1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Spitsbergen

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SPITSBERGEN (the name being Dutch is incorrectly, though commonly, spelled Spitzbergen), an Arctic archipelago, almost midway between Greenland and Novaya Zemlya, in 76° 26′ to 80° 50′ N. and 10° 20′ to 32° 40′ E., comprising the five large islands of West Spitsbergen or New Friesland, North-East Land, Edge Island, Barents Island and Prince Charles Foreland, the Wiche Islands, and many small islands divided by straits from the main group. The chief island, West Spitsbergen, shaped like a wedge pointed towards the south and deeply indented on the west and north by long branching fjords, has an area of about 15,200 sq. m. At the north-west angle of the island is a region of bold peaks and large glaciers, in the midst of which is the fine Magdalena Bay. Farther south come the series of glaciers called by the whalers “The Seven Icebergs,” which drain a high snowfield reaching east almost to Wood Bay and south to the head of Cross Bay. On the south-east it is drained by glaciers towards or into Dickson and Ekman bays. South of this snowfield comes the mountainous King James Land, consisting of an intricate network of craggy ridges with glaciers between. A deep north-and-south depression is occupied by Wijde and Dickson bays, the one opening on the north coast, the other a head-branch of the great Ice Fjord of the west coast, bordered on the west by a range of fine mountains, a spur of which separates the two bays. East of this depression there is a plateau region. Its edge is eaten away into deep valleys, down which the ice-sheet of New Friesland sends glacier tongues into Wijde Bay. East of Dickson Bay the marginal valleys are larger, and no glaciers come far down them. The plateau between Dickson and Klaas Billen bays is cut up by deep valleys such as the Rendal, Skansdal and Mimesdal (all well known to geologists); it contains no large glaciers. Farther east is found a glaciated area called Garwood Land by Sir Martin Conway. The neck of West Spitsbergen is bounded on the north by a line from near the head of Klaas Billen Bay to Wiche Bay, and on the south by the Sassendal and the depression leading to Agardh Bay. It is a complicated area of fine craggy ridges with beautiful glaciers between. Adventure Land lies south of the neck, and is bounded on the south by a line from the head of Van Keulen Bay to Whales Bay. It is an area of boggy valleys, rounded hills, and small glaciers, and may be described as the temperate and fertile belt, and is the only part of the island where reindeer still linger in any number. Near the west coast it contains some fine peaks and large glaciers. It is penetrated by the longest green valleys in Spitsbergen, e.g. from Coles Bay, Advent Bay and Low Sound (the valley of the Shallow river). The southern division of the island is very icy. There is a high snowfield along its east side, and ranges of peaks farther west. Two parallel ranges form the backbone of the island south of Horn Sound, the higher of them containing the famous Horn Sund Tind (4560 ft.). The long narrow island, Prince Charles Foreland, with lofty peaks, runs parallel to part of the west coast of West Spitsbergen, from which it is separated by a narrow strait. Its range of mountains is interrupted towards the southern end of the island by a flat plain of 50 sq. m. raised only a few feet above sea-level. There is a narrower depression a few miles farther north. The broad Stor (Great) Fjord, of Wybe Jans Water, separates the main island from two others to the east—Edge Island (2500 sq. m.) and Barents Land (580 sq. m.). Formerly these were considered as one, until the narrow Freeman Strait which parts them was discovered. Neither Barents Land nor Edge Island carries ice-sheets, and both are practically devoid of glaciers down their western coasts, but have large glaciers reaching the sea on the east. To the north-east of West Spitsbergen, separated from it by Hinlopen Strait (7 to 60 m. in breadth) lies North-East Land, with an area of about 6,200 sq. m. Its western and northern coasts are indented by several bays and fjords. It is covered with a true ice-sheet, while the neighbouring Wiche Islands to the south-east bear no large glaciers at all. East by north from Cape Leigh Smith, the easternmost promontory of North-East Land, rises White Island, covered with snow and ice, and rising to about 700 ft. It was discovered by Cornelis Giles or Gillis in 1707, and is alternatively named Giles Land. Numerous small islands lie around the larger: Danes and other islands off the north-west coast of West Spitsbergen, the Seven Islands, Outger Reps, Broch, and Charles XII. Island on the north of North-East Land; Hinlopen Strait contains numerous islets, and the Ryk Yse Archipelago, Hope or Walrus Island, and the Thousand Islands (about a hundred small rocks) lie to the east and south of Edge Island.

The nomenclature is in a state of hopeless confusion, the names given by the old explorers having been carelessly transferred from point to point, or capriciously set aside. The true names, English and Dutch, of the principal misnamed sites are here indicated in brackets after the current names: South Cape (Point Look-out), Torrel’s Glacier (Slaadberg), Recherche Bay (Joseph’s Bay, Schoonhoven) , Van Keulen Bay (Lord Ellesmere Sound, Sardammer Rivier), Van Mayen Bay (Low Sound, Klok Rivier), Coal Bay (Coles Bay), Advent Bay (Adventure Bay), St John’s Bay (Osborn’s Inlet), English Bay (Cove Comfortlesse), Foreland Sound (Sir Thomas Smith Bay, Keerwyk), Cross Bay (Close Cove), the bay called Smeerenburg (Fair Haven, Dutch Bay), Flat Hook (Fox Point), Biscayers' Hook (Point Welcome), Redbeach (Broad Bay), Leifde Bay (Wiche Sound), Grey Hook (Castlin’s Point), Wijde Bay (Sir Thomas Smith Inlet), Verlegen Hook (Point Desire), Treurenberg Bay (Bear Bay), Agardh Bay (Foul Sound), Stor Fjord (Wybe Jans Water), North-East Land (Sir Thomas Smith Island), North Cape (Point Purchas). Stans Foreland is not, as often appears, an alternative name of Edge Island, but the name of its south-eastern cape only.

Geology.—The backbone of the main island consists of an ancient mass of pre-Devonian granites, gneisses and schists forming a mountain chain in the western region. Resting upon these ancient crystalline rocks, the precise age of which has not been definitely determined, there is a succession of sedimentary rocks representing nearly every one of the prominent periods of geological time. For the eastern part of the group these strata lie nearly horizontal; here and there they are pierced by intrusive igneous rocks. The oldest sediments yet found are the Ordovician beds which occur at Hekla Hook, dolomites, limestones, slates and quartzites; Silurian rocks may possibly exist in the north-west; and Devonian grits with Pteraspis have been recorded in Liefde Bay. The Carboniferous period is represented by Culm-like rocks (classed by O. Heer as Urslen—Upper Devonian); upon these come limestones with Spirifer Mosquensis (Hinlopen Straits) and above these again are limestones with Cyathophyllum and Fusulina; (Eisfjord, Bell Sound, Horn Sound, &c.). Permo-Carboniferous limestones and dolomites occur on the west on the mainland and on Prince Charles Foreland and in King James Land. Black slaty shales with large ammonites in the Calcareous nodules and beds of black, bituminous limestone represent the Trias at Cape Thorodsen; and Rhaetic fossils are found in Research Bay, Bell Sound. Jurassic rocks are widely spread and include Bajocian, Bathonian, Callovian, Oxfordian and Portlandian (Cape Starashchin and Advent Bay) ; the older stages being in the west. Some of these rocks are coal-bearing. Wealden strata with coal seams and marine beds (Volgian) occur in the south, and in King Charles Land are Neocomian rocks with interbedded basalts. Plant-bearing lower Cretaceous strata have been recorded, and lower Eocene beds are found in Ice Fjord, Bell Sound containing large magnolia leaves and others; beds of London Clay age occur in Kolbay. Miocene Sandstones and clay with lignite beds, some 2800 ft. thick, occupy the west coast about Ice Fjord, Bell Sound, Advent Bay, &c. In this period these islands were probably all united and covered a much greater area and were covered with extensive peat bogs, on the edges of which the marsh cypress flowered, dropping its leaves and blossoms into the marshes. Sequoia, poplars, birches, planes and large oaks also grew there, while ivy and thick underwood freely developed under their shadow, and thousands of insects swarmed in the thicket. Subsidence followed in late Tertiary times, to be succeeded by a period of rapid elevation giving origin to the raised beaches such as those seen on Prince Charles Foreland, and possibly resubmergence may be again in progress. In comparatively recent geological times this, the main island, was over most of its area a high plateau covered with an ice-sheet, which has gradually been withdrawn from the west towards the east, the western region being thus cut up into deep valleys and more or less rugged mountains. Farther east the mountains are more rounded, but still farther east the plateau character of the land remains.

Climate.—The sea around Spitsbergen is shallow, and the ice readily accumulates round the shores. Although the glaciers of Spitsbergen do not give origin to icebergs so huge as those of Greenland, the smaller bergs and the pack-ice are thick enough to prevent access to the shores except for a few months in the year. However, the warm drift from the Atlantic sends a branch to the western shores of Spitsbergen, moderating its climate, and leaving an open passage which permits vessels to approach the western coast even under the most unfavourable conditions of ice in the arctic regions. Drift-wood from lower latitudes, glass floats of the Norwegian fishermen and other objects have been found at the northern extremity of Spitsbergen. On the other hand a cold current charged with ice descends from higher latitudes along the eastern coasts, rendering approach extremely difficult. On this account these shores long remained practically unknown.

Owing to the warm drift the climate of Spitsbergen is less severe than in the corresponding latitudes of Greenland and Smith Sound. Bear Island, notwithstanding its more southerly position, has a lower temperature. The isotherm of 23° F., which crosses the middle of Eastern Siberia, touches its southern extremity, and only the north-east coa3ts of Spitsbergen have an average yearly temperature so low as 14° to 10·5°. At Mussel Bay (79° 53′) the average yearly temperature is 16° (January 14·1°, July 39·3°). Even in the coldest months of the winter a thaw may set in for a few days; but, on the other hand, snow sometimes falls in July and August. Spring comes in June; the snow becomes saturated with water and disappears in places, and scurvy grass and the polar willow open their buds. By the end of June the thermometer has ceased to sink below the freezing-point at night; July, August and September are the best months. In September, however, autumn sets in on shore, and by the end of the month the pack-ice rapidly freezes into one solid mass. In Treurenberg Bay an annual precipitation of 64 in. has been observed.

Fauna and Flora.—The Greenland whale has completely disappeared in consequence of the great havoc made by the early whalers. According to Scoresby, no less than 57,590 whales were killed between 1669 and 1775. A great diminution, in the same way, is to be observed in the numbers of other creatures which were the object of hunters. A reckless extermination of seals was carried on. Walruses are now only occasionally seen in the waters of West Spitsbergen. Birds, also, have rapidly diminished in numbers. The fulmar petrel meets ships approaching Spitsbergen far away from the coasts. It makes colonies on the cliffs, as also do the glaucous gull and the “burgomaster.” Rotches, black guillemots, ivory gulls, auks and kittiwake gulls breed on the cliffs, while geese, looms and snipe frequent the lagoons and small fresh-water ponds. The eider duck breeds on the islands, but its numbers have become noticeably reduced, while the lumme and the tern confine themselves to separate cliffs. These birds, however, are only guests in Spitsbergen, the snow-bunting being the only species which stays permanently; some twenty-three species breed regularly on Spitsbergen, and four others (the falcon, snowy owl, swan and skua) come occasionally. Of land mammals, besides the polar bear, the reindeer and arctic fox have been greatly reduced; the reindeer, in fact, are approaching extinction, whereas for several years consecutively before 1868 from 1500 to 2000 were killed by hunters in a few weeks of summer.

There are twenty-three species of fishes, but no reptiles. Insects are few. Arachnids, and especially Pantopods, on the other hand, are very common. Molluscs are also numerous. At some places the mussels and univalves reach a large size and appear in great abundance. Of Crustaceans fully 100 species have been recognized in the waters of the archipelago.

The flora is, of course, poor. The only tree is the polar willow, which does not exceed 2 in. in height and bears a few leaves not larger than a man's finger-nail; and the only bushes are the crowberry and cloudberry. But at the foot of the warmer cliffs some loam has been formed notwithstanding the slowness of putrefaction, and there, in contrast with the brownish lichens that cover the hills, grows a carpet of mosses of the brightest green, variegated with the golden-yellow flowers of the ranunculus, the large-leaved scurvy grass, several saxifrages, fox-tail grass, &c., with a few large flowers, Polygona and Andromedae; while on the driest spots yellow poppies, whitlow grasses, &c., are found. Even on the higher slopes, 1500 ft. above the sea, the poppy is occasionally met with. In all over 130 species of flowering plants have been found. Mosses, mostly European acquaintances, cover all places where peat has accumulated. The slopes of the crags and the blocks of stone on the beach are sometimes entirely covered with a luxuriant moss and lichen vegetation, among the last being the so-called “famine bread” (Umbilicaria arctica), which has maintained the life of many arctic travellers. Although limited in number, the flora is suggestive in its distribution. The vegetation of the south has a decidedly Lappish or European alpine character, while that of the north coast is decidedly American, and recalls that of Melville Island. Many flowering plants which are common in north-west Spitsbergen are absent from the east coast, where the cold climate is inimical to both flora and fauna; but, on the other hand, one moss (Pottia hyperborea) and one lichen (Usnea melaxantha) are found there which are of American origin and grow both in North America and on the Cordilleras. Algae are most numerous, many, like the brown Laminaria and Nostoc communis, which fill all pools and are the chief food of many birds, being familiar in Europe. Protococcus nivalis covers the snow with its reddish powder.

History.—Spitsbergen has never been permanently inhabited, although there are several instances of hunters wintering on the island under stress of circumstances, and several scientific expeditions have done so. A Russian trapper named Starashchin is said in various accounts to have spent 32 or 39 winters, and 15 consecutive years, in the archipelago; he died there in 1826. Spitsbergen was discovered on the 17th of June 1596, during the expedition under William Barents and Jacob Heemskerk, which ended with the death of Barents. Barents saw parts of the west and north coasts, and to these he gave the name of Spitsbergen. In 1607 Henry Hudson, after visiting the coast of Greenland, reached Spitsbergen in June. Bear Island, the ice-bound island midway between Spitsbergen and the North Cape, situated on the same submarine platform as the former, had been discovered by Barents, and became important as a hunting-ground (for walrus, &c.) before Spitsbergen began to be visited for this purpose. In 1609 Thomas Marmaduke of the “Heartsease,” proceeding north from Bear Island, reached Spitsbergen, and in the following year the first hunting expedition was despatched thither by the Muscovy Company on board the “Amitie” of London, Jonas Poole, master, on whose report of the abundance of whales on the coast the Spitsbergen whaling industry, which was to grow to such importance, was established in 1611. Very shortly the Dutch began to take a share in this, and there were frequent collisions between the whalers of the two nationalities, while in 1615 the Danes attempted to claim this part of “Greenland,” as Spitsbergen was for a long time considered. England attempted to annex the archipelago, but at length the Dutch became predominant in the whaling industry, and in 1623 founded the summer settlement of Smeerenburg. This became a busy and important centre, but began to decline in about twenty years, as the whales were gradually driven from the bays and must be followed, at first northward along the coast, and later into the open sea. Independently of the English and Dutch, Russians from the White Sea district came to Spitsbergen to hunt walruses, seals, bears, foxes, &c. At what early period they first did so cannot be known, but the industry seems to have gained a certain importance before 1740. The Russians had their own nomenclature for various parts of the archipelago, the whole of which they also called Grumant, a corruption of Greenland. A similar hunting industry was established by Norwegians early in the 18th century, but Spitsbergen declined in importance as a hunting-ground owing to the indiscriminate slaughter of game.

Many expeditions have made Spitsbergen their base for polar exploration. The Russian admiral Chichagov visited it twice, in 1765 and 1766, and reached 80° 28′ N. The expedition sent from England in 1773 at the instigation of Daines Barrington under the command of Constantine John Phipps, was the first having a purely geographical purpose. It consisted of two vessels, the “Racehorse” and the “Carcass,” on the first of which Horatio Nelson was a midshipman. Phipps mapped the north of Spitsbergen, and reached 80° 48′ north. In 1818 David Buchan and John Franklin reached 80° 34′ to the north of the archipelago. Captain D. C. Clavering and Sir Edward Sabine in 1823 explored the islands, and Sabine made his remarkable magnetic observations, while Clavering reached 80° 20′ N. Sir William Parry, shortly after his return from his third voyage, went to Spitsbergen and reached 82° 40′ north on sledges, while other members of the expedition were occupied with scientific work in the archipelago. In the same year the Norwegian geologist Balthasar Mathias Keilhau visited the group and related his experiences in a remarkable book, Resa i Ost og West Finmarken (Christiania, 1831). The Swedish professor Sven Loven was the first to undertake, in 1837, dredging and geological explorations in Spitsbergen and its vicinity. Next year a body of French, Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian naturalists, among whom was Charles Martins, visited the western coast. In 1858, at the suggestion of Loven, Otto Torell, accompanied by A. E. Nordenskiöld and A. Quennerstadt made many important observations and brought home rich geological collections. In 1861 a larger expedition led by Torell, Nordenskiöld, A. J. Malmgren, and Karl Chydenius, set out with the object of finding how far it was possible to obtain a measurement of an arc of meridian of sufficient extent. This aim was only partly accomplished, but the expedition returned with an invaluable store of various observations. The work of the measurement of the arc was completed in 1864 by another expedition conducted by Nordenskiöld, assisted by Malmgren and N. Dunér. This expedition was followed in 1868 by that of the “Sofia,” under Nordenskiöld, which, in the words of Oswald Heer, “achieved more and gave a wider extension to the horizon of our knowledge than if it had returned merely with the information that the ‘Sofia’ had hoisted her flag on the North Pole.” In the same year the German arctic expedition under Karl Koldewey circumnavigated West Spitsbergen. In 1870 two young Swedish savants, Drs Nathorst and Wilander, visited Spitsbergen in order to examine the phosphoric deposits, and two years later a colony was formed in Ice Fjord, and a small tramway constructed to work the beds. The attempt, however, did not prove successful. Leigh Smith and the Norwegian Captain Ulve visited and mapped parts of East Spitsbergen in 1871, returning with valuable information. They reached 81° 24′ north. In the same year the first tourist steamer visited the archipelago. In 1872 a great polar expedition under Nordenskiöld set out to winter on Spitsbergen with the intention of attempting in the spring to advance towards the pole on sledges drawn by reindeer. But the expedition encountered a series of misfortunes. The ships were beset in the ice very early in Mussel Bay, and, six Norwegian fishing vessels having been likewise overtaken and shut in, the expedition had to feed the crews on its provisions and thus to reduce the rations of its own men. The reindeer all made their escape during a snow-storm; and when the sledge party reached the Seven Islands they found the ice so packed that all idea of going north had to be abandoned. Instead of this, Nordenskiöld explored North-East Land and crossed the vast ice-sheet which covers it. The expedition returned in 1873 with a fresh store of important scientific observations, especially in physics and submarine zoology. In 1873 R. von Drasche-Wartinberg, the geologist, paid a short visit to Spitsbergen. In 1882 the Swedish geologists, A. G. Nathorst and G. de Geer made a journey which furnished interesting data about the geology and flora of the islands. In the same year a Swedish meteorological station was established at Cape Thordsen for carrying on the observations desired by the international polar committee. During the last decade of the 19th century Spitsbergen attracted not only a number of scientists but also sportsmen and tourists. Such expeditions as those of Gustaf Nordenskiöld in 1890 and the important circumnavigation by Nathorst in 1898, during which the Wiche Islands and White Islands were carefully explored, confined their attentions almost entirely to the coasts. In 1892 M. C. Rabot made the first serious attempt to penetrate the interior from the head of Ice Fjord, exploring a part of the Sassendal; and in 1896 Sir Martin Conway led an expedition which crossed the island for the first time, and surveyed the region between Ice Fjord and Bell Sound on the east coast. In 1897 Conway and Mr E. J. Garwood surveyed the glaciated area north of Ice Fjord to about 78° 10′ N., and climbed Horn Sund Tind. In the same year Herr André made his fatal balloon ascent from Danes Island with the intention of floating over the Pole. In 1896 a weekly service of Norwegian tourist steamers was established in summer, and a small inn was built at Advent Bay in Ice Fjord, and though this was afterwards closed, the west coast continued to be frequently visited by tourist steamers during the height of summer. In 1898, 1899 and 1906 the prince of Monaco made scientific investigations in the Archipelago, and in 1898–1902 Swedish and Russian expeditions undertook the measurement of an arc of the meridian, the results of which were accompanied by valuable physiographical, meteorological, botanical and other observations. Dr W. S. Bruce made a complete survey and scientific investigations of Prince Charles Foreland. In 1900 coal began to be worked on Advent Bay, a seam 10 ft. thick being found below 40 ft. of fossil ice and 20 ft. of rock. This development and other considerations led to some discussion between the powers interested as to the territorial sovereignty over the archipelago, a question which though approached before (as in 1870) had never been brought to a settlement.

Bibliography.—On a land visited by so many scientific observers the literature is naturally voluminous. The chief source of scientific papers is the publications of the Swedish Vetenskaps Akademie. Sir W. Martin Conway narrates his expedition in the First Crossing of Spitsbergen (London, 1897); and in No Man’s Land (Cambridge, 1906) he details the history of the Archipelago down to 1840, tabulates the principal voyages and incidents thereafter until 1900, and furnishes a very full bibliography for the history and geography of Spitsbergen from the earliest time down to 1902. The various observations of the Swedish expedition for the measurement of an arc of the meridian were brought together (in French) in Missions scientifiques pour la mesure d’un arc de méridien au Spitzberg . . . (Stockholm, 1903–1906), and those of the Russian expedition under the same title in 1904, seq. (St. Petersburg).