Krasnoyarsk Krai

The Severnaya Zemlya Archipelago: In the footsteps of polar expeditions

An Arctic nature reserve for fearless hikers

17.01.2023// The Severnaya Zemlya Archipelago was once one of the extremes of known land, a base for dangerous Antarctic expeditions and, in general, something comparable in difficulty to another planet. Today it has become Severozemelsky Nature Reserve, protecting the natural diversity of the Arctic. It's still difficult to get to, but with a little effort, you can see its unusual, rugged and austere beauty.

The Federal Severozemelsky State Sanctuary was created on 3 April 1996. It is located in the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago and consists of four sections: 'Domashny Island', 'Paris Commune Peninsula', 'Matusevich Fjord', and 'Akhmatov Bay'. Its total area is 421,700 hectares.

The discovery of the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago is comparable in importance to those made during the Age of Discovery in the 15th-17th centuries. The archipelago was discovered on 4 September 1913, during the Russian polar hydrographic expedition of 19101915 led by Boris Vilkitsky. A theory exists that Vilkitsky gave the archipelago the name Tayvay, after the combined names of the expedition's icebreakers, the Taymyr and the Vaygach. In 1914, however, the archipelago was named the Land of Emperor Nicholas II, in honour of the then-reigning Russian monarch. The first accurate map of the archipelago was drawn up in the 1930s during Georgy Ushakov's expedition. Head of research and geologist of this expedition was Nikolay Urvantsev.

There are historical monuments in the Severozemelsky Nature Reserve that have been described but not officially documented. This is the base of the Ushakov-Urvantsev expedition on Domashny Island, as well as the staging area of Akhmatov Bay. It is suggested that V. A. Rusanov wintered there in 1912 and 1913.

The glacier-free and usually marshy lands on the islands of the archipelago are very sparsely vegetated. Only mosses and lichens survive in these conditions, but a few flowering species, such as the Arctic poppy and saxifrage, can also be found. The fauna of the islands is richer. Many seabirds can be watched: colonies of glaucous gulls, skuas, terns and gulls, long-tailed ducks and waders. Seals, bearded seals and beluga whales live in the waters surrounding the islands.

Komsomolets Island is the northernmost in the archipelago. The coastal valley of Zhuravlyov Bay harbours a unique natural ensemble of stone pillars of the most bizarre shapes. They are 15-20 metres high. These rock outcrops were mainly formed as a result of wind damage – corrasion, not to be confused with corrosion.

The fantastic scenery is just one of the area’s attractions; another one is the high chance to find crystals or entire druses of chalcedony, jasper, or carnelian.

The Severozemelsky Nature Reserve is usually included in the tourist routes of Arctic cruises along with Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya. Tourists sail on an ice-breaker, making boat trips to natural attractions. The number of places is usually limited and the prices can hardly be called affordable. This is not surprising, though—travelling is time-consuming and challenging, including in terms of security. Plan an Arctic cruise several months in advance, with Murmansk and Anadyr as the main ports of departure.

Getting to the Severozemelsky Nature Reserve on your own is almost impossible unless, of course, you have your own ice-class yacht or, say, a helicopter. Even then, a permit will be required to visit this protected area. Each application is considered individually. Sometimes scientists recruit volunteers for expeditions - that's how you can get to the Severnaya Zemlya Archipelago, too. The truth is that you will have to work and forget about comfort for a while. It's the only way to feel like a real polar explorer, though.

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