Jan Mayen, the Rarely-Visited, Most Northern Volcanic Island on Earth

The following post was written by 2014 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Michele Huppert during her expedition to the Arctic. The Grosvenor Teacher Fellow Program is a professional development opportunity made possible by a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic Education.

Expedition Location: Arctic Svalbard, Norway, Greenland, and Iceland

JM1 Beerenburg Glacier Huppert
A steep glacier flows from Beerenburg on Jan Mayen into the Arctic Ocean. Photograph by Michele L. Huppert

Earth still has some amazing places where a very small number human beings leave their footprints. Jan Mayen, the most northerly island along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, is one of them. As a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow on a Lindblad Expeditions adventure into the High Arctic, I had an amazing opportunity to visit this remote volcanic island spilling five glaciers into the Arctic Ocean on July 6, 2014.

Jan Mayen is approximately 34 miles long and a bit over a mile wide at its narrowest. On the map, it looks like a spoon with a thin handle to the southwest, the large bowl of the active 7,470-foot high volcano Beerenberg in the northeast, and a narrow saddle of land in the middle.

The island offers habitat to a variety of bird life, but the only mammals on the island are the rotating human residents on the Norwegian military base which number 18 over winter and up to 35 in the summer maintenance season.

Since 1929, the Norwegian Armed Forces has maintained a small but important meteorological station and some radio communications in this remote outpost 340 miles north of Iceland and 280 miles east of Greenland.

Michele Huppert takes a selfie from the saddle on Jan Mayen. Photograph by Michele L. Huppert.

At 71°N, 8°W, the climate is arctic-maritime and greatly impacted by both the Gulf Stream (which bathes the rocky tundra in its relatively warmer waters) and the persistent Icelandic Low, a low-pressure system. These forces combine to make clear, sunny days an extreme rarity on Jan Mayen. True to form, our expedition hike occurred in overcast, foggy, drizzly weather which made photographing the beautiful terrain challenging.

I love volcanic landscapes, and this hot spot and divergent plate boundary did not disappoint.

JM3 Jan Mayen neck Huppert
Bombs, small lava tubes, and eroding volcanic necks attest to Jan Mayen’s volcanic history. Photograph by Michele L. Huppert

Last active in 1970 and 1985, the land is raw and barely vegetated in most places. It appears as a rocky moonscape of alternating layers of basaltic lava flows and ash or tephra—save for a few sparse areas with dandelions, arctic flowers, and thick beds of mosses. Interesting rock formations—flow structures, bombs, and eroding volcanic necks—testify to the geologically violent history of the island. It is quite possible that the Irish monk, Saint Brendan, was referring Jan Mayen when he described discovering the “gates to Hell” spewing sulfurous gasses, fire, and ash during his oceanic voyage early in the sixth century.

I love volcanic landscapes, and this hot spot and divergent plate boundary did not disappoint.

JM4 Jan Mayen Huppert
Jan Mayen’s volcanic landscape is punctuated by lush and brilliant green moss beds. Photograph by Michele L. Huppert

Like so many places in the Arctic, Jan Mayen has an interesting history of exploration and exploitation.

Although it may have been visited by Irish monks, Vikings, and other explorers earlier, in 1614 the Dutch named the island after a whaling captain. In their typical whaling fashion, mariners used the relatively flat sandy beaches as a processing site, dragging bowhead whales ashore after harpooning them, and then rendering their blubber into valuable oil in large copper pots over driftwood fires. Within a few decades, no whales were left in the area, and whalers moved on to a new slaughtering grounds.

The region’s seal population was subsequently decimated in a similar pattern.

Norwegians moved in next, to trap valuable blue foxes, prized for their thick, dark, blue-grey pelts. The “blue fox” is actually just a phase of the Arctic fox, which is white in winter. Blue foxes were well-camouflaged against dark volcanic rocks in summer, but not immune to traps.

I noticed a primitive and rarely used military airstrip. I realized what a unique opportunity this visit was for me, a teacher from Wisconsin.

Whale bones are inspected by Lindblad Expedition guests on the historic whaling beach at Kvalrossbukta, Jan Mayen. Photograph by Michele L. Huppert

As we hiked over the saddle and spied a broad, low lava plain stretching out into the sea, I noticed a primitive and rarely used military airstrip. I realized what a unique opportunity this visit was for me, a teacher from Wisconsin.

I turned around to see the National Geographic Explorer anchored in the distance and a few Zodiacs on the beach below. Jan Mayen has no port and no air travel, save for a few military flights changing crews and bringing supplies in the summer. Non-military personnel can only get ashore via a Zodiac from a ship at anchor, and the weather and seas are often uncooperative to those efforts. Furthermore, in 2010, Norway designated Jan Mayen as a nature preserve, which means the rare tourist who does arrive by sea is only allowed to come ashore and camp in one of two places—Kvalrossbukta (a historic whaling site on the north shore) or Båtvika (near the current military station on the south shore).

A visitor is allowed to walk anywhere on the island, but since camping outside of the two designated areas is forbidden, most of the island is essentially out of reach. Nonetheless, it is an amazing part of Earth to experience.

The volcanic landscape, stunning glaciers, waterfalls, bird-watching, and historic sites make it well worth the effort. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Jan Mayen, take it!

This post is one of our selected stories from teachers who have seen incredible environments — to bring the experience back to their students. Learn more about how you could become one of the next Grosvenor Teacher Fellows. Applications will be available in December for the 2015 program.  

One thought on “Jan Mayen, the Rarely-Visited, Most Northern Volcanic Island on Earth

  1. I love volcanoes. Most of the interior of the Earth is hot enough for rock to be molten and volcanoes are places where hot material from the Earth’s interior escapes through the surface. That’s extreme and unstoppable.

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