Spitsbergen or Svalbard is a unique Arctic archipelago. Being uninhabited and primeval before its discovery by the Europeans, the archipelago was then developed entirely by them, in the socio-economic sense. Varied forms of exploitation and, after the 1st World War, protection of natural resources have determined its development. Geographical investigations have played a great part in this complex process. The objective of this paper is to outline the significance of geographical research in succeeding stages of the socio-economic development of the archipelago. The elaboration is made based on many-sided literature referring to this topic and the author’s own experiences collected during his research in Svalbard since 1982.
The discovery of Spitsbergen in AD 1596 in itself was a result of a geographical-commercial expedition financed by Dutch merchants and led by Barents (Rudmose Brown 1920). At that time, Spitsbergen was an entirely uninhabited archipelago, and later research (Bjerck 2000) confirmed that it had never been inhabited before. After Hudson’s reports on the English expedition of 1607, Spitsbergen coasts, especially the western ones, began to be used for the location of ports for thousands of whalers from different Western European countries, and places for industrial treatment of their trophies (Fig. 1). The first stage of geographical recognition of the archipelago was achieved at that time. After the extermination of almost all the population of the Greenland whale (
In the 19th century, there was a huge progress in the scientific recognition of the archipelago: field expeditions from different scientific centres began. The majority of European states existing at that time took their part in these investigations. Good maps of the coasts of the archipelago were edited, e.g. an English map at a very general scale by Scoresby in 1820 (Isachsen 1920) and a more detailed Swedish map at a 1:600,000–1:700,000 scale by Dúner and Nordenskiöld (1865). Swedish and Norwegian scientific field investigations developed when Norway and Sweden were in personal union (under the same king) from 1814 to 1905. At the beginning of that period, Swedes prevailed, but the participation of Norwegians increased afterwards (Isachsen 1920). At the turn of the 19th century, the Russian and Swedish academies of sciences organized a series of field expeditions, including wintering ones, in order to measure the length of the meridian arc along the eastern coasts of West Spitsbergen, the biggest island of the archipelago. The arrangement of triangular net (De Geer 1923a) resulted in a relatively wide exploration of its surrounding, not only of the coastal areas but also some inland ones. Precise topographical maps current for 1899–1900 at a scale of 1:50,000 (De Geer 1923 b) and 1:200,000 (Wassiliew 1907), being the result of those expeditions, made a huge progress in the quality of the island’s cartographic picture. These maps are a very valuable material for today’s comparative studies on the island landscape changes because the turn of the 19th century became the end of the Little Ice Age with the maximum Holocene extent of glaciers. In contrast to earlier geographical investigations completed with biological recognition of fauna, the 19th century research was associated with more and more detailed geological mapping. Hence, easily available deposits of coal were discovered. Their exploitation and export began in 1899 (Prestvold 2003). That industry determined the economic development of the archipelago that for the second time (after whaling in the 17th century) began to give huge incomes to external investors. At that time, in the age of steam, coal was known as
After the 1st World War, in 1920, the Spitsbergen Archipelago was given to Norway in virtue of the so-called Paris Treaty between nine states. Afterwards, next 30 states, including Poland, have joined this treaty (Spitsbergen Treaty 1920). Soon, Norway has changed the Dutch (given by Barents) name of the archipelago into (Nordic) Svalbard and the name of its biggest island from West Spitsbergen to Spitsbergen. Norway had the sovereign right to do that. However, Norway has accepted many limitations of the sovereignty, namely (among others) that:
Simultaneously, the treaty let Norway protect environment of the archipelago:
In 1925, the Svalbard Act was passed. After that, several animal species were taken under protection. In 1932, two first plant protection areas were established (Overrein 2008).
Of course, the Norwegians have intensified their investigations, especially the geographical ones, of the archipelago since the 1920s. A special scientific institution –
In the 1960s, the idea of nature protection areas in Svalbard began to be elaborated on the base of the results of investigations that were carried out by the
In 1975, an all-year airport began its regular service in Longyearbyen (Hisdal 1976).
Unfortunately, the predomination of Earth sciences, with a strong position of geography, finished in the second half of the 1990s when
Since the 1950s, Svalbard has became a popular study area for physico-geographical research expeditions of leading universities or academic institutes from many states, including Norway. They are not a subject of this paper because influence of their scientific results on the Svalbard environmental management might be indirect only, because the Norwegian authorities did not plan them. International collaboration is very important for effectiveness of such activities. For example, there are cooperative physico-geographical projects between Norwegian and Russian scientists, especially from the Institute of Geography, Russian Academy of Sciences. Several Polish universities (University of Silesia, Jagiellonian University in Kraków, University of Wrocław, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, and Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin) are active in this field too (RIS 2019). Polish physico-geographical investigations in Svalbard are also supported by the Institute of Geophysics, Polish Academy of Sciences (Zwoliński et al. 2013).
There is a surprising lack of current studies – both Norwegian and foreign ones – from many areas of human geography of Svalbard in spite of a big demand for them. In Norway, that is a result of a crisis in human (social-economical) geography, which appeared as early as by end of the 1980s. Therefore, its separation from the Earth sciences (and consistently from physical geography) resulted in a decline of the majority of its centers in Norwegian universities and other academic schools (in the remaining centers, the function of human geography was reduced to an ancillary one).
Since the 1980s, the archipelago has become a popular tourist destination, especially in summer. Some 60,000 people visited Svalbard in 2008 (Protected Areas in Svalbard 2010).
In 1998, the Svalbard system of protected areas was evaluated (Overrein 2008). Why at that time? Maybe because the 1990s were the time in which Russia was in the deepest crisis. In any case,
The following conclusions on the current state of the Svalbard affairs can be drawn from the above analysis:
At the beginning of the 21st century, the right to preservation of the fauna and flora was effectively used for the omitting a lot of limitations of the Norwegian sovereignty over the archipelago, included in the Spitsbergen Treaty.
Both the natural environment and Norwegian national interests are perfectly protected in Svalbard.
Classical physico-geographical research was lost in significance (and financial support) to biological investigations (or to environmental science in the aspect of biotic components).
There is a need for multidisciplinary international environmental projects and geographical science should take a leading role in them.
Research activity in the human geography of Svalbard has mostly declined.