What makes somewhere an island?

Profiles of Norwegian science

island country

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Islands of Henningsvær, Norway.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Norway as an island country? Seems strange given its position on the edge of continental Europe with land borders (and studies of them) along Russia, Finland, and Sweden. Yet island studies has so much to offer and gain from Norway.

Islandness, the embodiment of island characteristics, sparks debates on whether or not small land and population sizes, isolation, marginalization, low land-based resource levels, coastlines, and boundaries define islands or are stereotypes of them. From the Arctic to the Antarctic, and in between, Norway proffers a plethora of examples and counterexamples to debate the islandness of people, places, settlements, and cultures.

A common mantra for the Svalbard archipelago, Norway’s high Arctic territory, is the northernmost something-or-other, from circus to locomotive. These islands retain a magical place in Norwegian consciousness, attracting national and international tourists for wildlife cruises, wilderness expeditions, polar jazz, and a highly accessible flavor of the Arctic.

Separating islandness, northernness, and Arcticness is not simple. If small businesses on Svalbard seek to increase their tourism revenue, which images should they sell to which audiences? Could tourists desiring island or Arctic isolation and remoteness be disappointed at finding flocks enjoying the world’s northernmost supermarket in Longyearbyen or taking selfies around the world’s northernmost piano in Pyramiden?

Perhaps they would prefer Norway’s island outliers between Svalbard and the mainland, from volcanic Jan Mayen far to Svalbard’s southwest over to Bjørnøya far to the southeast. The latter formed the setting for an Alistair MacLean murder mystery, aptly called Bear Island. The novel deliberately used smallness, boundedness, and harsh environments on a ship and on the island to amplify the moods of adventure and fear that researchers explore within the island thriller genre.

Island research does not stop when reaching the Norwegian mainland. So many of Norway’s communities are on islands. Examples are Hammerfest, Tromsø, and Harstad, above the Arctic Circle, along with municipalities offshore of Trondheim, Stavanger, and Bergen, such as Karmøy and Smøla. World-famous tourist sites, such as Vega and Lofoten, are archipelagos. Tourists and locals enjoy a cruise around or day trip to the many isles in Oslo Fjord.

Do people live in and visit these locations because they are islands? Is there any difference if the journeys to and fro require a boat, compared to crossing a bridge, causeway, or tunnel? The Stavanger-to-Haugesund journey in Norway’s south traverses several islands via road, but it reaches a point where a short ferry jaunt saves plenty of time and distance. Same with Vesterålen-Senja in the north.

Much farther south, Norway’s islandness and island studies continue. Bouvet Island in the South Atlantic, another of Norway’s volcanoes, is an uninhabited nature reserve labeled as the world’s remotest island. Peter I Øy, within the Antarctic zone and also volcanic, is subject to international treaties governing Antarctica and so is not fully accepted as being Norwegian territory. Dronning Maud Land on the Antarctic continent is Norway’s other unconfirmed claim.

These areas generate island studies research questions. Are the research stations dotted around Dronning Maud Land even more islanded than Peter I Øy, especially in the winter, due to lack of connections with anyone else nearby? How truly useful to Norway are the three southern territories and their islandness? Why might they not create as much Norwegian island imagination as the country’s northern isles?

Analyzing these queries contributes to understanding Norwegian identity, the country’s role in the world, and its cultural formation in modern history. Southern Ocean whaling, Arctic and Antarctic explorations, and Norwegian Roald Amundsen reaching the South Pole all supported Norway’s drive to assert itself on the world stage. Whaling and Antarctic claims today continue, contributing to Norway’s international influence and the world’s view of the country.

So despite being a continental country, Norway is heavily influenced by its islands. Does this make Norway an island country? Island studies and Norway together can make and interpret this judgment.

This article originally appeared in the November 2, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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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.