Explore the landscape of the North—and take care

Travel risks in Norway

polar bear sign

Photo: Ondrej Prosicky / iStock
“Gjelder hele Svalbard” translates to “Over all of Svalbard.”It refers to a polar bear warning sign that applies to the entire island of Svalbard—a real risk.

Ah, the time for a vacation! Arrive in a nice place, preferably somewhere in Norway. After all, the country is so peaceful, secure, calm, and serene. Apart from all the risks.

Many national governments offer travel warnings to their residents on a country-by-country basis. The U.S. State Department offers a website for “Travel Advisories” for each country in the world, while the Australian government calls their list “Smartraveller.” Categories of advice and information include health, visas, driving and transport, local laws, vaccinations and other health needs, crime, and consular services.

Sure, no country can be entirely risk-free and that might end up being boring anyway. What are possibilities in Norway? As everywhere, it varies, especially given how far Norway stretches despite being quite thin.

Weather always happens. In the summer, too much sun might give sunburn, sunstroke, heat stroke, or dehydration. In the winter, the usual snow, ice, sleet, avalanches, and cold temperatures can be lethal. Signs within cities warn of snow and ice suddenly sliding off roofs, crashing to the sidewalk. Carelessness might lead to snow blindness, falling through ice into freezing water, and vehicle crashes.

Not that anything here is particularly new or Norway-specific. Drownings happen at any time and any place with water. Hot or cold temperatures, indoors or outdoors, kill some people when others survive. Sadly, adverse weather is not needed for lethal driving or piloting. At least high safety standards in Norway mean that vehicle crash death rates are among the lowest in the world, while mass casualty commercial transport disasters have recently been rare.

More particular to Norway are polar bears, although they are typically found only around the high Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. People are occasionally killed there by bears, so significant caution is needed, even when wandering around the main towns of Longyearbyen and Barentsburg.

Other wildlife—such as seals, reindeer, brown bears, elk, and birds—have been known to hurt people, but these situations are rare and mostly preventable.

Less preventable is driving into one. Wild and domestic animals wandering out onto roads is common. A collision can be lethal for all those involved.

The most dangerous animal, in Norway and around the world, is, of course, the human being. Crime, assault, harassment, and many other forms of violence plague us, wherever we are. Norway has suffered horrific terrorist attacks. On July 22, 2011, a terrorist exploded a bomb in Oslo’s center and then massacred mainly children on the nearby island of Utøya, with a total death toll of 77. On June 25, 2022, two people died during a terrorist shooting at an Oslo bar.

Small critters should never be discounted. Ticks and mosquitoes live everywhere around the country. Look out for symptoms of borreliosis, encephalitis, and various fevers. Not that this is any different from most other locations, many of which have even more disease. Just as food poisoning and human-to-human infectious disease transmission can occur anywhere.

So can many other environmental hazards. When Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010, most European commercial air traffic was grounded to avoid crashes due to volcanic ash. Jan Mayen Island in the Arctic Ocean belongs to Norway and is volcanic.

Landslides, rockfalls, erosion, vegetation fires, wind, storms, drought, and floods are among further perils afflicting the country. Around eight millennia ago, an underwater landslide in the North Sea sent a huge tsunami crashing into Norway’s coastlines, possibly wiping out early human settlements. It could happen again, although more likely is a slide into a fjord inundating small villages with a localized tsunami. And damaging earthquakes are not out of the question.

Consider, too, Norway’s claimed Antarctic territories (neither accepted nor denied under international law) and all the dangers that traveling so far south entails. Uninhabited Bouvet Island in the South Atlantic Ocean is a dependency of Norway and a protected nature reserve, with extreme risks to reach and enjoy it.

Not that any of these potential harms give reason to avoid Norway or vacations. Staying at home in bed all the time could mean that we still succumb to a meteorite impact.

As you can tell, I am such an optimist on vacation—and at home.

This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.