Thursday, 15 November 2012

Novaya Zemlya and Belushya Guba : from desolate bomb test site to happier days

Norhern Siberia and Arctic Russia have been a cursed land for centuries - the 'Gulag' camps, the miserable native (Nenets) settlements, and soviet hell-like heavy industrial towns, were the territory's landmarks, along with the destruction of nature resources and environment, sometimes with heavy costs - like the building of railway lines through the unstable flooded tundra in the soviet era that took the lives of many thousands.

But in recent years things started running in a happier direction; I already gave notice here of some uplifted attractive towns in the siberian far-east, like Khabarovsk, Ussuriysk or Anadyr. This time I look upon Novaya Zemlya, a group of islands infamously known for the nuclear tests that took place there during the Cold War, but nowadays taking a turn to modern life with decent standards of living, as in the colourful newly-painted Belushya Guba, the main town. Slowly, the archipelago is opening to the world, still with many restrictions, but finally showing glorious natural territory, mostly unknown before.

Novaya Zemlya, the northeasternmost extreme of Europe

This achipelago lies between the Barents Sea and the Kara Sea.

Location:  70°30′ to 77°N, and 51°10′ to 70°E

Novaya Zemlya (New Land) is a large Russian landmass, with a total area of 83000 km2, located in the Arctic sea off the coast of Siberia. Those rugged Arctic islands have one of the most severe climates on Earth.

It is an archipelago that consists of two main islands, Severny and Yuzhny, separated by a narrow natural channel, the Matochkin strait, used for centuries to shorten a northeast passage through the Artic sea.

In winter, an ice sheet covers the islands and the frozen sea around.

The archipelago is actually a northern extension of the Ural Mountains, from which derives its long, skinny shape.

Arctic tundra covers the southern island. The northern island, Severny, is covered by a permanent ice cap that feeds several glaciers, most of them running to the Barents sea.

Inostrantseva Glacier, a distinctive shape.

Thousands of years ago, all Novaya Zemlya was covered by a glacial ice sheet. As the ice sheet advanced over the islands, it scoured the bedrock below, leaving giant parallel striations and scrapes across the landscape.

Reflections of Severny coast, Barents sea

Detail of the northeastern coast.

Cape Zhelaniya, the extreme northeast of Novaya Zemlya and of Europe, at 76° 57′ N, 68° 34′ E.

A view of Matochkin strait.

The strait also separates the north arctic desert landscape from the southern tundra, where most inhabitants live.

The native population

Amazingly, there are over 2 700 people living in Novaya Zemlya, of which 2 600 live in the only major settlement, Belushya Guba.

Before the bomb test program, only the southern island was inhabited by a small number of Samoyedic people, the native population: about 50 to 300 nomadic Nenets who subsisted mainly on fishing, trapping, reindeer herding, polar bear and seal hunting.

Matochkin Shar's nenet comunity.

Seeing the strait, by Nenets artist Tyko Vylka

A lonely chapel on the ice, close to Matochkin strait.


The first visit from a west European was by Hugh Willoughby in 1553, and he met Russian ships from the already established hunting trade. Dutch explorer Willem Barentsz reached the west coast of Novaya Zemlya in 1594, and in a subsequent expedition of 1596 rounded the northern point and wintered on the northeast coast.

Entering 'Matochkin Shar' (strait).

While many expeditions reached the west coast, the east coast remained unvisited until a hunting and exploring expedition in 1760, led by Savva Loshkin, cruised north from Kara Strait to spend two winters here, returning the third year along the west coast to complete the first circumnavigation.

In July 1954, Novaya Zemlya was designated; a Test Site, and so remained during much of the Cold War. Sukhoy Nos peninsula (73.7° N,  54° E) was used in 1958–1961 and was the 1961 explosion site of the 100 megaton Tsar Bomba.

Sukhoy Nos Peninsula, on the east coast north of Matochkin strait, was the site of the Tsar bomba .

Just to the northeast of Belushya Guba is the major airport and air base, at Rogachevo, which receives scheduled flights from the mainland.

Rogachevo air base was founded in the 1950s as a staging base for long-range bombing missions. Novaya Zemlya was home to the most powerful nuclear explosion everrecorded: the 1961 detonation of the Tsar Bomba.

The bomb obliterated everything within a 55km range and broke windows 90km away, almost reaching the plane pilots 10 km above. To the south, Matochkin strait was under severe effects of the blast.

50 years on, the massive black scar left by the bomb can still be seen. At the centre of the scar lies this crater-shaped lake.

The surface of the island was levelled, and the rocks melted.

But somehow nature seems to have recovered:

A bear over Sukhoy Nos peninsula

The diversity of arctic flora in spring

For now, Novaya Zemlya remains mostly a military outpost at the edge of Europe, with restricted access to visitors.

Next post: Belushya Guba, the main settlement