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Novaya Zemlya

Novaya Zemlya ( , also spelled Novaja Zemlja, lit. New Land; also known in English and in Dutch as Nova Zembla, Norwegian Gåselandet (Goose Land)) is an archipelago in the Arctic Oceanmarker in the north of Russiamarker and the extreme northeast of Europe at Cape Zhelaniyamarker (see also extreme points of Europe). The archipelago is administered by Arkhangelsk Oblast as Novaya Zemlya Island Territory. Its population is 2,716 (2002 census), of which 2,622 reside in Belushya Gubamarker, an urban-type settlement that is the administrative center of Novaya Zemlya District. The indigenous population consists of about 100 Nenetses who subsist mainly on fishing, trapping, polar bear hunting and seal hunting.

Novaya Zemlya consists of two major islands, separated by the narrow Matochkin Straitmarker, and a number of smaller ones. The two main islands are Severnymarker (northern) and Yuzhnymarker (southern). Novaya Zemlya separates the Barents Seamarker from the Kara Seamarker. The total area is about 90,650 km².

As Novaya Zemlya was a sensitive military area during the Cold War years, the Soviet Air Force maintained a presence at Rogachevomarker air base on the southern part of the island. It was used primarily for interceptor aircraft operations but also provided logistical support for the nearby nuclear test area.


Novaya Zemlya is the northern part of the Ural Mountainsmarker, and the interior is mountainous throughout. It is separated from the mainland by the Kara Straitmarker. The mountains reach a height of 1,547 m. The northern island contains many glaciers, while the southern one has a tundra landscape. Natural resources include copper, lead, and zinc.

The ecology of Novaya Zemlya is influenced by its severe climate, but the region nevertheless supports a diversity of biota. One of the most notable species present is the polar bear, whose population in the Barents Seamarker region is genetically distinct from other polar bear subpopulation.


Novaya Zemlya's major test site boundaries and facilities
The Russians knew of Novaya Zemlya from the 11th century, when traders from Novgorodmarker visited the area. For western Europeans, the search for the Northeast passage in the 16th century led to its exploration. 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 Barents reached the west coast of Novaya Zemlya in 1594, and in a subsequent expedition of 1596 rounded the northern point and wintered on the north-east coast. (Barents perished during the expedition, and may have been buried on the northern island.) During a later voyage by Feodor Liitke in 1821–1824, the west coast was mapped. Henry Hudson was another explorer who passed through Novaya Zemlya while searching for the Northeast Passage.

The island was systematically surveyed by Pyotr Pakhtusov and Avgust Tsivolko in the early 1830s. The first permanent settlement was established in 1870 at Malye Karmakuly, which served as capital of Novaya Zemlya until 1926. Sometime later the administrative center was transferred to Belushya Gubamarker .

Small numbers of Nenets people were resettled to Novaya Zemlya in the 1870s in a bid by Russia to keep out the Norwegians. This population, then numbering about 1,500, was removed in the 1950s when nuclear testing began.

Nuclear testing

In July 1954, Novaya Zemlya was designated the Novaya Zemlya Test Site, construction of which began in October and existed during much of the Cold War. "Zone A", Chyornaya Guba ( ), was used in 1955–1962 and 1972–1975. "Zone B", Matochkin Sharmarker ( ), was used for underground tests in 1964–1990. "Zone C", Sukhoy Nosmarker ( ), was used in 1958–1961 and was the 1961 explosion site of Tsar Bombamarker, a record 50-megaton blast conducted in the atmosphere.

Other tests occurred elsewhere throughout the islands, with an official testing range covering over half of the landmass. In September 1961 two propelled thermonuclear warheads were launched from Vorkuta Sovetskymarker and Salekhardmarker respectively to target areas on Novaya Zemlya. The launch rocket was subsequently deployed to Cuba.

1963 saw the implementation of the Limited Test Ban Treaty outlawing most atmospheric nuclear tests. The largest underground test at Novaya Zemlya took place on September 12, 1973, involving four nuclear devices of 4.2 megatons total yield. Although far smaller in blast power than the Tsar Bombamarker and other atmospheric tests, the confinement of the blasts underground led to pressures rivaling natural earthquakes. In the case of the September 12, 1973, test, a seismic magnitude of 6.97 on the Richter Scale was reached, setting off an 80 million ton avalanche that blocked two glacial streams and created a lake 2 km in length.

Over its entire history as a nuclear test site, Novaya Zemlya hosted 224 nuclear detonations with a total explosive energy equivalent to 265 megatons of TNT. For comparison, all explosives used in World War II, including the detonations of two U.S. nuclear bombs, amounted to only two megatons.

In 1988–1989, glasnost helped make the Novaya Zemlya testing activities public knowledge, and in 1990 Greenpeace activists staged a protest at the site. The last nuclear test explosion was in 1990 (also the last for the entire Soviet Union and Russia). The Ministry for Atomic Energy has performed a series of subcritical underwater nuclear experiments near Matochkin Shar each autumn since 1998. These tests reportedly involve up to 100 g of weapons-grade plutonium.

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