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, Barentsburg, and Grumantbyen. Spitsbergen has served as the base for many polar expeditions. Nearly 65% of the small population is Russian and 35% is Norwegian.
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 is derived from their mineral resources, most notably coal; deposits of asbestos, copper, gypsum, iron, marble, zinc, and phosphate also exist.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.