The physical geography of the Arctic Ocean is evolving as the climate warms. Most recently, the Russian Navy discovered five new islands off the coast of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, which were exposed as a result of glacial melt. Novaya Zemlya is situated in a remote corner of the world, northwest of the Russian mainland. There are two islands in the archipelago, and while the whole area is remote, the northern Severny Island is uninhabited and contains more glaciers than the southern Yuzhny island.
The time-lapse map above shows one of the five new islands being exposed off the coast of Novaya Zemlya. To see the emergence of the other four islands via time-lapse images, visit From a Glacier’s Perspective, by Mauri Pelto, professor of environmental science at Nichols College and director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project.
Russia’s New Discoveries
Located in St. Petersburg, the Admiral Makarov State University of Maritime and Inland Shipping has long been one of Russia’s leading maritime technical institutions, dating back to 1781 when Empress Catherine II opened the first nautical schools in the Russian Empire. Thus, this university is linked to the foundation of Russian maritime navigation and continues to perfect the operation of the Russian fleet. In 2016, Marina Migunova, then a student at the university, noticed five new islands along the coast of Severny while examining satellite images of the Vize (or Wiese) Bay. Migunova is now an engineer of the Oceanographic Measurement Service for the Northern Fleet of the Russian Navy.
Interestingly, the Wiese Bay is named after Vladimir Yulyevich Wiese, an early twentieth century Russian scientist, member of the Soviet Arctic Institute, and founder of the Geographico-hydrological School of Oceanography. He spent his life studying the Arctic ice pack, and in 1930, aboard the Icebreaker Sedov, he and his crew discovered the Wiese Island in the area north of Novaya Zemlya. Its hydrometeorological research station, that was established in 1945, is one of the northernmost in the world.
The red arrow points to Wiese Island. Novaya Zemlya is circled in brown. Franz Josef Land is circled in blue. (Source: Demis/Mohonu)
It took three years, but the Northern Fleet has finally visited and confirmed the discovery of these five new islands. The voyage to the Novaya Zemlya archipelago occurred this past summer, and carried scientists and filmmakers from the Russian Geographical Society and the Russian Arctic National Park. According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, these islands emerged in the wake of retreating glaciers situated near the Vylki glacier and range from 900 to 54,500 square meters in size.
In addition to confirming the existence of Migunova’s five new islands on the North Island of Novaya Zemlya, the crew also surveyed the depth of many straits, as well as the topography of the ocean floor of the Barents and Kara Seas. On this expedition, the Northern Fleet was also searching for the remains of a Soviet scientist who died in 1950 as he was compiling maps of the “New Earth,” Novaya Zemlya. They found his remains along with a weather station that had been destroyed in 1943 by Nazi submarines. The crew then identified the islands of Littrow and also confirmed the presence of a new island in the Gunter Bay of the Franz Josef Land archipelago, which is another remote group of islands located north of the Russian mainland in the Arctic Ocean. It was explored by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1800’s during a period of geopolitcal competition between the Austro-Hungarians and Russians in the Arctic Ocean, and one of its isolated islands may have even served as a secret Nazi war base during World War II.
The expedition follows a recent surge of coastline surveying by the Russian Navy. The Russian Ministry of Defense has reported that since 2015, the Northern Fleet hydrographic service has identified over thirty new islands, capes, and bays near the Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya archipelagos using remote sensing techniques. Additionally, the Russian Ministry of Defense noted that “critical points” in the boundary waters have been clarified to describe the territories of the Russian Federation as well as their economic reach. As you might guess, both of these archipelagos are important locations for military infrastructure and personnel.
Russian Military Activity in the Arctic
During the Cold War period, Novaya Zemlya was the site of Soviet atmospheric and underground nuclear tests. In fact, it hosted over 130 nuclear detonations, including the “Tsar Bomba,” which was the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated – almost four thousand times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
Dr. Kristian Åtland, a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, told GlacierHub that since the Cold War period, Russia has reinvigorated much of its old military infrastructure as well as built new Arctic infrastructure on Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, Severnaya Zemlya, and the East Siberian Islands. These include airfields, naval port facilities, radar and early warning installations, and air defense systems. According to Åtland, defense of the coastline is of critical importance to the Russians.
More than half of Russia’s naval nuclear forces are positioned to the immediate east of Norway on the Kola peninsula, and the Russian Navy uses the Barents and Kara seas, which surround Novaya Zemlya, as their patrol and transit areas. “They [submarines] venture into the Arctic Ocean too, where water depths are much greater. Here, it’s easier to hide under the cover of ice or along the ice edge where ambient noise conditions are more favorable, and where their submarines are more difficult to track by western forces,” said Åtland. “The ice cover is shrinking, and Novaya Zemlya’s new islands are showing the changes in the physical geography of the region.”
While the shallow maritime area closest to the coast of the new islands is not very strategic in terms of submarine activity, the changing physical geography is affecting security in a number of ways. “Nuclear subs are more difficult to locate and track under ice, so the shrinking ice cover could be a challenge for strategic forces,” Åtland told GlacierHub. Still, he noted, “the strategic significance of the Barents Sea for Russia should not be underestimated. To ensure safe operations of subs, the Russians can use a number of assets, such as surface vessels, maritime patrol aircraft and different sensors on the sea beds to optimize their monitoring skills and exercise what we call ‘sea control’ over the Barents Sea.” This is especially important as the level of activity in the Arctic Ocean increases with climate change.
“Seasonally, the ice sort of comes down during the winter, and expands and retracts over the seasons, over the years,” said Åtland. He mentioned that this will continue to be the status until the end of the 2030’s, when we are likely to see a total disappearance of Arctic ice in the summer months. It is projected that, by the end of the century, the ice will expand and retract until it is completely gone in every season. “That will be a whole new situation and could change the strategic dynamics of the region. It could lead to a significant increase in sea traffic and other economic activities in the region as a whole.”
Geopolitical Shifts in the Arctic
In the Arctic Ocean, “not only is the ice melting, but it is also thinning,” stated David Titley, a retired Rear Admiral of the US Navy and a professor of Meteorology and International Affairs at Penn State University. As these waterways become clearer, the Russians are making large efforts to monetize their northern sea routes. They have been working with the Chinese to transport natural gas through the Arctic Ocean, and the fact that they are able to run their ships “without ice-breaker assistance, in the winter, in the Arctic, shows just how much the ice is thinning.”
One pressing issue is, of course, the so-called “straits” issue. This raises the question of whether or not the newly formed waterways are part of the internal waters of the Russian Federation, or if they should be seen as international straits where the right of transit applies. This same case is occurring in the northwest passage by Canada, according to Åtland. Indeed, economic zones are expanding with the warming climate. Therefore, “in addition to the changing physical environment, you also have a changing geopolitical environment,” said Titley, “and there are lots of issues that must be worked out before we can see any shift in shipping.”
Because the geopolitical climate suggests transformation, the Suez Canal authority is now promoting their shipping path. Titley noted that we could see an increase in competition between Russia trying to reorient shipping along their Northern Sea route in the Arctic Ocean versus Egyptians promoting shipping through their Suez Canal. “If you’re a shipper, before you can sanction routes, there are questions of insurance, and how much the Russians will charge to move through the route, as well as for ice-breakers and escorts. Shippers will start to get a choice between route options,” said Titley. An “over-the-top” shuttle service across the North Pole to Iceland may even become a possibility in the future, he added.
The Arctic is incredibly rich in oil and natural gas: “there are huge amounts of it up there,” but since working underwater, especially in the Arctic, is hard, “at what cost are we willing to extract it, given how easy it is to obtain elsewhere?” proposed Titley. Ice is dangerous stuff if it drifts around oil infrastructure. Titley laughed, “My guess is, if that becomes the last place to get a barrel of oil, chances are we’re gonna go get it.”
The discovery of Novaya Zemlya’s five new islands is simply the most recent chapter in the escapade of Arctic melt. In Mauri Pelto’s blog, “From a Glacier’s Perspective,” he writes: “Climate change has been driving the recession of glaciers and ice sheets, which in turn has been changing our maps.” Indeed, all the mapping and exploration the Russians are doing in the Arctic gives it the feel of a new frontier exposed from beneath the ice. While exciting in some ways, it is important to consider the potential damaging effects to the planet’s ecosystems and geophysical processes. Titley put it perfectly: “We didn’t leave the Stone Age because we used every last stone, so we shouldn’t leave the fossil fuel age because we used every last drop of fossil fuel.”