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Svalbard :.

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     Svalbard does exists. An explorer named William Parry even happened to visit the place. Let's have a closer look at this distant place...

     Svalbard (cold shore in Norvegian) is a norvegian autonomous archipelago located in the Arctic Ocean, including all lands between 74° and 81° of north latitude and 10° and 35° of western longitude and representing a global area of about 62000km². The main three islands are Spitsbergen (in the west), Nordauslandet (in the north-east), Edgeoya and Barentsoya (in the east). Until 1920, the archipelago was known as Spitsbergen. About 2200 people live there, mostly Norvegians, Russians and a few Poles.
The capital is Longyearbyen (population: 1600). This is also the land of Ny-Alesund, the northest city in the world.


     If the archipelago was possibly known and mentionned by Vikings since the 12th century, though it is still discussed that Svalbard then indeed refered to some coasts of Greenland, other remote islands or this actual archipelago, it was first discovered and documented in 1596 in the course of a dutch expedition led by Willem Barents who expected to open the North Route to China. From the 17th centuryn whales hunters from England and Holland heads visit the area but the first settlements will only appear when Norway and then Russia starts mining the coal in the late 1890s. In 1920, the Svalbard Treaty recognize these lands as part of Norway.
     Approximately 60 % of these islands are covered with glaciers and snowfields. On Spitzberg, a few valleys are snow-free. Snow and ice sculpted deep fjords on the northern and western coasts. In winter, the shallow waters are covered with icefields and tourists come to visit over the summer season. In the course of the year, the temperatures can vary from -40°C to 15°C. The plants are mostly lichens, mosses and a few bushes such as dwarf nirch and arctic willow. The wildlife include many birds, polar bears, reindeers and arctic foxes. The water shelter whales, seals and walruses.
     These islands were the starting point of many artic expeditions over the years, including those of Sir William Parry in 1827, Fridtjof Nansen in 1893 and Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile in 1926.

     The geographical situation of Svalbard and its extremely low temperatures led the islands to be chosen to host since 2008 the Global Seed Vault (see picture below) under the permafrost of the archipelago; a burried structure aiming to the preservation for future generations of the seeds of vegetal species of the planet and thus allow their reintroduction in case of global disasters caused by Nature or men's own stupidity. The global warming could however endanger the permafrost and then the project itself: temperature figures show indeed that Svalbard is also impacted by the consequences on climate of human activities...

     It is also usually said that it is illegal to die in Svalbard, as corpses do not decay and no burial were allowed there for over 70 years. The related biological risks indeed exist: e.g. traces of the influenza virus were found on corpses of victims of the epidemy who died on the archipelago about one century ago. The fact is, it would probably more raccurate to state that it is forbidden to die there: the place is not equipped with appropriate medical facilities (the local hospital only hosts 6 beds for 20 employees), so any person about to give birth or in critical medical situation will be brought to Oslo on the mainland...

Spitzberg, Svalbard, Norway  Global Seed Vault, Svalbard (Miksu, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The archipelago was described shortly after its discoveryby geographers as a wild world with however many whales populating the surrounding waters. Beyond their historical value, theses early description are worth reading. For example, in 1700, French geographer Denis Martineau du Plessis wrote about the then-named Spitzberg archipelago that "Men sent onshore never came back to tell what they saw there because some were eaten by white bears and the others froze to death"... A few years earlier, in 1689, Jean-Baptiste d'Audiffret wrote one of the earliest descriptions in French language (translated by our team):
     This land is located betweenn Greenland and Nova Zemble, which are 300 miles away. (...) A few geographers described it as an island. Very few people dared to explore the inland; only the shores are described. We can mention Bel Sound, Green Harbour, English Bay, Horn Sound, and Magdalena Bay as well and Denmark and Amsterdam Islands, the first one being located at 80° north, the second one 81°. There is no better land under the arctic pole for whale hunt. (...) All coasts of Spitzberg are covered with ice, making the navigation in the area highly dangerous.

Allain Manesson-Mallet also proposed a detail description in 1693:

     We don't know yet if (Spitzberg) is an island or a peninsula. The name Spitzberg comes from the numerous little mountains which can be seen, and the whole coast display such a relief made of stones and sand. These are expected to be the work of sea and wind, but the harbour is dangerous; many wrecks are shattered in this area featuring many surrounding rocky tops. Two main capes were described: Langenes and Ronde Klip. The land are barren, without men nor trees; little grass grows, mostly moss. The air is extremly cold, ices and winter are very tough; there is no other land in our hemisphere located to the north of these lands.
     In winter, the Sun remains below the horizon for over 4 months, two months prior and two months after the solstice. Spring and Fall are bothersome due to a thick fog making it hard to see the Moon went it sets above the horizon. The Sun continuously shines over four months during summer and when it looks clear, it announces cold weather if winds blows from North while it announces storm when if comes from South. In this part of the year, many animals are to be seen, mostly seabirds looking like ducks, a large amount of bears and foxes with white fur and a few ones with dark fur; their meat can be eaten. There are also reindeers, only living of moss; these look like deers. White bears can also be seen, almost as big as bullocks; they only eat the fishes they find at sea. There are also within coast reach many whales including a few ones up to 200-foot long; Dutch sailors come here to hunt these and stop at Mauritius Bay to extract oil from the whales. They usually leave Holland in May and return in September.
     It is remarkable in this cold climate that dead bodies do not decay.


William Parry

Sir William Edward Parry

     The attempts of the British explorer of the Arctic to find a North-West Route to reach the North Pole did not succeed. Parry was born in Bath. In 1819-1820, he was the first to sail further than 11° West in the Arctic Ocean. He discovered territories such as the Barrow Strait, the Prince Regent Inlet, the Melville Bay and Wellington Channel, that he all mapped. In 1821-1823, Parry spent two winters on the Melville Peninsula to make scientific observations and study the Inuit population. After another attempt to find a navigation route in the North-West in 1824-1825, he left Svalvard in 1827 for the North Pole. However, he had to head back after reaching 82°45' North, not that far away from the Pole that won't see other expedition attempts until 1876.
To go further

Svalbard 2016 Report: Global overview of Svalbard in terms of geography, politics, ecnonmy, cultural aspects and more as of 2016 by the Norwegian statistics bureau, Statistics Norway.

Wikipedia pages, French and english versions.
Global Seed Vault picture: Miksu, CC BY-SA 3.0
Gallica online database (link included to this page).
Atlas Mondial Microsoft ENCARTA Edition 1998 © & (p) 1995-1997 Microsoft Corporation. Tous droits réservés.
"Svalbard", Encyclopédie Microsoft® Encarta® 2001. © 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation. Tous droits réservés.
Martin Rogers/Woodfin Camp & Associates, Inc. © & (p) 1995-1997 Microsoft Corporation. Tous droits réservés.
"Parry, sir William Edward," Encyclopédie Microsoft® Encarta® 2002 en ligne
Portrait de William Parry: Portrait of Lieutenant Provo William Parry Wallis, R.N., by Robert Field, 1813, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada © 1997-2002 Microsoft Corporation. Tous droits réservés. (site désormais inactif)
Merci à Gabalt de m'avoir fourni "Svalbard" sur Encyclopédie Microsoft® Encarta® 2001
Merci à Haku pour avoir traduit l'article sur l'université de Svalbard.
Latest update: May 2019


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