Science

Norway’s Magical Fjords

Norway’s Fjords have attracted millions of visitors, but scientists are still unravelling their secrets.

WORDS SHANEY HUDSON

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There’s an old saying that geology is about pressure and time, and nowhere are the results more spectacular than in the coastal fjords that dominate the Norwegian coastline.

Hundreds of miles long, thousands of metres deep, guarded by steep mountains and teeming with marine life, you could spend a lifetime exploring them. But scientists have the task of looking back over fifty ice ages and millions of years to unravel their secrets – and there are still plenty to discover.

“Fjords are part of a landscape which is not completely understood yet.”

— Professor Per Terje Osmundsen

The MS Nordnorge passing by Hjorundfjorden. There are over a thousand fjords in Norway.

A changed landscape

“Fjords are part of a landscape which is not completely understood yet,” says Professor Per Terje Osmundsen, a geologist from the Department of Geoscience and Petroleum at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. “Fundamentally, fjords are glacial excavated valleys that are filled with seawater.” There are over a thousand fjords in Norway, and most were formed largely in part thanks to glaciation; where moving glaciers significantly alter the landscape by segregating and eroding the landscape over time. When the last ice age ended and the glaciers retreated, the fjords were left in their wake.

Children play in spring with Hjorundfjorden visible in the background.

However, as sturdy and solid as they look, the fjords have continued to change and grow over time. “The big ice cap left Scandinavia around 10,000 years ago, and from that time on, Scandinavia has been rising, because it was relieved from the weight of the inland glacier,” says Osmundsen. Across Norway and greater Scandinavia the landscape rises at different rates in different places, depending on where the ice cap was the thickest.

Fjords have an important role to play in the climate debate.

Fjords and climate change

It’s a factor that generates much discussion in Norway about sea level rise and climate change. Which will rise faster: the continent, or the sea level from a changing climate? Remarkably, the fjords do have an important place in the climate debate. A 2015 paper in Nature Geoscience recognised that fjords may play an important role in climate regulation and carbon sequestration, which is the process of capturing carbon dioxide and slowing climate change. Although the study did not focus on Norway, it has significant implications given the quantity, length and depth of the fjords along the Norwegian Coast; fjords like Sognefjord, for example, stretch out for over 200 kilometres and at its deepest point is more than 12 kilometres deep. “The fjords are sediment sinks, there’s no doubt about it. So it’s very, very logical that they will store carbon,” says Osmundsen, who adds the caveat that “locally it will probably depend on the amount of organic matter delivered by the rivers that enter the fjords.”

A sea eagle is a common sight right along Norway's coast.

Hjorundfjorden.

“There’s a wide debate over how old these landscapes are that sit on the shoulder of the fjords.”

— Professor Per Terje Osmundsen

Trollfjord's name derives from a troll, a figure originating from Norse mythology.

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The great debate

Perhaps the biggest debate that surrounds the fjords revolves around just how old the landscape – captured in thousands of Instagram posts – actually is. “Landscapes are difficult to date,” says Osmundsen. He cites the example of two recently published papers, both of which tried to date the landscapes between the remarkably steep cliffs that surround the fjords. One paper suggested these landscapes are from the Triassic, a period that lasted from 250 to about 200 million years ago, while the other suggested they were formed during the Quaternary Period, which began less than 2.7 million years ago. “They were using different dating techniques to try and assess the age of that landscape, and came up with totally different results,” says Professor Osmundsen. “So there’s a wide debate over how old these landscapes are that sit on the shoulder of the fjords.” What most can agree on though, is that the fjords are absolutely stunning. Whether showcased in sunlight or as a stage and backdrop for the Northern Lights, Norway’s coastline is truly timeless.

Trollfjord is surrounded by mountains on each side.

The Trollfjord

68.3629° N, 14.9353° E

Click coordinates for location

On calm days, Hurtigruten ships can sail in and almost brush the sides of the 3,280-foot-high mountains of the Trollfjord. No other place offers you the chance to get as close to this incredible sight. Trollfjord carves inwards to Austvågøy from the west side of the 25-kilometre-long Raftsundet, a very narrow sound between Austvågøy and Hinnøya. Here, Hurtigruten Coastal Express sails between the ports of Svolvær and Stokmarknes.

The Geirangerfjord is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Geirangerfjord

62.1015° N, 7.0941° E

Click coordinates for location

The Geirangerfjord is often considered Norway’s jewel in the crown. Surrounded by majestic mountain peaks, steep cliffs and cascading waterfalls, this fjord extends 100 kilometres inland from Ålesund on the west coast. The first stretch of the fjord contains many lively small towns and villages, such as Sula on the fjord’s north bank, and the settlements that once were centres for Arctic seal hunting.

Hjørundfjord is an extraordinary 20 kilometres long.

The Hjørundfjord

62.2460° N, 6.4911° E

Click coordinates for location

The Hjørundfjord is perhaps the most idyllic and beautiful of them all. This 35-kilometre-long fjord is an arm of the larger Storfjord, just south of the city Ålesund. It has a wide mouth but the further in you go, the narrower it gets. And it is deep. On the eastern side the mountains plunge straight into the fjord and, although there is not much space for settlements here, a few tiny farms cling to the steep terrain.

Complete Norway – Fjords and Midnight Sun.

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