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The Fjords of Norway

written by: Dr Mike C•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 4/14/2011

The most famous geographical features of Norway are its fjords and mountains. The fjords of Norway are saltwater inlets which can extend back from the open ocean as much as 125 miles. This brief article explains how the fjords were formed and why they are deeper than the near shore ocean.

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    Norway: Land of Fjords and Mountains

    I have had the pleasure of visiting Norway on business on two occasions to attend scientific conferences; it’s a hard job, but somebody has to do it! The geographic features that are immediately the most striking to the visitor are the mountains and the fjords of Norway, as they are breathtakingly beautiful. My first visit to Norway took me to the region of Lillehammer, which played host to the 1994 Winter Olympic Games, during a period of record cold weather, in February 1999, when the daytime temperature stayed below -30 °C. Skiing in the beautiful mountains above the tree line was a chilly experience. The upper lifts had a notice beside them which was only written in Norwegian. It took a while before I learned that in translation it was telling me that I was risking frostbite above that point! Standing on the snow-covered mountains, it was hard to imagine that it was snow, ice and debris that were responsible for carving out Norway's most famous geographical feature, the fjords, but it is the case. In this brief article, we will discuss the fjords, astonishing coastal zones, which cut deep into the heart of the country.

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    Inland Seas

    Norway is a land of great and largely unspoiled, natural beauty. It covers a total area of 125,182 square miles (32, 4000 km2) and shares land borders with Finland, Sweeden and Russia. It has a coastline of 13,000 miles including the fjords - which are technically coastal. The highest of Norway's mountains, is Galdhopiggen at 8,230 feet (2,469 meters) . Norway’s fjords extend inland very considerable distances from the open ocean. These inlets are full of seawater, so it would be correct to consider the habitations that dot their shoreline as coastal villages. Cruise liners bring tourists high up the fjords from the open ocean. The longest fjord in Norway is the Songnefjord, which runs inland some 127.5 miles (204 km) from the open ocean. It is also one of the deepest, with a staggering depth of 0.8 miles (1.3 km) in places. Indeed, the fjords of Norway can be significantly deeper than the mean depth of the sea on the continental shelf. The fjords are overlooked (in most places) by sheer mountainside, which can rise three quarters of a mile (1,200 m) above the fjord surface (and continue downwards under the water level to the flooded valley bottom).

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    Deeper Than The Continental Shelf Waters

    The depth of the fjords can be greater than the near shore open sea depth because of the manner in which the fjords were formed. The fjords were carved out by glacial erosion during the Earth’s many ice ages. It has been estimated that the depth of the ice cover during these periods probably exceeded a mile in thickness (1.5 km). When you consider that the density of ice is 62.42 lb/ft3, it is easy to appreciate the immense pressure that this weight of ice would transfer to the valley bottom and the frictional forces that would gouge out and deepen the valley as the ice traveled towards the sea.

    Over the past 1.5 million years, the Earth has experienced three major ice ages; we are in the fourth interglacial period currently. The fjords were formed over millennia as the colossal weight of the ice and the boulders and debris that they transported carved away the bedrock. The end of the glacier, where the glacier melted, is marked by an accumulation of this debris (it is known as “terminal moraine”). In the case of the fjords, this debris formed a plug, marking the shallowest part of the fjord, close to the seaward end. The fjords are deeper than the surrounding open seas because of the glacial excavation of the valley bottom. When the ice age ended, the glaciers retreated back up the mountains, sea levels rose, and the valleys became flooded, forming the fjords as we see them today.

    Norway still has glaciers today, and they are certainly another of Norway’s land features which are well worth a visit in the summer (when the power of these rivers of ice can be easily seen). While the glaciers are a fraction of their former size, a visit in the summer is enough to provide an insight into their slow power. You will be able to see evidence of the errosion of the rock that they have made over time and are still doing today. Global warming notwithstanding, another ice age is a certainty at some stage in our future.

    Norway is a beautiful country and well worth a visit if the majesty of nature is what you like to find in a vacation location. (If it's Mickey Mouse and Burger King you are seeking, you’ll be sorely disappointed!) The fjords of Norway, its mountains, and the people, make for an unforgettable (although it can be expensive) experience, leaving you wanting to return again in the near future.

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    1. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, A quick background to the last ice age:
    2. Norwegian Journal of Geology, Geological Evolution of the Norwegian Continetal Shelf:
    3. The Environment, Glaciation and Fjords; Napier University: