Landscape and geology
The landscape in this area has been shaped by water and ice over thousands of years. Water continues to cut through the landscape. Alluvial fans, river courses, avalanches and rockslides are all signs that the area continues to be shaped by the forces of nature – this is a place of active geological processes!
History of the fjords
If we travel more than 66 million years back in time, this landscape was a flat area of plains. Gradually, the land started to rise, until it became a high, continuous mountain massif. This steep landscape allowed the rivers to cut deeper and deeper into the terrain, and they created V-shaped valleys and ravines, especially in places where there were cracks or weak bedrock. Approximately 2.6 million years ago, the first of around 40 ice ages began. Huge glaciers spread over the mountain massif. Glaciers and rivers that carried the melt water cut relentlessly through the landscape and expanded the V-shaped valleys into even wider U-shaped valleys with steep sides. In certain places, so-called hanging side-valleys were formed, where the side-valleys discharge high up on the sides of the main valley. The glaciers in the side valleys were smaller, and were not able to cut valleys as deep as the larger glaciers in the main valleys. When the glaciers melted, the ocean flooded in and the fjords were created. During ice-free periods, rockslides and landslides helped shape the mountainsides. This resulted in the landscape we see today; deep fjords, lush valleys, steep mountainsides, and mountain peaks and plateaus which all lie at the same height above sea level. These peaks are all that remain of the lowland plains that existed in the time of the dinosaurs. Some small glaciers and permanent snowdrifts still remain in the high mountains. The largest of these is the Fresvikbreen glacier (15 km2) on the western side of Nærøyfjorden. Compared to large glaciers like the Jostedalsbreen glacier, this is a small glacier.
Rock solid mountains
The mountains in this area consist of a type of rock that was formed even further back in time, during the so-called Caledonian orogeny, over 400 million years ago. The Afro-European and American land masses collided, and huge sheets of bedrock were shoved together and transformed into hard types of rock such as gneiss, gabbro, mangerite and anorthosite. Some of these sheets of bedrock were moved many hundreds of kilometers, over younger, softer and more mineral-rich types of rock. One of these so-called thrust nappes is called the Jotun Nappe Complex. This layer of rock is many kilometers thick and is found here in the Nærøyfjord area. This robust bedrock is good at withstanding the constant erosion caused by the weather, and is the reason why the mountains here are higher than they would have been if the bedrock consisted of a weaker type of rock.
It is easy to think of mountains and landscapes as something constant and unmovable, but here in the Nærøyfjord area, people really do live in a place of active geological processes. Ice, snow and water continue to cut through the landscape and shape it. People who live in this area have learned to live with active geological processes such as avalanches, floods, rockslides and erosion. This is also one of the reasons why the area is listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and the area is testimony to the ongoing geological processes that shape the landscape. During the next ice age, the fjords will continue to cut even further and deeper into the landscape…
There are several herds of reindeer living in the mountains around Nærøyfjorden. Wild reindeer are often called the nomads of the mountains, and depend on being able to migrate across large, continuous areas of mountains in order to find enough food throughout the year. Wild reindeer hunting is an important part of the culture in the Nærøyfjord area.
The reindeer migrated to Norway when the ice retreated after the last Ice Age, and since then has been an important source of food, equipment and clothes for the people who live here. If you know what you are looking for, you will be able to discover many traces of wild reindeer hunting in the mountains. Pitfall traps, guiding fences and hunting hides are spread out over large parts of the mountainous area. Often, they form large, interconnected systems which show that the people who built them were very knowledgeable about the reindeers’ migratory routes. Trapping sites have been found in Norway that are 10,000 years old, but most of the sites you see in the mountains today are from between 500 to 1350 AD. The trapping sites are not marked, and it may be difficult for the untrained eye to distinguish between a walled guiding fence and a natural pile of stones. Therefore, it is important not to move stones that you find in the mountains so that ancient cultural monuments remain untouched.
During the winter, the reindeer survive by eating lichen, which they can smell 60 cm beneath the snow. Reindeer fur, which is three times as dense compared to other species of deer, effectively insulates the animals against the winter cold. Their special hooves act as snowshoes in loose snow. During the spring, the reindeer follow the melting snow up the mountains in order to take advantage of the freshest and most nutritious green shoots. After the mating period in the fall, male and female reindeer split up to form herds of bulls and nursery herds (comprising of cows, juveniles and calves). The calving season takes place in May in hilly landscapes high in the mountains, and after just a couple of days, the calves are ready to follow their mothers in search of summer grazing grounds.
Wild reindeer are shy animals that are easily disturbed by human activity. Roads, busy trails and areas with many cabins are effective barriers for the wild reindeer. The four original wild reindeer areas in Norway are now split up into 24 smaller and more or less isolated areas. This makes the reindeer particularly vulnerable when faced with other challenges such as climate change. If you see wild reindeer in the mountains, keep your distance so you don’t scare the animals away.
Life in the fjord / marine mammals
The curious, round head of a harbor seal popping up above the surface of water, the characteristic blowing sound from a pod of harbor porpoises, or a white-tailed eagle soaring majestically over the fjord. The fjord offers fantastic experiences of nature for those who are vigilant.
Both Aurlandsfjorden and Nærøyfjorden are important habitats for harbor seals. The harbor seal is our most common coastal seal, and is often seen in small groups basking on rocks or popping its round head up out of the water. Population counts in the area suggest that there may have been a decrease in harbor seals in recent years. One of the reasons may be the constant disturbance from tourist boats.
The harbor porpoise is a small type of whale and is the most prevalent species of whale along the Norwegian coast. It is approximately half a meter long with a dark grey back and a lighter underside. They are often seen in small pods hunting for small fish in the fjords. If you are out in your kayak on the fjord, you should listen for the characteristic sneezing sound they make when they come up to breathe.
Every now and again, pods of killer whales visit Nærøyfjorden and Aurlandsfjorden. Both harbor seals and harbor porpoises are on their menu. The killer whale is the largest species of dolphin we have, and it can reach up to 10 meters in length and weigh 6 to 8 tons. It is a majestic experience when they swim right up to the side of your boat.
The area has a diverse birdlife, from cormorants, ducks and white-tailed eagles along the fjord, to European golden plovers, ptarmigan and bluethroats in the mountains. During the spring, the wooded hillsides are alive with birdsong, and marshes and wetlands are important habitats for waders and ducks. It might be a good idea to bring your binoculars with you!
White-tailed eagles have many nesting sites along the fjord, and you can often see them sitting in a tree on the shoreline or swooping low across the fjord looking for food. White-tailed eagles feed primarily on fish, seabirds and carrion. With a wingspan of well over two meters, it is Norway’s largest bird. Adult birds are easily recognizable by their characteristic white tails.
The meadow pipit is probably the most common bird in the mountains, but it is not so easy to spot. However, it is easy to hear when it flies high in the sky and then floats down slowly while singing. Another familiar bird song in the mountains is the incessant voice of the European golden plover. There is also a good chance that you might disturb a ptarmigan, both during summer and winter.
Lakes and marshland are oases for many birds. Grånosmyrane Nature Reserve is protected precisely because of the rich birdlife found in its marshland areas. Snow buntings, Lapland buntings, purple sandpipers, Eurasian dotterels, European golden plovers and rock ptarmigan all nest in this area.
The large span from the fjord to the high mountains provide diverse vegetation. This area has a wide variety of plant life, from heat-loving deciduous forests next to the fjord, to lichen and moss on the rocks high up in the mountains.
Ancient primeval pine forests grow in Bleia and Nordheimsdalen Nature Reserve. These forests have a rich biodiversity. Dead wood is a perfect habitat for microorganisms and insects, which are important food sources for birds and animals.
Along the shores of both Aurlandsfjorden and Nærøyfjorden, there are deciduous forests that thrive in the warmer climate. There is a well-developed basswood forest at Morki in Nærøyfjorden, where grows a type of wild grass called drooping woodreed. This species is specially adapted to growing in deciduous forests.
The Arctic poppy (Papaver radicatum ssp.relictum) grows in hard-to-reach areas of scree in the steep ravine-valley called Insta Dryfta between 350 to 900 meters above sea level. This plant has probably survived here from before the last Ice Age and is of great scientific importance. In Norway, the Arctic poppy has only been recorded here and in Helin in Valdres. The Arctic poppy is a pioneer species that grows in mineral-rich soil on sunny sections of mountains, where they don’t have to compete with established vegetation cover. The Arctic poppy survives in these places which are so rocky and unstable that almost no other plants are able to grow there.
Bedrock composed of anorthosite doesn’t provide the best growing conditions. However, bands of phyllite rock can be found in some areas where demanding mountain plants such as the small white orchid, the alpine yellow-violet and the mountain aven thrive. Heaths of mountain avens can be found in many places, including Bleia Nature Reserve. Red-listed fungi and lichens have been recorded in Hausagjelet.
Diverse flower meadows have developed where the unfertilized grass is cut and harvested each year. These types of valuable hay meadows can be found between Undredal and Stokko, in Dyrdal and at many of the mountain farms. It takes many years to cultivate this great diversity of species, and it is therefore important to preserve these types of meadows. Here, visitors can find flowers such as the harebell, St John’s wort, the heath speedwell, the ox-eye daisy, the devil’s-bit, the bird’s-foot trefoil, the fragrant orchid, the common spotted orchid and many more. The flower meadows are important habitats for butterflies, bumblebees and bees.
Insects are fascinating creatures that are vital to both humans and other species. They constitute almost half of all known species in Norway.
Insects make soil from dead plants and animals, they pollinate plants so that they can make seeds, and they are food for millions of birds, fish and bats. This is why insects are vital to many other species, both plants and animals. Therefore, they are also important to humans – we would not actually be able to survive without insects.
We know that insects are struggling. The protected areas are therefore particularly important for these small creatures, where they can live without being threatened by development and other types of habitat destruction. In the World Heritage Site, it is especially important to maintain the ancient cultural landscape consisting of hayfields and grazing areas, on which many of the insects depend.
In the open areas of scree and the hayfields along the fjords, many rare and endangered species of butterflies have been recorded. These include the narrow-bordered five-spot burnet, Zygaena osterodensis, the clouded Apollo and the black-veined white. It is extremely important to look after the habitats of these endangered butterflies, otherwise we risk losing them forever.