Key site Spitsbergen

Spitsbergen is an important site for its enormous numbers of arctic seabirds. Unfortunately, logistics make the island very difficult to work on. SEAPOP monitors seabirds in seven main colonies in three areas: Brünnich’s guillemots at Diabasodden (Isfjorden), Ossian Sarsfjellet (Kongsfjorden) and Alkefjellet (Hinlopen), kittiwakes at Grumantbyen (Isfjorden) and Alkefjellet (Hinlopen), little auks at Bjørndalen (Isfjorden) and Feiringfjellet (Kongsfjorden), and glaucous gulls in Kongsfjorden. Spitsbergen was included as a key site in SEAPOP in 2005, but work with kittiwakes and glaucous gulls started in 2008 and 2011 respectively, and work in Hinlopen started in 2015.

Contact person: Sébastien Descamps, Norwegian Polar Institute

Wetlands and mountains on Spitsbergen Photo: Sebastien Descamps
Mountain slope on SpitsbergenThe landscape at Spitsbergen is wild and beautiful. Below the bird cliffs, grass and herbs have good growing conditions due to the natural fertilization. Photo: Sebastien Descamps

Location and description

Spitsbergen is the largest island in the archipelago that forms Svalbard, and the name is derived from the Dutch words "spits" and "bergen" which translate to "pointed mountains". The climate here is arctic, but the influence of the warm Atlantic current flowing along the west coast results in temperatures being higher than elsewhere at equivalent latitudes. The vegetation is sparse and consists mostly of moss, lichens and grass in addition to herbaceous plants near the bird colonies.

FIeldworker in a boat on the fjordOne of SEAPOP's field workers on his way to a bird colony in Kongsfjorden. Photo: Sebastien Descamps

Access

There are daily flights from mainland Norway to Longyearbyen (Isfjorden), which is the largest settlement on Spitsbergen. Weekly departures with small aircraft between Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund give easy access to Kongsfjorden. The seabird colonies in the two fjords are reached using a RIB or small boat. The exception is the little auk colony in Bjørndalen, which is accessible by car from Longyearbyen. Helicopter is needed to access the Alkefjellet colony in Hinlopen (East Svalbard).

Northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) close to an icebergThe northern fulmar is very common at Spitsbergen and often feeds near the glaciers. Photo: Sebastien Descamps

Wildlife

Twenty-eight species of seabirds are common breeders on Svalbard, and all nest on Spitsbergen. The most numerous species are little auk Alle alle, fulmar Fulmarus glacialis, Brünnich’s guillemot Uria lomvia and kittiwake Rissa tridactyla. The main predators of seabirds on Spitsbergen are the arctic fox Vulpes lagopus and glaucous gull Larus hyperboreus. Polar bears Ursus maritimus may also take eggs from eiders Somateria mollissima and geese.

Longyearbyen seen from aboveLongyearbyen is the largest settlement on Svalbard. Photo: Sebastien Descamps

Human activity

The largest settlement on Spitsbergen is Longyearbyen (around 2000 inhabitants), followed by Barentsburg, a Russian settlement with 500 inhabitants. Ny-Ålesund in Kongsfjorden and the Polish research station in Hornsund are two settlements dedicated to research activities. Numbers of researchers vary from ten in the winter in Hornsund to almost 200 people in the summer in Ny-Ålesund. The mining community at Svea in the Van Mijenfjord is the third largest in Svalbard with about 300 workers.

Map of SEAPOP's field sites on SpitsbergenMap of the SEAPOP sites used in monitoring the various species at Spitsbergen. Map: Sebastien Descamps Fieldworkers catching kittiwakes in a bird cliff in KongsfjordenGood and reliable safety equipment are required when Brünnich’s guillemots and kittiwakes are to be caught in the steep cliffs. Photo: Sebastien Descamps

Fieldwork

SEAPOP fieldwork in Isfjorden and Kongsfjorden is from early June to early August. There is usually one team of 2-4 people in each fjord, with their main bases in Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund, respectively. They make daily trips to the colonies, mainly by means of a small boat. Fieldwork at Alkefjellet usually lasts one week, at the end of June, and this colony is visited by a team of four people. The most common tasks at all sites are counting birds within set plots, catching and ringing birds, looking for colour-ringed birds, monitoring nests and registering prey items brought to the chicks by the parents. Loggers (GPS or GLS) are also mounted on birds in some colonies.