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An Arctic archipelago (total land area ca 62 700 km²), approximately 60 % of which is covered by snow and ice. The highest point is Newtontoppen 1713 m a.s.l. Cold water and air masses from the polar region, which meet warmer water and air masses from the south (the Atlantic Ocean Current), produce great differences in climate within the archipelago. Nevertheless, Longyearbyen receives only 190 mm of precipitation and northern and eastern parts of Svalbard may be characterisered as an Arctic desert.
Svalbard has bedrock from almost every geological period, as well as rich occurrences of fossils. The sparse vegetation means that the history of the evolution of the Earth and geological processes are unusually distinct. Svalbard is a natural archive for geology and natural history that is of great scientific value.
Svalbard has a varied high-Arctic environment where large areas are little affected by modern human activity. It has mountains and valleys with glaciers, permanent snowfields, nunataks, plateaus with virtually no vegetation, canyons, large valleys with rich tundra vegetation, long fjords and fjord glaciers, as well as low-lying wetland plains, beach ridges, islands, lagoons and bird cliffs on the coasts.
The vegetation cover is sparse, but there are large geographical variations. The diversity of species is great despite the isolated location of the archipelago. A total of 1143 species of plants have been recorded, 173 of which are vascular plants.
Large populations of Arctic foxes (Alopex lagopus), Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) and marine mammals like polar bears, various species of seals (including walrus) and whales (11) are found. Svalbard char (Salvelinus alpinus) live in lakes and rivers in many parts of the archipelago. Svalbard has numerous seabird colonies and many important breeding sites for geese and eider ducks. Several species have their northernmost breeding areas and/or habitats in Svalbard. A total of 203 species of birds have been recorded, 49 of which are known to have bred here. The waters around Svalbard house rich marine resources on which many species of animals and birds depend.
The natural biological diversity and the on-going ecological processes are largely intact. Major technical encroachments are mostly concentrated in the few settlements, and Svalbard can be regarded as the largest and least disturbed wilderness area in Norway.
Svalbard is in a special situation in being located close to the North Pole and at the same time being easily accessible thanks to open waters as a result of warm ocean currents. People from many parts of the world have visited and periodically lived and worked in the archipelago, mostly on a seasonal basis, since its discovery by Willem Barentsz in 1596. They came here to hunt and trap, explore and carry out research or prospect for and work the mineral resources. In the past 100 years or so, these activities have provided a basis for year-round settlement. There are now Norwegian and Russian communities with modern infrastructure and a total population of approximately 2600. At the same time, large areas are virtual wilderness and are subject to strict protection regulations.
Several nations hunted whales here from the 17th century. As early as the 18th century, Russian trappers overwintered here to hunt and trap seals (especially walrus), foxes, polar bears and reindeer. Trapping traditions are to a limited extend continued on certain species. The archipelago has been an important area for journeys to the North Pole, exploration and research since the 19th century, with participants from many nations. Substantial deposits of minerals and metals have been found, and have formed the basis for industrial activity. Coal mining began early in the 20th century. Companies from several countries have mined coal, but now only Norwegian and Russian companies are involved. Attempts have been made to work other mineral resources, some of which were aborted due to special natural conditions (for example, marble). The easy accessibility of the archipelago has meant that tourism is now a growing livelihood.
The natural biological diversity and the ongoing ecological processes are largely intact. Major technical encroachments are mostly concentrated in the few settlements, and Svalbard can be regarded as the largest and least disturbed wilderness area in Norway.
The objective of the Norwegian Government (Report No. 8 (1999-2000) to the Storting) is that the large, continuous areas of wilderness and the cultural heritage sites in Svalbard must be protected from significant encroachments and impacts. Svalbard must present itself as one of the best-managed wilderness areas in the world, and the settlements must be run in an environmentally justifiable manner to protect the environment and ensure well-being. The near-Arctic waters must, furthermore, be preserved as some of the cleanest in the world, and the resources must be utilised within limits that ensure the maintenance of biological diversity in both the short and the long term.
More than half (65.3 %) of the area is currently protected with the intention of preserving the unique natural environment, landscape and cultural heritage of Svalbard (7 national parks, 6 nature reserves, 15 bird sanctuaries, 1 protected geotope). Cultural heritage sites dating from earlier than 1946 are automatically protected. That includes sites of WWII war-related activity.
The Svalbard Treaty as a management model is unique in an international context. In 1925, Norway acquired sovereignty over Svalbard, but citizens from all the 39 signatory nations to the Treaty were given equal rights to hunting, fishing, industrial activities, commerce and mining. To day these activities are strictly regulated by the Svalbard Environmental Act. The Treaty lays down clear limitations on the military activity Norway can pursue in Svalbard, and prescribes a general ban on using Svalbard to pursue war.
Polar areas are, in general, poorly represented on the World Heritage List. Thematic studies of mountainous areas on the World Heritage List also single out Svalbard as one of 28 candidates with potential before the theme is covered.
Svalbard differs significantly from existing World Heritage Areas in the Arctic (the Wrangel Islands and Ilulissat Isfjord). Svalbard has qualities within themes like landforms, bedrock geology, Quaternary geology, flora, fauna and the marine environment that will be a substantial contribution towards achieving a representative selection of high-Arctic environments on the World Heritage List.
Polar areas are also poorly represented on the World Heritage List as regards cultural heritage.
Systematic comparative analyses of cultural values have not been undertaken, but will probably concern:
The concentration of international cultural heritage covering a 400-year time span is Svalbard's particularly important contribution to World Heritage in the Arctic. Parts of this heritage picture may be seen in other Arctic areas; for example late 19th and early 20th century west-European hunting and trapping activities in East Greenland, early 20th century mining in Alaska and Yukon, 19th century sea mammal hunting in various areas, early exploration camp sites in many areas including Frans Josef Land. However no other, relatively concentrated, area in the High Arctic contains the diversity of Svalbard's non-indigenous heritage stretching from the early 17th century whaling stations to the post World War II protected coal-mining infrastructure.