Helicopter landings in protected areas

Photo: Øystein Overrein / Norwegian Polar Institute

Travelling by helicopter and aircraft is an important part of getting about in Svalbard. Besides the air routes from the mainland to Longyearbyen and between the various settlements, most travel by air takes place by helicopter. Helicopter landings outside approved landing areas are prohibited in Svalbard. The Governor may grant exceptions to this ban upon application. The number of landings in protected areas provides a picture of the trend in helicopter use in protected areas.

What is being monitored?

Registered helicopter landings in protected areas

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The figure shows the trend in the number of helicopter landings in protected areas in total and broken down according to the following categories of protection: national parks, nature reserves, geotope protected areas and bird reserves. An increase in all categories of landings is apparent, although there are some variations between years, partly because of differences between the various databases used. The first three years do not include the Governor’s training flights, landings by Telenor, Avinor, etc. A new agreement was signed with Lufttransport in 2014. Lufttransport reports all landings, and the data has become more comparable since the company took over.

Status and trend

Helicopter use measured in terms of the number of landings within protected areas is increasing, although there are inter-year variations which can be explained by an increase in helicopter use due to commercial activity, special research assignments, mapping projects under the direction of the Norwegian Polar Institute’s Mapping section and challenging rescue missions, such as that following the helicopter crash in November 2017. In 2012, the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Governor carried out many landings in the nature reserves in the east in connection with research and replacement of the fuel depot.  In 2017, surveys of fixed points, polar bear marking and rescue missions contributed to the high numbers.

Deficiencies in the reporting routines followed during the period 2011- 2013 limit the scope to comment on trends with any certainty

Helicopter use must be subject to a needs assessment at all times and limited to that which is strictly necessary in order to achieve the goal of “Svalbard shall be seen as one of the world’s best managed wilderness areas”. The status of this type of transport in protected areas is therefore of particular interest.

Causal factors

The regulations that underpin the permits that are issued have remained unchanged, but the practice regarding what is permissible within protected areas has been tightened up in accordance with the applicable management plans. In addition to the Governor's search and rescue service and other supervision, most helicopter use is based on dispensations for research and commercial activity.

The number of helicopters which Lufttransport and other operators have at their disposal impacts on levels of activity, but assignments commissioned by the Governor, Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani, Avinor, UNIS, NP and other research institutions have the biggest impact. The number of helicopters has increased. It is impossible to predict the number of assignments, partly because of the difficulty in predicting rescue missions. Requirements regarding emergency preparedness are becoming more stringent, as are the budgets for such preparedness. Assignments for commercial enterprises and research institutions are more predictable in the short term.

Consequences

An increase in the number of helicopter landings also often entails an increase in helicopter flying measured in terms of hours. Helicopters can disturb bird and animal life and adversely affect people's wilderness experiences.  Helicopter use has the potential to disturb wildlife even if a minimum distance of 1 nautical mile is maintained from seabird colonies and known concentrations of mammals. However, the timing of travel is of considerable importance as regards the potential for disturbing wildlife.  Helicopters can also adversely impact on people's wilderness experience.

About the monitoring

Travel in Svalbard is a source of disturbance for wildlife and people's wilderness experience. This also applies to travel by helicopter. Cultural relics can also be damaged during landings. It is a goal to limit helicopter use to what is strictly necessary. This is particularly important in protected areas. The coordination of logistics between research institutions and coordination with the Governor's assignments are key in this context. Sightseeing by air for example is not permitted. 

Places and areas

All protected areas in Svalbard.

Relations to other monitoring

Monitoring programme
International environmental agreements
Voluntary international cooperation
Related monitoring