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What is a Fjord?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A fjord is a geologic feature caused by glaciation, with distinctive examples of fjords being found in Norway, Greenland, Chile, parts of Alaska and Canada, the Arctic, and New Zealand. A fjord is caused by flooding of a glacial valley with sea water, and typically occurs on Western shores with highly durable rock which resists erosion by other forces, leaving the basic fjord shape intact over the centuries. Norway in particular is known for its fjords, which are a popular tourist attraction and summer retreat for Norwegians.

The glaciated valley which forms the basis of a fjord exists because of the slow movements of glaciers during the ice age. The glaciers carved out typical u-shaped valleys in the Earth with their movements and sheer weight, pushing detritus to the mouth, where it would connect the ocean, if it was not filled with ice. A fjord tends to be deepest in the middle and the back of the valley, because this is where the glacier existed for the longest period of time, and the bottom of the fjord is well below sea level. Although some fjords take the form of an estuary, a mixing zone for salt and fresh water, most fjords are actually inlets of the ocean, and do not connect with rivers or streams, although they are quite long, and may stretch for miles into the interior of the land.

When the ice of the glaciers melted, the ocean flooded the resulting valleys, creating very deep bodies of water between steep banks left behind by the glacier. Because fjords are so deep, the water they contain tends to be very cold, and it also permits navigation by large ships, as long as they can pass over the shallower area at the mouth of the fjord. The inlet of the fjord also tends to be more narrow than the body of water inside.

Although fjords may have existed in more locations at one time, they have been eroded by the actions of the weather over the centuries. The Western facing coastlines of nations with fjords, however, are abundantly littered with the striking ocean inlets. The steep slopes of a true fjord make it an unsuitable place to take people who do not know how to swim, as there are few shallow areas in which to learn swimming. However, for skilled swimmers, exploring the fjords in the summer can be a pleasant activity, and many Norwegian families take summertime trips to the fjord region for recreation. In addition, numerous tour companies offer fjord cruises and trips for people who want to see the fjords from the deck of a boat.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Perdido — On May 23, 2012

I would love to tour the fjords of Alaska by boat. My best friend has gone on a fjord cruise there before, and she said the view took her breath away.

The ship went between staggering mountains. She said she could see the reflection of the scenery in the water. She went in the summertime, so there was a bit of greenery to see, but the mountain peaks were still capped with snow.

The cruise cost her over $100, but it lasted for nearly nine hours and included lunch and dinner. She got to eat some really fresh salmon from Alaska while staring at the awesome view.

By cloudel — On May 23, 2012

@kylee07drg – Norwegian fjords are not nearly as icy as you may think. I have a cousin who vacations in Norway in July, and he tells me that the water temperature there is in the sixties.

While that may not sound warm to you, I would imagine that it is warmer than you assumed it would be. Norway actually has pleasantly warm summers in the seventy-degree range due to the Gulf Stream.

So, it isn't entirely unfeasible for people to go there to swim in the beautiful fjords on purpose. I've seen photos of the area, and it is gorgeous.

By kylee07drg — On May 22, 2012

I can't imagine someone swimming in a fjord in Norway! It is so far north that it must be really cold up there!

Besides just the air temperature, how cold must that water be! I mean, it spent the entire winter being frozen, so it would only have been thawed out for a few months. That cannot be comfortable swimming water.

I can't even tolerate my own pool water until the outdoor temperatures reach the nineties. I just don't see how these people's bodies can take the frigid fjord water. Since fjords are so deep, this water would be even colder than a small lake in Norway!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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