Summer Q&A: we are back again!

Why is the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard sometimes called Spitsbergen?

Longyearbyen, Svalbard @dinabroderoger 2019.06.21
Picture 1. Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town, is also the main town of the Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard. Photo by: Dina Brode-Reoger, @vonlowenkraft

Spits means ‘pointed’ and ‘bergen’ means mountains – but when you look at the mountains in the Longyearbyen area, most of them are flat topped (see picture 1 and 2)… so where does the name come from? And why do some people say Spitsbergen and others Svalbard?

View flying into Longyearbyen @dinabroderoger 2019.06.14
Picture 2. Air-borne view of flat topped mountains in the Longyearbyen area. By Dina Brode-Roger @vonlowenkraft

The archipelago (group of islands) was first incontestably discovered by the Dutch seafarer Willem Barents in June 1596 when he was searching for a northern route to Asia and the riches that could be found there. In 1596, Barents first sailed up to Bear Island (the southern most island of the then-unknown archipelago) then on to Greenland. As he sailed up Greenland’s eastern coast he came to frozen sea ice and followed it to the east where he came upon new, as yet uncharted, land. This was the north western part of the archipelago which has very pointy mountains (see picture 3). Hence the name ‘Spitsbergen’. At the time, because of the ice conditions, Barents believed the land he was seeing was an extension of Greenland, not a separate island or archipelago.

View of the NW coast of Svalbard @dinabroderoger 2019.08.02
Picture 3. The north western part of the archipelago. By Dina Brode-Roger @vonlowenkraft

But where does the name Svalbard come from? Svalbard was first recorded in the Icelandic Annals in 1194 in the very brief inscription ‘Svalbardi fundi’ (Svalbard found). ‘Sval’ means cold and ‘bard’ means coast – so essentially ‘land of the cold coasts’. Unfortunately, there are no details as to exactly where these cold coasts are or any further information on if or how often they were visited.

So now you may be wondering why both names exist and which one should be used… The name ‘Spitsbergen’ was used during the whaling period and up until the beginning of the 20th century industrial period when various nations began claiming access to mineral rights on the archipelago. The Svalbard Treaty, written in 1920 and originally called the Treaty of Spitsbergen, resolved these claims and gave full sovereignty to Norway while ensuring equal access for citizens of all signatory states. When the treaty was enacted in 1925, Norway changed the name from Spitsbergen to Svalbard – while still keeping the name of Spitsbergen for the main island.

So technically, Longyearbyen is on the island of Spitsbergen in the archipelago of Svalbard.​

Story by Dina Brode-Roger.