Melting Glaciers Reveal Previously Hidden Arctic Islands

Novaya Zemlya, where five of the new islands have been identified. Department of Information and Mass Communications of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation

The warming of the planet is causing some islands to disappear, but it has also allowed us to discover new ones previously hidden beneath the ice. A recently returned Russian Naval expedition to the far north has confirmed the addition of six new islands to the list. People losing their homes may gain no comfort, the new discoveries are unenticing places for humans to live, and the melting of the Vylka glacier that had previously covered the islands is one of the things contributing to rising sea levels elsewhere.

The retreat of Arctic Ocean ice has inspired Russian expeditions to observe the changes. Economic incentives include new shipping routes and the exploitation of previously inaccessible mineral deposits. For scientists, the area is a barely studied treasure chest of potential discoveries.

In the course of a joint expedition by the Russian Geographic Society and the nation's Navy five new islands were found in Vize Bay off Severrny Island, Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago that at 74 degrees north is one of the closest large landmasses to the North Pole.

Satellite images taken in 2016 had alerted the expedition of the islands’ existence, but this year was the first time their topography has been mapped.

On the confirmation of the new islands, expedition leader Vice-Admiral Aleksandr Moiseyev, talking at a press conference, said: “Mainly this is of course caused by changes to the ice situation. Before these were glaciers, we thought they were (part of) the main glacier. Melting, collapse, and temperature changes led to these islands being uncovered." 

The two main islands of Novaya Zemlya combined are the size of Ireland. Although the population is only a few thousand, it was the site of 224 nuclear explosions, including the largest ever, and some major World War Two battles, so human presence has been enough that you'd think some new islands might expect to be noticed.

The expedition also found that what had previously been considered a peninsula of Hall Island in the Franz Josef Land archipelago, even further north, is actually a separate island. The cover of permanent ice made it appear to be joined to the mainland.

The six new islands, all of which are yet to be named, range in size from 900 square meters (9,690 square feet), the size of a suburban block to 54,500 square meters (590,000 square feet) or eight football fields.

The expedition is the same one that achieved fame when one of its landing boats was attacked and sunk by a walrus, overshadowing its scientific achievements such as measuring the maximum depth of the Barents Sea (632 meters or 2,000 feet) and determining the limits of Russian territorial waters.

It is a different expedition from the team that this summer found patches of methane boiling the sea in Siberia so fiercely it could be scooped out with a bucket.

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