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Spitsbergen (formerly known as West Spitsbergen; the German spelling Spitzbergen is often (incorrectly) used in English) is a Norwegianmarker island, the largest island of the Svalbardmarker archipelago in the Arctic Oceanmarker. The island of Spitsbergen covers approximately 39,044 km² (15,075 square miles). This name was also formerly applied to the entire archipelago of Svalbard and occasionally still is. It is around 450 km (280 miles) long and between 40 and 225 km (25 and 140 miles) wide. As Spitsbergen lies far within the arctic circle, the Sun is continually above the horizon from late April to late August. From 26 October to 15 February the Sun is always below the horizon, and from 12 November to the end of January there is civil polar night, when it is always so dark that artificial light must be used at all times.


The name Spitsbergen means "pointy peaks" and was given by the Dutchmarker explorer Willem Barentsz, who discovered the island while searching for the Northern Sea Route in 1596. However, this archipelago may have been known to Russian Pomor hunters as early as the 14th or 15th century, though solid evidence from before the 17th century is lacking. Following the English whalers and others in referring to the archipelago as Greenland, they named it Grumantmarker (Грумант). The name Svalbardmarker is first mentioned in Icelandic sagas of the 10th and 11th centuries, but they more likely refer to Jan Mayenmarker or even Greenlandmarker.

Spitsbergen is one of three inhabited islands in the archipelago, and according to the terms of the Spitsbergen Treaty, citizens of any of the signatory countries may settle in the archipelago. Currently, only Norwaymarker and Russiamarker make use of this right. The largest settlement on Spitsbergen is the Norwegian town of Longyearbyenmarker, while the second largest settlement is the Russian coal mining settlement of Barentsburgmarker (which was sold by the Netherlands in 1932 to the Soviet company Arktikugol). Other settlements on the island include the former Russian mining communities of Grumantbyenmarker and Pyramidenmarker (abandoned in 1961 and 1998, respectively), a Polish research stationmarker at Hornsundet, and the remote northern settlement of Ny-Ålesundmarker.

Geography of Spitsbergen
Hornsund Polish Arctic Station, photographed in 2003
Skottehytta in Petuniabukta, Spitsbergen - polar base of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland

Early whaling expeditions to Svalbard tended, because of currents and fauna, to cluster around West Spitsbergen and the islands off-shore.

Kvadehuksletta, on western Spitsbergen, is notable for its unique stone structures, including very circular stones and labyrinthine patterns. These structures are believed to be the result of frost heaving.

Allied soldiers were stationed on the island in 1941 to prevent Nazi Germany from occupying the islands. While the island had officially been ceded to Norwaymarker in the 1920s, that country fell under German occupation in 1940. The majority of inhabitants on the island were Russian (Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with Germany until June 22, 1941). The United Kingdommarker and Canadamarker sent military forces to the island to destroy installations, mainly Soviet coal mines, and prevent the Germans from occupying it.

The German battleship Tirpitzmarker and an escort flotilla shelled and destroyed the Allied weather station there in Operation Sizilien in 1943. On 6 September, a squadron consisting of Tirpitz, Scharnhorst and nine destroyers weighed anchor in Altenfjord and Kåfjord and headed for Spitsbergen, to attack the Allied base there. At dawn on 8 September 1943 Tirpitz and Scharnhorst opened fire against the two 3-in guns which comprised the defences of Barentsburg, and the destroyers ran inshore with landing parties. Before noon it was all over. Some prisoners had been taken, a supply dump destroyed, the wireless station wrecked and the landing parties had returned on board. The German ships returned safely to Altenfjord and Kåfjord on 9 September 1943. Although those on board did not yet know it, Tirpitz had carried out her last operation.


Polar bears are found in the Spitsbergen area, particularly on Storfjordenmarker coast vicinity. moreover, the sub-population of Ursus maritimus found here is a genetically distinct taxon of Polar Bears associated with the Barents Seamarker region. Edgeøyamarker lies to the southeast of Spitsbergen. This uninhabited island is the largest part of the South East Svalbard Nature Reserve, home to polar bears and reindeer.

Polish Polar Station

The station was erected in July 1957 by the Polish Academy of Sciences Expedition within the framework of the International Geophysical Year. The expedition was led by Stanislaw Siedlecki, geologist, explorer and climber, a veteran of Polish Arctic expeditions in the 1930s (including the first traverse of West Spitsbergen island). A reconnaissance group searching the area for the future station site had been working in Hornsund in the previous summer, and selected the flat marine terrace in Isbjørnhamna. The research station was constructed during three summer months in 1957.

The station was modernized in 1978, in order to resume a year-round activity. Since then, the Institute of Geophysics, Polish Academy of Sciences has been responsible for organising year-round and seasonal research expeditions to the station.

Seed Vault

The Norwegian government has built a "doomsday" seed bank to store seeds from as many of the world's plant species as possible. The bank was created by hollowing out a tunnel on Spitsbergen cut into rock with a natural temperature of , refrigerating it to , and then storing seeds donated by the 1,400 crop repositories maintained by countries around the world. The vault has top security blast-proof doors and two airlocks. The number of seeds stored depends on the number of countries participating in the project, but the first seeds arrived late in 2007. The point of this project is to save plants (wild, agricultural, etc.) from becoming extinct as a side-effect of crop gene manipulation, or due to a global catastrophe such as climate change (the tunnel is above sea-level) or nuclear war.

Fossil Find

Between 2007-2008, researchers from the University of Oslomarker uncovered the fossil remains of the largest known pliosaur on Spitsbergen. The team held off on announcing the discovery until two sets were found. The find, for now dubbed "Predator X", probably represents a new genus, and possibly a new family of pliosaurs.

The island's three-week excavation season and difficult field conditions mean that the fossil resources have so far gone largely untapped. However, a member of the expedition said that Spitsbergen has "one of the most important localities of extinct marine reptiles in the world."

In popular culture

See also


  • West Spitsbergen. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved July 16, 2005, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.

References and notes

  1. "Spitsbergen is the only correct spelling; Spitzbergen is a relatively modern blunder. The name is Dutch, not German. The second S asserts and commemorates the nationality of the discoverer." – Sir Martin Conway, No Man’s Land, 1906.
  2. Areas are taken from the Various references provide slight differences in values.
  3. Northern Townships: Spitsbergen - article published in hidden europe magazine, 10 (September 2006), pp.2-5
  4. Operation article at
  5. Sizilien article at
  6. Oysten Wiig and Kjell Isaksen Seasonal Distribution of Harbour Seals, Bearded Seals, White Whales and Polar Bears in the Barents Sea
  7. C. Michael Hogan (2008) Polar Bear: Ursus maritimus,, ed. Nicklas Stromberg
  8. Norway Reveals Design of Doomsday' Seed Vault; Nature; Volume 445; 15 February 2007 BBC News; Work starts on Arctic seed vault, CNN
  9. retrieved 14/12/2008

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