Land and People

The islands form plateaus intersected by deep fjords, of which Isfjorden is the largest. Spitsbergen, the largest island, contains the highest mountain of the group (Newtontoppen, c.5,650 ft/1,720 m) and the principal settlements of Longyearbyen (the administrative center), Ny-Ålesund, and Barentsburg. Spitsbergen has served as the base for many polar expeditions. Some 60% of the small population is Norwegian and 20% Russian and Ukrainian.

The warm North Atlantic Drift makes navigation possible for more than half the year along the western coasts. Ice fields and glaciers cover more than 60% of the area, but some 130 species of arctic vegetation flourish near the coast and on patches of interior tundra. Waterfowl abound, but land game has been rendered nearly extinct by hunting and is now protected, in addition to seals, walruses, and whales. The chief wealth of the islands was for decades derived from their mineral resources, most notably coal, but the tourism is now increasingly significant. Deposits of asbestos, copper, gypsum, iron, marble, zinc, and phosphate also exist. Scientific research is the third mainstay of the local economy.

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