National park on Svalbard to be expanded | Polarjournal
The entrance to Van Mijenfjorden, one of the two fjord arms of Bellsund, is bordered by Akseløya, a low chain of rocky islands. Behind it stretches one of the last areas of stable sea ice cover on the western side of the main island of Spitsbergen. Picture: Michael Wenger

For many, Svalbard is the epitome of Arctic wilderness. The Norwegian-administered archipelago offers almost everything the Arctic variety has to offer. But climate change, tourism and the economic development ideas of the Arctic states threaten the unique Arctic environment. Numerous areas have therefore been placed under special protection as national parks. Now the government in Oslo has expanded massively and renamed a national park.

The national park, previously known as Nordenskjöld Land, located south of Longyearbyen and Barentsburg, will be enlarged by 2,914 square kilometres to include the entire Van Mijenfjord, Nathorst Land and the entire area of the former mining region of Svea. The southern border of the newly named Van Mijenfjord National Park now runs through the middle of the Van Keulenfjord and borders the South Spitsbergen National Park. With the government’s decision, a large part south of Longyearbyen is now protected.

Polar bears and ringed seals rely heavily on sea ice along the Svalbard coast. As the sea ice situation in the back part of Van Mijenfjord is one of the most stable in western Svalbard, the whole region has now been declared a national park. Pictures: Michael Wenger

The decision to declare the whole area a national park was based on an assessment by the Sysselmannen and experts regarding the sea ice around Svalbard, which is important for wildlife. Two years ago, Morten Wegede, the head of department at the Sysselmannen, had informed that the Nordenskjöld Land National Park should be extended, as the ice situation is still most stable in Van Mijenfjord, which in turn is good for the polar bears and the seals and numerous other animal species. It was already foreseeable at that time that the authority would recommend an extension. The Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment has now followed this recommendation and decided to increase the size. Its senior minister Sveinung Rotevatn (V) said in a press release: “The government’s goal for Svalbard is to become one of the best managed wilderness areas in the world. This requires that we implement measures to deal with climate change and the pressure of increasing traffic brings with it. Protecting Van Mijenfjord and its surroundings is a direct response to this.”

The region of the new national park also includes the former mining area of Svea, where coal was still mined on a large scale until 2015. Ships had to pass through the barrier formed by the rocky island of Akseløya in order to load and unload goods and coal. Navigating the narrow channel was not easy and was further complicated by the ice that remained for a long time. The front part of the fjord system, known as Bellsund, is one of the popular tourist destinations for Spitsbergen cruises. Because here lies, among other things, the well-known nesting place for little auks, Ingeborgfjellet. However, this will still be available to visit, says AECO when asked. “AECO was involved in the consultation on the establishment of Van Mijenfjord National Park and had no objections to the proposal,” says deputy managing director Anders de la Cour in an email to PolarJournal. “National parks have been established for the purpose of protecting the environment, and to facilitate knowledge and experience. This resonates well with the tourism AECO represents which is based on good environmental protection and allowing access for visitors to nature and educational nature experiences. AECO does not see that establishing the Van Meijenfjord National Park as proposed will have major impact on the activity AECO represents, as the proposal regulates operational practices that already exists for AECO’s members as regulated by the organization’s self-imposed guidelines.”

Despite the establishment of the new park boundaries, tourists should still be able to observe the tens of thousands of little auks at Ingeborgfjellet. This is because AECO’s visitor regulations ensure that fauna and flora of Svalbard is as little negatively affected as possible. Picture: Michael Wenger

So during the summer months on Svalbard not much should change in terms of visitors. But for visitors who wanted to visit the back of the fjord with guides on snowscooters in the spring, new rules have already been in effect since this spring, which had led to some discussion between various stakeholders and the Sysselmester. These had imposed a ban on driving in the south-eastern part of the fjord and only allowed passage by the shortest route, in order to protect the wildlife from disturbance during the period. The area around the Svea mine, which is now also part of the national park, has been carefully surveyed and cleaned up since the closure to ensure that no dangerous residues negatively affect nature there as well. “Norway takes such restorations of nature very seriously,” Environment Minister Rotevatn writes in the press release. “And it shows that it (Norway) is willing to spend resources on it.” According to the statement, the minister will travel to Svalbard next week to officially open the national park.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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