e-Learning portal for Arctic Biology


Current status of freshwater systems in Svalbard

There has recently been published a summary of the available knowledge of freshwater systems in Svalbard. With permission from the authors (John E. Brittain, Ann Kristin Schartau and Martin-A. Svenning), we present the English summary. Pictures are added by us. The full report is in Norwegian, and available here.

Freshwater systems on the Svalbard archipelago are vulnerable to several threats such as climate change, eutrophication, local and global pollution, physical changes, harvesting and other human activities. However, our knowledge of Svalbard’s freshwater ecosystems is lacking, and the aim of this report is to describe the status and influences on biological diversity in addition to proposing appropriate localities and methods for future monitoring.

Shallow pools and small lakes formed by permafrost dominate the freshwaters. There are also about a couple of hundred lakes as well as many rivers and streams that only flow 2-4 months a year on account of the permafrost. Most of the water bodies are on the western parts of the archipelago as most of the eastern areas are covered by glaciers. Most of Svalbard was covered in ice during the last Ice Age and represents some of the most isolated islands in the Polar Ocean. Immigration of freshwater organisms has therefore taken place after the Ice Age. The isolation in combination with the High Arctic climate has led to low biological diversity and a dominance of cold adapted organisms.

Glaciers account for 50% of the runoff, but there are many small watercourses, especially along the coast that have precipitation and/or snowmelt as their source. On account of permafrost groundwater is less common, although there are streams that are influenced by groundwater. There are also a few hot springs, especially in Bockfjorden, north on Spitsbergen. Glacial rivers usually have high discharge, very low temperatures and carry high sediment loads during the melt season, while other watercourses have clearer waters and higher temperatures. Most watercourses are poor in nutrients, although those under bird cliffs have higher concentrations of nutrients. Periphyton, especially diatoms and blue-green bacteria, as well as aquatic mosses are common in running waters. The fauna in running water is dominated by Chironomidae, especially the subfamily Diamesinae with many cold-water species, although in non-glacial streams the subfamily Orthocladiinae are abundant.

Geese breed close to fresh waters, and bring large amount of nutrients into the system. Kapp Linne, Svalbard​
Photo: Learning Arctic Biology
  • Brittain JE, Schartau AK & Svenning M-A (2020) Biologiske mangfold i ferskvann på Svalbard: kunnskapsgrunnlag, påvirkninger og forslag til framtidig overvåking. Vol. Rapport nr. 13. Norges vassdrags- og energidirektorat, Oslo.
Skip to content