Svalbard: People, place and polar bears
Where is Svalbard?
What is Svalbard like?
Where is Svalbard?
Svalbard is an archipelago (group of islands) north of Norway and is part of Norwegian territories. It includes the islands ranging between 74° and 81° of latitude North and between 10° and 35° of longitude East. The largest of the islands is Spitsbergen. The other islands are Nordaustlandet, Edgeøya, Barentsøya, Kong Karls Land, Kvitøya, Hopen and Bjørnøya. Svalbard is bordered by the Arctic Ocean to the North, the sea of Barents to the South and East, and by the sea of Greenland to the West. The name ‘Svalbard’ means ‘the land with the cold coast’ or ‘cold edge’.
What is Svalbard like?
Svalbard is cold and a dry arctic desert. Its northern location influences the amount of solar radiation it receives and is the main reason for its low temperatures. The curvature of the Earth means that the solar radiation received nearer the poles must heat a larger area than it would nearer the Equator. In the Northern latitudes the sun is at a lower angle in the sky. This lack of radiation helps maintain the low temperatures and allows permanent snow and glaciers to form, and doubles the sea ice area from summer to winter.
Svalbard experiences a polar night in winter when the capital Longyearbyen is in darkness for 110 days straight as the sun stays below the horizon, and midnight sun throughout the summer when the sun doesn’t sink below the horizon for 123 days. During the winter months (December), the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the sun as it orbits the sun and so receives less radiation. The North Pole has no sun for six months but places like Svalbard that are not quite so far North have a few months darkness with very short days either side. In the summer months (June) the Northern Hemisphere faces the sun and the North Pole has 24 hour daylight and Svalbard has a period of midnight sun.
As the Earth orbits around the Sun, its tilt makes the North Pole face towards the Sun in summer (keeping it in sunlight even as the Earth spins) and away from it in winter (keeping it dark). This means that the Sun doesn't shine at all during the winter, but shines continually (yes, even at midnight) during the summer.
The Arctic also has low temperatures due to their high albedo. Albedo means the amount of solar radiation that the Earth’s surface reflects instead of absorbing. Different surfaces have different reflectivity - snow and ice can reflect 85% of incoming energy, forests can reflect 20% to 30% and sandy areas reflect 10%. So, due to the higher reflectivity of ice and snow at higher latitudes a lot of the already limited amount of solar radiation received is reflected back.
However, Svalbard is not as cold as one might expect: average temperatures in the capital Longyearbyen are -50C in summer and -8C to -16C in winter. This is due to the moderating influence of ocean currents. These are huge flows of water that can be warm or cold depending on their area of origin. They affect the climate and conditions of the places they flow to. The Gulf Stream starts in the Gulf of Mexico and flows north-east across the Atlantic. As the North Atlantic Drift (NAD) it flows past the British Isles, along the coast of Norway and the West side of Spitsbergen. The NAD makes Britain and Norway warmer than they really should be, keeps ports ice free and allows fish to thrive. Near Spitsbergen it starts to sink because it has cooled and has become saltier. This sinking allows more of the NAD to flow to the area, like a conveyor belt, and maintains this thermohaline circulation.
Longyearbyen receives around 200mm precipitation per year; any thing below 250mm is considered a desert. Though little precipitation falls much is stored as snow and ice because of the low temperatures.
The ecosystems of Svalbard are finely balanced and span land and sea were they are particularly rich. Food chains are short and vulnerable to environmental change and pollution. Humans are not at the top of food chain, polar bears are the top predator.
Look at this road sign.
Svalbard road sign
Can you guess where it is?
Print it out and take it in turns to to ‘Pin the Polar Bear sign on the world map' on the wall in your classroom.
Take a look at the panorama of Svalbard.
What is it like?
What is happening there?
Why is it like this?
How will it change?
Tech note: You will need to have QuickTime installed on your PC
Locate Svalbard on a map.
Read the Wikipedia article and make a short fact file e.g. language, population, currency etc. Download the fact file template (teachers should delete the answers first.)
Look at the photographs of Svalbard from the Cold Photo blog. Browse the Blog Archive on the right hand side to see how life in Svalbard changes over the year.
Write an imaginary blog entry to accompany some of the pictures. Download the blog template to help you with this.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a 'doomsday' seedbank under construction.
It will store as many seeds known to humans as possible to prevent important agricultural and wild plants from becoming rare or extinct in the event of a global disaster such as global warming, a meteorite strike, nuclear or biological warfare.
What seeds would you choose store in the seed bank?
Are there any plants, landscapes or environments that you would definitely want protected by storing seeds?
What plants do you think are most useful to humans now? How about in the future?
There are already over 1400 local seedbanks around the world, but many are in politically unstable or environmentally threatened nations.
The Norwegian government will fund most of the US$5 million construction cost, while the Global Crop Diversity Trust will take responsibility for operating the facility.
The prime ministers of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland participated in a ceremonial 'laying of the first stone' on 19 June 2006.
Why is Svalbard a good location?
Design your own building to house the Global Seed Vault.