Norway's aim is to see to it that Svalbard is one of the world's best-managed wilderness areas. Within the framework set by the Svalbard Treaty and considerations of sovereignty, environmental considerations shall prevail in the event of conflicts between environmental protection and other interests.
Protection of nature and wildlife has been central to Norway's management of Svalbard ever since it first became part of the country in 1925. Following the discovery of Svalbard by Wilhelm Barents in 1596, it emerged that there were large populations of i.a. bowhead whale and walrus in the region. Products such as whale oil and baleen were in demand on the European market. The discovery of Svalbard was therefore the start of several hundred years of large-scale hunting and over-exploitation of living resources. When Norway gained sovereignty over Svalbard in 1925, the North Atlantic right whale was extinct. The bowhead whale was very rare in the waters around Svalbard, and the walrus had all but disappeared. On land, stocks of the Svalbard reindeer and several species of goose were greatly reduced. The polar bear population was also threatened.
In the years since 1925, wide-ranging measures have been put in place to protect animal species and their habitats. This has substantially improved the situation for wildlife and secured the great wilderness areas against encroachment. The Svalbard reindeer was protected as early as 1925, the walrus in 1952 and the polar bear in 1972. Today the populations of polar bear, Svalbard reindeer, barnacle goose and walrus are once again large and vigorous, although stocks of bowhead whale and brent goose are still greatly reduced. Only limited hunting and trapping of certain species is now permitted. The aim is to enable wildlife to develop as undisturbed by hunting and other human activities as possible.
Since the early 1900s, coal mining has been the most important economic activity in Svalbard. Mines are currently in operation at Svea, Longyearbyen and the Russian settlement of Barentsburg. From the 1960s there was also considerable interest in exploration for petroleum in large parts of the archipelago, but without the necessary regulations and area protection to limit the environmental impact of this activity. A project was therefore launched to create protected areas on Svalbard.
In 1973, three national parks, two nature reserves and 14 bird sanctuaries were established in Svalbard. These protected areas covered a total of 57 per cent of Svalbard's land area and also included most of the territorial waters.
This protection secured sizeable pristine wilderness areas, but did not include the biologically richest countries in the areas around the major fjords, and in the ice-free valleys on the west coast of Svalbard. Between 2002 and 2005, a number of new national parks and nature reserves were therefore created, while the sea boundary for the original conservation area was extended from four to 12 nautical miles from land in line with the expansion of the territorial boundary. As well as the biologically rich fjords and valleys on western and central Spitsbergen, the new protected areas include the isolated islands of Bjørnøya (Bear Island) and Hopen.
The protected areas now cover 65 percent of the land area and 87 percent of the territorial waters of Svalbard. All known habitats are well represented in these areas, where regulations provide robust protection against any material impact on the natural landscape. Provisions for hunting in protected areas vary. Snowmobile driving is permitted in some national parks near settlements.
Even in areas that are not protected, the environment is now secured through a tough set of modern environmental regulations. A new environmental protection law adopted in 2002 aims to maintain a virtually untouched environment in Svalbard. Within this framework, the law provides scope for environmentally sound settlement, research and commercial operations.
Today's challenges particularly concern traffic, notably in connection with increasing cruise tourism in protected areas during the summer. Field research is also on the rise and is expected to grow further in view of Svalbard's increasingly important role as an international platform for climate and environmental research. Vulnerable cultural heritage and wildlife areas are important both as tourist attractions and subjects of research. It is clearly necessary to regulate traffic, so that the disturbance of sensitive wildlife and wear and tear on vegetation and cultural heritage sites are kept at an acceptable level so as to avoid diminution and deterioration over time. It is also very important to limit the risk of environmental damage as a result of acute oil spills from shipping. Accordingly, measures to limit the environmental impact of cruise traffic include a ban on heavy bunker oil in the larger protected areas and restrictions on passenger numbers for ships travelling in the nature reserves of eastern Svalbard.
Mineral extraction and oil exploration activities over the past hundred years have affected Svalbard's natural environment in some areas. In addition to such operations, the tracks left by off-road vehicles have caused significant damage to the landscape. But it is still only a small proportion of Svalbard's area that has been affected by industrial activity. Today, mining is concentrated in the vicinity of the three settlements Longyearbyen, Svea and Barentsburg. Activities likely to affect the environment beyond the current settlement and mining areas are subject to strict environmental regulations. Although the protected areas of Svalbard are extensive, there are still great stretches of important wilderness that have not received this designation. In order to preserve the scope of Svalbard's wilderness, new encroachments on the natural environment that might diminish or fragment these areas must be prevented even where they are not officially protected.
In Svalbard there is close connection between life in the sea, in the pack ice and on land. The large populations of seabirds and marine mammals get all their food in the ocean. Svalbard's environment is therefore dependent on sustainable management of the marine environment to ensure access to food for these species. An example of the potential vulnerability of any individual species is the sharp decline in the guillemot population of Bjørnøya after the collapse of the capelin stock in the Barents sea in the mid-1980s.
Populations of seabirds and marine mammals are also highly vulnerable to accidental discharges of oil from shipping or petroleum operations. Today Bjørnøya in particular is potentially at risk from accidental discharges from petroleum activities in the southern Barents Sea. The management plan for the Barents Sea specifies that there should be no petroleum activities in the areas of the ice edge and the polar front or in a 65 km zone around Bjørnøya.
Transfer of pollutants to the Arctic by ocean and air currents is also a problem for some species in Svalbard, particularly those at the top of the marine food chains, such as polar bears and glaucous gulls. The levels of contaminants in these species is so high that it can negatively affect population development. Even if levels of certain pollutants (such as PCBs) are falling, the incidence of new and environmentally dangerous chemicals is on the increase.
In the longer term, anthropogenic (man-made) climate change poses a very serious threat to the environment in Svalbard. Temperatures in the Arctic are increasing twice as fast as the global average, and the consequences for the natural environment in the Svalbard region are expected to be severe. The distribution of sea ice is likely to be sharply reduced, especially in summer. A number of species such as polar bears, walrus and other seals are dependent on the ice floes as part of their habitat. In the course of this century, more species are likely to be totally or partially lost from the Svalbard region as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Management of Svalbard must take into account that climate change could also make many species more vulnerable also to local conditions.
Preservation of Svalbard's nature as we know it today requires not only strict conservation in Svalbard, but also sustainable exploitation of marine resources and binding international agreements to limit climate change and emissions of hazardous chemicals.