The Recreational Mariner's Guide

3. Svalbard

Ice and Ice Reports

Pack Ice

The sea (pack) ice conditions in Svalbard are driven by a balance between the warming influence of the last gasp of the north-going Gulf Stream and the polar pack ice drifting down in the prevailing southwest-going current. Wind can also play a large role in pack ice conditions. 

Note that ice can move as much as 60 miles a day if driven by wind and current. 30 miles a day is common. If there is ice within 200 nm of your position you should be tracking it carefully.

2011 was one of those exceptional years when pack ice entered Isfjorden, and a number of visiting boats got caught in Longyearbyen in late July. If they had been monitoring the ice forecast, they could have escaped before the ice came in (a skipper who got caught in Longyearbyen by ice expressed this mea culpa in a personal conversation with the authors). The motto? Never relax your vigilance when in potentially icy waters. 

Ice conditions can change dramatically from year to year and that is especially true now when the Arctic is warming so rapidly and sea ice levels are decreasing so alarmingly.

Generally you can plan on the following:

  • the passage from Torsvåg, Norway to Bjørnøya and on to Sørkapp, south Spitsbergen, will be free of ice by early June.
  • boats that need to leave for Svalbard early in the season should be prepared to make landfall north of Isfjorden since, in some years, a few weeks after the west coast of Spitsbergen clears of ice, the winds may bring new pack ice around Sørkapp from the east, temporarily blocking Hornsund and possibly even Bellsund and Isfjorden.
  • if bound for the north coast of Spitsbergen, Hinlopenstretet or Nordaustlandet be aware that pack ice can move quickly at any time, driven by the wind and/or current, and trap the unwary in an anchorage or between the ice and the coast. Reliable ice information and a clear understanding of ice drift theory are vital in these areas.

Glacier/Berg Ice

Throughout the summer you will probably find some freshwater (berg) ice, calved from glaciers, in the fjords and anchorages of Spitsbergen, along with a few larger bits drifting along the coast. 

This ice is often very beautiful, but its presence does mean that you have to keep a sharp lookout when underway, especially in fog. 

It may also enter previously clear anchorages, forcing you to make a middle-of-the-night move; however, with continuous daylight, this is less of a problem than it would be in the dark. 

There are places where you can approach quite close to the impressive and beautiful glacier faces, but keep in mind that this is not without risk. In addition to the very real risk that a large piece of ice will fall off the glacier face and produce a large wave, there is also the possibility that one of these big chunks of ice will resurface some distance out from the face.

Walking on glaciers is likely to be dangerous unless you are properly experienced and equipped with crampons, ice axe and rope. Guided glacier excursions can be booked in Longyearbyen.

Berg ice is not an issue at Bjørnøya. 

Ice Reports

Via the Internet

The Norwegian Met Office offers Monday through Friday daily ice charts for Svalbard. The ice charts are high-resolution products “…based on a variety of satellite data sources, primarily Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and optical, and provide sea ice concentration as well as delineating areas of fast ice…”.

The Met Office is experimenting with providing short-range sea ice forecasts, gathered from external sources, so with the usual caveats.

Those with satellite equipment should contact Istjenesten (email: ) to request that they send compressed files with relevant ice information, available daily Monday to Friday. You need to supply the date from which you want the ice reports and your email address. This is an automated process, so remember to contact Istjenesten to “unsubscribe” when you return to the mainland. 

Via Navtex

Ice edge information, suitable for avoiding ice-infested areas, is broadcast in text via Navtex on the following schedule:

  • Svalbard (A) 8:00 daily and 16:00 on Tuesdays only