Bear Island

Bear Island is the English name for Bj0rn0ya (74°30' N 19° E), the southernmost island in the Norwegian High Arctic Svalbard archipelago. This 178 km2 (69 sq mi) island is 20 km (12 mi) north-south with a maximum width of 15 km. It is the most isolated of Svalbard's islands, lying approximately mid-way between mainland Norway and the rest of the archipelago. Almost the entire coastline consists of steep cliffs, and there are no good harbors. The northern part is a flat, lake-covered, lowland. The southern third of the island is mountainous, the highest peak being Miseryfjellet (536 m). The southern tip consists of cliffs some 400 m high rising straight from the sea. The rock pillars and weathered caverns here are well-known local landmarks.

There are more than 740 lakes and ponds on Bear Island, comprising about 11% of the total area. Most lakes are shallow, and less than ten are deeper than 5 m. The deepest lake, Ellasj0en, is 43 m deep.

Less than a quarter of the island is basement rock. The rest is mostly dolomite, sandstone, limestone, and shale. The northwestern part is Carboniferous and Permian, the northeastern part Devonian, and the southern part Silurian and older.

The presence of coal and lead deposits has been known since the 17th century. The only large-scale mining conducted on the island was for Late Devonian coal at Tunheim from 1916 to 1925. A total of 116,094 tons of coal was exported. In addition, small-scale mining for lead ore (galena) was conducted in 1925-1930.

For most of the year, Bear Island is south of the drift-ice limit. From February to April, the drift ice usually reaches Bear Island, and there is a 50% chance of encountering it there in late March.

The climate is Arctic-oceanic. The median temperature for March, the coldest month, is -7.0°C. August is the warmest month with a median temperature of 5.2°C.

There is a high frequency of fog at the island especially in July (22%). Yearly precipitation is less than 400 mm, and for 178 days of the year wind speeds are Beaufort 6 (strong breeze) or higher.

Bear Island has one of the largest bird cliffs in the North Atlantic. The most numerous species are Brunnich's guillemot (Uria lomvia), common guillemot (Uria aalge), kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), and fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) with between 123,000 -and 50,000 breeding pairs of each species. The only land living mammal is the Arctic fox (Alopex lagopus). Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) often visit the island in winter. Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus) are found in the largest lakes.

Bear Island was discovered onJune 10, 1596 by a Dutch expedition piloted by Willem Barents. They killed a polar bear there and therefore named the island "t'Beeren Eyland" on Barents's map from 1598. In 1603, an English expedition renamed it Cherry Island, after Sir Francis Cherry.

Bear Island was unclaimed until 1925 when it became Norwegian through the Svalbard Treaty. All land is today owned by the Norwegian state-owned company Bj0rn0en A/S. The island is uninhabited, apart from a meteorological station on the northern part of the island. Bear Island will most likely be made into a nature reserve in the early 21st century.

Ian Gjertz

See also Svalbard; Svalbard Treaty Further Reading

Arctic Pilot. Sailing Directions Svalbard-Jan Mayen, Stavanger: Norwegian Hydrographic Service and Norwegian Polar Research Institute, 1988 Gunnar, Horn & Orvin Anders, Geology of Bear Island, Oslo:

Skrifter om Svalbard og Ishavet 15, 1928 Orheim, Olav (editor), The Placenames of Svalbard, Oslo: Norsk Polarinstitutt, 1991

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