Glaciers cover 60 per cent of Svalbard's land area, and much of the remaining area is mountainous. The terrain is often steep and includes large areas of scree and moraine. Less than 10 per cent of the area is covered by vegetation. However, the climate is relatively favourable for plant growth. Low-lying valleys, plains and coastal areas are generally covered by vegetation to some extent. The plants are small and seldom more than 20 cm tall. There are no upright trees or bushes, and the only woody plants are low or creeping dwarf shrubs.
More vegetation than might be expected
Considering that Svalbard lies so far north, there is a surprising amount of plant cover. However, the species diversity is not particularly high, probably because of the isolated position of the islands.
Botanists have registered 173 species of vascular plants, 373 mosses, 597 lichens and 705 fungi, and in addition 1122 species of cyanobacteria and algae, including marine and fresh-water species. The terrestrial vegetation provides food supplies for about 10 000 reindeer and large numbers of geese in the summer.
Of the 173 species of vascular plants, 9 are classified as endangered and 16 as vulnerable in Svalbard. Most of the endangered species and many of the vulnerable species are found more commonly in mainland Norway. Five of the 9 endangered species are found in a locality in the Northwest Spitsbergen National Park where there are hot springs.
Humans put pressure on Svalbard's vegetation
Wear and tear from people and vehicles, infrastructure development and tourism all affect the vegetation in Svalbard. Even though only a small proportion of Svalbard is affected by these activities, this includes a large part of the areas with a continuous and relatively species-rich vegetation cover. Acid rain also has a negative effect on some species.
Motorised traffic and infrastructure development
The area between Longyearbyen and Barentsburg is most seriously affected by infrastructure development and tracks made by offroad vehicles. There are also obvious tracks in the valleys Gipsdalen, Reindalen and the lower part of Sassendalen. These areas have some of the highest species diversity in Svalbard. Vehicle tracks remain visible on the tundra for a very long time, and the damage may even become worse over time once the plant cover is worn away. Most vehicle tracks result from mining activities and oil exploration before 1990.
The Russian mining company has shown interest in resuming its activities in Grumantbyen and Colesbukta, and has applied for permission to construct a road from Barentsburg to Colesbukta. Colesbukta is a botanically vulnerable area with several rare plant species that require relatively warm conditions, such as cloudberry (
Plants in general, and particularly the species that grow near the hot springs in Northwest Spitsbergen National Park, are under pressure from tourist traffic. This applies to cruise ships in particular, since they usually land large numbers of people in one place. Concentrated wear and tear in a small area can cause damage to the vegetation and soil that may take years to recover, because plants grow so slowly and soil formation is also very slow. Snowmobile traffic can also damage the soil and vegetation.
Climate change is expected to bring milder winters, wetter summers and more unstable weather conditions. This will have a particularly serious effect in polar regions, where temperatures are normally low and stable and there is little precipitation. Plants adapted to a cold climate and dry summers will be negatively affected. Climate change will result in changes in species composition, which in turn will affect grazing animals such as reindeer and geese.
Emissions from Europe and Russia add to the deposition of acid rain in Svalbard. Nitrogen and sulphur are stored in the snow and may be released in high concentrations during the thaws. Woody plants and dwarf shrubs are affected because the mycorrhiza (the symbiotic relationship between specific fungi and the plants' root systems) is damaged by acidity, and nutrient uptake therefore suffers. Lichens and mosses are also very sensitive to nitrogen deposition.
Plans for new protected areas
Large areas of Svalbard are protected as national parks and nature reserves. In addition, large plant protection reserves were established in central Spitsbergen and at the head of Kongsfjorden in 1932.
However, the plant protection reserves are not considered to be a very effective means of nature conservation. The most species-rich and productive habitats in Svalbard are also poorly represented in the existing protected areas. Increased motorised traffic and new developments outside the existing settlements and mines may also add to the pressure on vulnerable vegetation unless nature conservation measures are strengthened. A new plan for area protection is intended to amend this situaton.