West Norwegian Fjords, Norway
The starkly dramatic Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord, the West Norwegian Fjords (WNF) are composed of eight protected areas forming together a serial world heritage site. Fjord is a word of Norwegian origin, meaning a glacially over-deepened valley, usually narrow and steep-sided and extending below sea level. They are classic examples of the upper sections of two of the world’s longest and deepest fjords. The fjords are pristine well-developed examples of an active glacial landscape. Their sheer rock walls, hung with waterfalls and old transhumant farms rise 1,400m directly from sea level to a quite different landscape of glaciated mountains. At the time of their inscription in the prestigious World Heritage List, the West Norwegian Fjords were considered to be the most scenic on the planet.
View slideshow of West Norwegian Fjords
Size and location
The more northerly Geirangerfjord area (49,887 ha) lies 60 km inland on the upper end of Storfjord while the Nærøyfjord (68,346 ha) is 100km inland at the upper end of the Sognefjord. Total area of the property is 122,712 ha, of which 111,966 ha is land and 10,746 sea.
Flora and fauna
The WNF is one of the few areas in Norway where all four native deer species occur together: reindeer, three separate strains of Rangifer tarandus, the rare elk Alces alcest, red deer (Cervus elaphus) and roe deer (Capreolus capreolus). Arctic foxes (Alopex lagopus), brown bears (Ursus arctos), lynx (Lynx), wolverine (Gulo gulo) and otter (Lutra lutra) are occasionally seen.
Marine species have been well surveyed only in Nærøyfjord where the water is unpolluted: 76 species, including Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), are recorded. Species common in deep sea water are found here in much shallower water, including Norway lobsters and sea pens. A common seal (Phoca vitulina) colony of 15-30 individuals has a pupping site in Nærøyfjord, and the common porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) is common in both areas. White-beaked dolphins (Lagenorhynchus albirostris), sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) and killer whales (Orcinus orca) occasionally occur.
Some 100 bird species typical of western Norway breed in the area, ranging from coastal birds to high mountain species. The rivers have Norway’s densest population of the national bird, the dipper (Cinclus cinclus). The alpine and subalpine mires attract many waders and the cliffs host several raptors. The invertebrate fauna is not well known, but most of the habitats may have quite a rich range of species.
The vegetation ranges with altitude between boreonemoral in the valleys to taiga on the plateaus. It is typical of this part of West Norway, and is moderately diverse. Pockets of peridotitite and serpentinite rocks in the Geirangerfjord area give nutrient-rich soil. Its main vegetation types are temperate woodland, rock and scree, alpine grassland and man-made meadows. The woodland includes old deciduous woods, pinewoods on peridotite, wooded pasture and small patches of very diverse deciduous woods on warm south-facing slopes. Around Nærøyfjord woodlands are similar but vary with the soil, moisture, exposure, altitude above sea level and use. There are large natural woods of Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), but birch (Betula spp.) woodland communities are the most common. A somewhat richer grey alder (Alnus incana) community dominates on avalanche fans beside the fjords. The best virgin pine woodland in western Norway is found in Nordheimsdalen and below Bleia. In a belt of phyllites around Flamsdalen 500 species have been recorded including unusual species.
The Alpine flora of the Geirangerfjord area is dependent on snow cover and ranges from dwarf birch (Betula spp.) and polar willow (Salix polaris) to herb-rich grassland. The grasses of the grazed meadows host many rare fungi. Above the tree-line between 800m and 900m are scree, blockfields, snow fields and glaciers. The tree-line above Nærøyfjord is between 900 and 1100m. Half the alpine flora of Norway is found on its mountains, on carbonate rocks and lenses of phyllite. In the ungrazed highland of Bleia there is natural grassland and on its screes, a rare sub-species of arctic poppy Papaver radicatum sp.relictum.
Tourism pressures are intense in both fjords but impacts are limited as most visitors are confined to cruise ships and there are adequate planning and zoning measures as well as a short visitor season which limits impacts to three months per year.
The one activity that is considered to be a potential threat is mining and quarrying. At present, a peridotite rock quarry is active outside but close to the boundary of the Geirangerfjord and plans exist for another nearby. The impacts here are very localized, primarily visual and rehabilitation measures will occur on completion. Within the Nærøyfjord an underground excavation of anorthositic rock takes place. Though not directly adjacent to the fjord itself, the quarry has a visual impact when seen from the road to Gudvangen. On the positive side, and adjacent to the existing quarry, are the restored remains of a previous quarry which has recovered to the extent that only the small entrance cavities and a parking lot can be seen.
The areas have a tradition of conservation. Maintenance of their natural condition is essential to tourism in the area. The Protected Landscape status safeguards their natural beauty, cultural interest and geology. The Nature Reserve designation safeguards smaller, more specific aspects, geological, floral and faunal. They are regulated by many national acts, covering buildings near the sea, open-air recreation, forest protection, traffic on uncultivated land and waters, land, wildlife, pollution, salmonid and freshwater fish and protection of watercourses from development. Seven local rivers are legally protected from any hydro-electric schemes. There is also a wide range of up-to-date county, municipal and local development plans and sub-plans.
The site is divided into areas protected wilderness, traditionally utilised land, land for multiple/recreational facility use, and settlement zones. Regulations for settled areas also cover buildings, shoreline development and quarrying. Hunting and fishing are licensed. Monitors for the following areas have already been assigned: geological activity, flora and fauna, monuments, buildings and landscapes, farmland, tourism and land use.
Why protect the area?
Both areas are important for geomorphological research, having some features seldom seen elsewhere or revealed so clearly. Historic rockslides and the related tsunamis such as the Tafjord disaster became internationally known through early studies; and the continuing active mass movements on the steep slopes create opportunities for useful research into geohazards. The International Centre for Geohazards financed by the Norwegian Research Council focuses on the region.
The avalanches and landslides can be used as indicators of climatic change, using the records of past events: several sites around Geirangerfjord have been studied for the frequency of avalanches, and connections have been made with changes in meteorological conditions.
There is also a strong cultural and historical value to the fjords. Carefully recorded relics are present in the area such as Neolithic tools, burial mounds, hunting hides and reindeer pitfall traps in the mountains, some of which were still in use 400 years ago. Viking houses a thousand years old are present and over 350 registered old buildings. These include stave churches (Undredal church dates from 1147), abandoned farms, some perched high on fjord sides, and transhumance farm sheilings. The WNF is included in the National Register of “Valuable Cultural Landscapes”.