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What is a Fjord?

Jul, 14, 2020

“What is a fjord?”

This is probably one of the most asked questions I get from my tour groups, often when we are out on the Naeroyfjord Cruise or sailing into Geiranger with Hurtigruten. I get it, fjords are a tricky thing to define. That is, in part, because not all fjords look like fjords (Take the Trondheimsfjord, for example). Also, Norwegians define fjords differently than other parts of the world. I’ve put together a short overview of exactly what a fjord is, and hopefully it helps 🙂

Riding the Naeroyfjord on the very popular Gudvangen – Flåm fjord cruise. This photo was taken in May 2019.

What is a Fjord?

In short, a fjord is a deep, narrow and elongated sea or lake drain with steep land on three sides. There is always an opening towards the sea, often referred to as the mouth of the fjord.

The fjords in Western Norway are typical u-shaped undersea valleys with steep mountains.

Fjords are long, narrow inlets with steep sides or cliffs that have been carved out by glaciers.

Norway’s fjords are so special and so vividly display how fjords are formed that UNESCO added two fjords to its World Heritage list: the Geirangerfjord and the Naeroyfjord. You can see their page about the fjords here.

Sailing on the Oslofjord with DFDS. I need to take better photos of the Oslofjord!

Not all Fjords are Fjords

Norwegians use the term ‘fjord’ differently than we use it in English. In Norway, many lakes and bodies of water are referred to as fjords. That’s because of the word fjord.

The word fjord is one of the Norwegian words that has made it into the English language. It comes from the Old Norse word fjordr, which means “where one fares through”; the words fare (travel) and ferry come from the same origin as fjord. When it was added into the English language, it was written as fiord as many English words don’t use fj. However, the spelling fiord is only found in New Zealand today; everywhere else uses the spelling fjord.

In Norwegian, the word fjord is used for many long bodies of water, inlets or channels. This is because throughout history Norwegians have used these bodies of water as a method of transport.

The Naeroyfjord in May 2019.

There are many examples of this in Eastern Norway, where the land was not carved out by glaciers. Still, though, the bodies of water were used as a mode of transport. For example, the Oslofjord was not formed by glaciers (it is a rift valley), and is more of an inlet, yet it is referred to as a fjord. If you ride the Bergen – Oslo Train, you pass the Tyrifjorden, which is a large freshwater lake just outside Oslo. Lake Mjøsa, near Lillehammer, is called a fjord by the locals – it even sometimes looks like a fjord!

Some rivers are also referred to as fjords, such as the Hallingdal River, which empties into Krøderfjorden, a freshwater lake.

In Northern Norway there are many fjords, even though some are not considered fjords by the English definition. They were carved by glaciers, but they do not have steep sides because the glaciers were deep enough to cover even the high grounds when they were formed.

In Danish, many shallow lagoons are referred to as fjords.

Don’t think this is a method of trickery, though. When you book a trip to see the ‘fjords of Norway’ we aren’t going to take you to a freshwater lake. You definitely go to the ‘proper’ fjords of Western Norway 🙂

The village of Geiranger. You can almost see behind it how the glacier moved down the cliffside.
Looking down at Geiranger and the Geirangerfjord from Dalsnibba viewpoint. This image was taken in August 2019.

How are Fjords Formed?

Fjords are formed by glaciers, which are a large body of ice caused by accumulating, dense snow. Originally, the Scandinavian peninsula was covered in a large, thick glacier. After each ice age, the glaciers would slowly melt and shift under their own weight. As they would melt down towards the sea, they could push rocks with them and carve out the landscape.

Here’s a YouTube video that shows it pretty well:

A glacier cuts and forms a U-shaped valley by ice segregation and abrasion of the rock. I.e, ice breaking off and sliding down, breaking rock off as it goes. The glaciers are already sitting in valleys with a gently sloping floor; the melting of the glacier deepens the U-shaped valley.

Leaving Geiranger on the Geiranger – Hellesylt ferry (the best and cheapest way to see the fjord). This image was taken in July 2019.

As the glaciers melt, the Earth’s crust rebounds – the glaciers are heavy and weigh down the earth, so when the glaciers are gone the land is able to rise. All of Scandinavia is rising, in fact. In some parts of Scandinavia, the land is rising faster than the sea is rising.

The Hardangerfjord, the second-longest fjord in Norway. This image was taken from Steinstø Fruit Farm in May 2019.

How Deep are the Fjords?

In many cases, you can look at the mountains on either side of the fjord and get a sense of how deep it is, because often the depth of the fjord is the same as the height of the mountains. This is not true in call cases (see the Naeroyfjord, for example), but on the larger fjords (Sognefjord and Hardangerfjord) it does give an indication.

The mouth of the fjord is often the shallowest part, and it’s where we find a lot of gravel and sand. The gravel has been pushed here by the glaciers. The shallow parts is what makes the fjords calm; very very seldom will you find rough water on the fjords. For this reason, fjords are often natural harbours. That said, the entrance to the fjord is also where you find some extreme currents and saltwater rapids, for example Saltstraumen near Bodø is described as having the world’s strongest tidal current.

The fjords are typically deeper than the sea they connect to.

The Sognefjord, the longest fjord in Norway and second longest in the world, is as deep as 1300m (4,265ft) below sea level.

The famous ‘Trollfjord’ at the Lofoten Islands. I took this photo when I was on Hurtigruten in September 2019 – the ship goes into the fjord and does a little spin.

Are Fjords Saltwater or Seawater?

In short, they are both. Saltwater comes in from the sea, while freshwater comes from the connecting rivers and waterfalls, which also catch the melting snow every year.

Skerries in the Lofoten Islands. This photo was taken in February 2019 – my first trip on M/S Trollfjord!

What is a Skerry?

A skerry is a small rock found in the sea. It is one of the Norwegian words that has made it into the English language – skerry comes from the Old Norse word sker.

Skerries are most commonly found at the outlet of the fjords, or where the fjords join the sea. In many cases, they are boulders that the glaciers have pushed out as they have melted.

Norway’s coastline, particularly on the West Coast, is lined with a group of skerries. Many of these skerries are lined parallel to the coast and provide a protected channel behind an almost unbroken succession of mountainous islands and skerries. It’s possible to travel in a protected passage along almost the entire coast of Norway, from Stavanger to North Cape (1601km / 995 miles). If you travel on Hurtigruten, you see these protected passages up close.

The Flåm Valley seen from the Flåm Railway

Fjord Valleys

As you travel around Norway, you’ll notice that at the ends of fjords are often small, flat patches of land where villages have formed. The continuation of fjords on land are called fjord-valleys. They often end abruptly at steep cliffs. An excellent example of this is the Flåm Valley, which you’ll see if you take the Flåm Railway. If you’re in Hardanger, the Måbø Valley is also a great example.

You’ll see that there are many farms along the fjords; that’s because the more arable land in Norway is found along the fjords. The water is not freezing cold thanks to the Gulf Stream drifting in from the sea.

Here’s a clip I found I took when I rode the Flåm Valley in May 2019

A word you may see through your travels is eid – it’s often in placenames. An eid is a landform between a lake and the fjord, caused when lakes have been blocked from emptying into the fjord, when the ice was stable during a long period of melting. Many villages have been established on this plots of land, such as Eidfjord or Nordfjordeid. Eidfjord, located on the Hardangerfjord, sits between the Eidfjord lake and the Eidfjord branch of the Hardangerfjord.

Hurtigruten at the Geirangerfjord

See the Fjords of Norway

There are many ways to see the fjords here in Norway. The best place to start is in Bergen, which is often referred to as the gateway to the fjords. From here you can take many day trips out to see the fjords depending on your budget, or you can rent a car and go see them yourself.

I have a whole page dedicated to the fjords of Norway, which you can read here. I’ve provided an overview of each ‘must-see’ fjord in Norway, so you can plan your trip accordingly.


For my research, I used the following websites:

Emma Vestrheim

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Hey, I'm Emma! I'm a tour leader in Scandinavia and local guide in Bergen Norway, and have been for the past four years. These articles are inspired by my job and professional experience.

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