 km²
The national park is characterized by magnificent natural environments with important landscape elements like the two great valleys of Sassendalen and Gipsdalen, the mountain of Tempelfjellet and the glaciers at the head of the fjords of Billefjorden and Tempelfjorden. The area has well developed Quarternary geological elements like marine deposits, river deposits, patterned ground and several canyons. Large areas of continuous vegetation and several vulnerable plant species are found within the park. The national park has a great population of Svalbard reindeer, particularly in the valley of Sassendalen. There are also several large bird cliffs and important wetlands for waders. A considerable amount of pink-footed geese nest in the valleys. The fjords of Tempelfjorden and Billefjorden are important birthing and moulting grounds for ringed seals, attracting polar bears to the area in the wintertime.
The cultural remains in the park mainly relate to overwintering trapping, among them the station of Fredheim, the main trapping station of the legendary Hilmar Nøis. Several places in the park also have important cultural remains of mineral exploitation and mining.
Traffic in the park is clearly greatest during the snowmobile season in late winter and spring. Other than that there is some traffic from cruise ships and private boats in summer, including in and out of Tempelfjorden.
Nordre Isfjorden National Park
Total area: 2 954 km² Land: 2 050 km² Marine: 904 km²
This national park is characterized by fjords surrounded by large strandflats, like Bohemanflya, Erdmannflya and Daumannsøyra, where there is lush and species-rich vegetation. Important landscape elements are the glaciers draining southwards that calve into the fjords. Further on pronounced mountain massifs encircle the fjords: Skansen, Tschermakfjellet, Kapitol and Alkhornet are examples. The national park has rich birdlife and several bird cliffs and nesting grounds for eiders, waders and geese. A number of the fjords are important birthing and moulting grounds for ringed seals. Polar bears move regularly in the area during winter and spring.
There are cultural remains from both Russian and Norwegian overwintering trapping in the park. There are also cultural remains of the whaling area and several important industrial remains. One of the latter is Bohemanneset where the first coal was mined in Svalbard and shipped out in 1899. The trapping station at Kapp Wijk is still in use.
Indre Wijdefjorden National Park
Total area: 1 127 km² Land: 745 km² Marine: 382 km²
The national park includes the inner parts of the fjord and the surrounding landscape with valleys, strandflats, glacier fronts and mountainsides. The main purpose has been to protect Arctic steppe vegetation and several very rare plant species. Some of the species grow only in this location in Svalbard, and for some species this is the only place they are found in Europe. The exceptional vegetation is due to an extremely dry climate combined with a limestone-rich ground. The inner parts of Wijdefjorden is also a threshold fjord with distinctive characteristics and a scientifically interesting cold water basin. The national park is not particularly rich in wildlife, but Svalbard reindeer, Arctic fox and common birds inhabit the park.
In the national park there are cultural remains related to overwintering trapping – both Norwegian and Russian. The trapping station at Austfjordneset is still in use.
Traffic in this area is mostly confined to residents travelling by snowmobiles during winter.
Nordaust-Svalbard Nature Reserve
Total area: 55 551 km² Land: 18 660 km² Marine: 36 891 km²
This nature reserve includes Nordaustlandet, Kvitøya, Hinlopenstretet, eastern Ny-Friesland on Spitsbergen and Kong Karls Land. Large areas of the reserve are covered by glaciers like Austfonna, Vestfonna, Kvitøyjøkulen and glacier arms of the large glaciers of Ny-Friesland. Characteristic for this reserve are also the large fjords on the west and north side of Nordaustlandet and on the north-west side of Hinlopenstretet. The purpose of the protection has been to conserve “a large and continuous, and to the extent possible an untouched natural environment on land and at sea with intact natural environments, ecosystems, species, natural processes, landscape elements and cultural remains, as a reference area for research.”
Within the reserve are considerable sources of value for protection. The reserve has a great number of large and smaller bird cliffs. Several of Svalbard’s greatest haul-out sites for walrus are found here. A vigorous Svalbard reindeer population lives off the extremely unproductive vegetation. Kong Karls Land is the key area for the reproductive part of the Svalbard polar bear population. The northern part of Nordaustlandet is also considered of great importance for denning areas. A large number of polar bears spend the summer within the reserve. North and north-west on Nordaustlandet are plenty of lakes and rivers with Arctic char.
Traffic in this area is increasing, but remains low in winter. There is some commercial fishery for shrimp north in Hinlopenstretet. Traffic is more or less restricted to the summertime, and an increasing number of landing sites is being used by expedition cruise ships. In Kong Karls Land traffic is prohibited year-round. The restriction zone extends 500 m off the coast or surrounding skerries.
Søraust-Svalbard Nature Reserve
Total area: 21 873 km² Land: 6 399 km² Marine: 15 474 km²
The objective of establishing this reserve was more or less identical to the one for the Nordaust-Svalbard Nature Reserve. The Søraust-Svalbard Nature Reserve covers the two large islands of Edgeøya and Barentsøya, and also Tusenøyane, Ryke Yseøyane and Halvmåneøya. The two foremost islands are characterized by plateau mountains, plateau glaciers and large, ice-free valleys. On the west coast there are large vegetated strandflats, while the eastern parts are barren and dominated by large glacial areas. Tusenøyane, Halvmåneøya and Ryke Yseøyane are relatively poor in vegetation. Barentsøya and Edgeøya have large populations of Svalbard reindeer and Arctic fox. Both these islands are important year-round habitats for polar bears, and several denning areas are found there. There are always polar bears spending the summers on Tusenøyane, Halvmåneøya and Ryke Yseøyane. On Tusenøyane there are haul-out sites for several hundred walruses in each location. Tusenøyane is also the most important nesting area for brent geese in Svalbard. A great number of eiders nest there too.
Within the nature reserve are plenty of cultural remains related to research and whaling, and also Norwegian and Russian overwintering trapping.
Traffic in this area is increasing, but limited to the summertime. Access to the area is mostly regulated by ice conditions. Many of the localities within the reserve are vulnerable to traffic, for example, Tusenøyane.
Bjørnøya Nature Reserve
Total area: 793 km² Land: 177 km² Marine: 616 km²
This nature reserve includes the whole island and marine areas encircling the island out to four nautical miles off the coast. There is a small area around the meteorological station excepted from the protection. Bjørnøya is protected partly on account of its bird cliff, the greatest bird cliff in the Barents Sea. The bird cliff is located on the southern tip of the island. Bjørnøya is also an important migration area for Svalbard’s geese during spring and autumn migration. The island has a special ecology and several species rare to this latitude. In winter, polar bears often migrate south to Bjørnøya with the drift ice, if the ice edge reaches that far south. The island has a number of rivers with Arctic char.
Bjørnøya has a wide variety of cultural remains related to trapping, research and industrial remains from mineral exploitation.
Within the reserve are three areas of time-restricted traffic prohibition due to nesting birds. One is located north-east on the island, and the other two are located around the bird cliffs in the south.
Ossian Sars Nature Reserve
Total area: 12 km² (includes only land areas)
Located innermost in Kongsfjorden, this area is surrounded by glaciers. The sources of value for protection lie in the lush vegetation comprising several rare and demanding plant species, but also a bird cliff and Arctic fox localities. This reserve is Svalbard’s most species rich locality for vascular plants. The area is scientifically important and has been a plant protection site since 1984.
Hopen Nature Reserve
Total area: 3 254 km² Land: 46 km² Marine: 3 208 km²
The nature reserve of Hopen includes the whole island and surrounding sea areas out to the territorial border at 12 nautical miles offshore. A small area around the meteorological station is not included. Hopen is very important as a denning, migration and feeding ground for polar bears. The island also has considerable bird cliffs with Brünnich’s guillemots and kittiwakes. The landscapes of Hopen are very characteristic. There are also cultural remains from Norwegian overwintering trapping, slaughter sites for walrus and cairns erected by Thor Iversen in 1924.
Moffen Nature Reserve
Total area: 9 km² Land: 5 km² Marine: 4 km²
Moffen peaks only a few metres above sea level north of Spitsbergen. The island is made up of solid bedrock covered by large deposits of rocks and gravel that encircles a lagoon. Seen from the air, the island is shaped like a blue mussel. Moffen’s value as a protected area relate to the island’s great importance as a haul-out site for walrus. Several hundred walruses can be found here at the same time. Incidentally, the island is a nesting ground for a considerable number of eiders and Arctic terns. Sabine’s gulls and brent geese are also observed nesting here.
Traffic is prohibited on the island itself and in a 300 m zone around the island from 15 May to 15 September.
Festningen Geotope Protection Area
Total area: 17 km² Land: 14 km² Marine: 3 km²
The protection covers an area of Quarternary and other geological deposits, like the well-known Festningsprofilet (a 7 km long row of geological deposit layers), occurrences of fossil tracks of prehistoric reptiles and other interesting geological phenomena. The area is often used in research and education.
The bird sanctuaries (15)
Total area: 79 km² Land: 15 km² Marine: 64 km²
Traffic is prohibited in all bird sanctuaries between 15 May and 15 August, and this applies to all land areas and in a 300 m zone off shore, or off skerries at low tide.
Sørkapp Bird Sanctuary
Covers Sørkappøya and other islands and skerries south-eastwards from Øyrlandet farthest south on Spitsbergen.
Dunøyane Bird Sanctuary
Covers all islands and skerries west of Dunøysundet north of Hornsund.
Isøyane Bird Sanctuary
Includes Nordre Isøya and Isøykalven north of Dunøyane.
Olsholmen Bird Sanctuary
Includes Olsholmen at Storvika south of Bellsund.
Kapp Linné Bird Sanctuary
Covers the area west of the line between Randvika and the south-eastern end of Fyrsjøen. The station area of Isfjord Radio is excepted from the sanctuary. The area is marked locally.
Boheman Bird Sanctuary
Includes the small islands south of Bohemanflya on the north side of Isfjorden.
Gåsøyane Bird Sanctuary
Includes Gåsøyane at the mouth of Billefjorden.
Plankeholmane Bird Sanctuary
Covers Plankeholmane to the west of the southern tip of Prins Karls Forland.
Forlandsøyane Bird Sanctuary
Covers Forlandsøyane west of Forlandsletta.
Hermansenøya Bird Sanctuary
Spans from Hermansenøya in Forlandsundet to the north of the mouth of St. Jonsfjorden.
Kongsfjorden Bird Sanctuary
Covers Mietheholmen, Prins Heinrichøya, Lovénøyane and Eskjeret in Kongsfjorden.
Blomstrandhamna Bird Sanctuary
Includes the islet within the harbour of Blomstrandhamna, Kongsfjorden.
Guissezholmen Bird Sanctuary
Includes the islets at Kapp Guissez, at the eastern side of the entrance to Krossfjorden.
Skorpa Bird Sanctuary
Includes the islets at Harpunodden south-west of Danskøya.
Moseøya Bird Sanctuary
Covers Moseøya in Sørgattet, just south of Danskøya.
Map of all bird sanctuaries can be found at the web site of the Governor of Svalbard.