Franz Josef Land is a Russian archipelago of 191 islands located in the Barents Sea north of Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya between 79°46' and 81°52' N and 44°52' and 65°25' E, and stretching 375 km (233 miles) east to west and 234 km (145 miles) north to south. The total land area measures 16,135 km2, with over 4425 km of coastline. Small islands dominate Franz Josef Land, which is separated by narrow straits. Islands of the central region reach up to 620 m elevation. Glacier ice covers about 13,700 km2 or 85% of the archipelago, and tidewater glaciers reach the sea over approximately 60% of the coast. Braided melt-water streams are common, and over a thousand small lakes are found located in depressions formed by glacial erosion.
Two types of weather system dominate the region of Franz Josef Land. Depressions moving toward the east or northeast produce cloudy and stormy weather, while high-pressure stable conditions produce moderate winds and frequently clear skies. In winter, low pressure dominates, and temperatures show high inter-annual variability. The mean January temperature is -20°C to -30°C, the mean July temperature is 0-2°C, and the annual mean is -10°C to -13°C. The annual solid precipitation is 150-250 mm at sea level. The snow precipitation period typically lasts over ten months with liquid rain accounting for only 10% of annual precipitation. Ice covers the seas around Franz Josef Land typically from late September to May, although in some years sea ice survives year-round.
Ice masses occur on 54 of the islands, and glaciation is greatest in the east and southeast. Ice caps typ ically measure 350-500 m high, and 300-450 m thick. Ice cap drainage patterns are generally determined by the underlying bedrock relief, and many ice margins are floating. Many glaciers show evidence of retreat during the last century, particularly tidewater glaciers, where significant mass is lost by iceberg calving. Many low-elevation ice caps are undergoing rapid downward wasting.
Vegetation typically covers less than 10% of the ice-free ground. The number of species and percentage of vegetation cover decreases from southwest to northeast. Lichens are the most widespread flora, and over 100 species have been recorded. Vascular plants and bryophytes are present only in small quantities. From 0 to 130 m elevation, grass-moss desert predominates, from 130 to 175 m moss-lichen desert dominates, from 175 to 315 m lichen desert dominates, and above 315 m vegetation is rare. On talus slopes located below cliffs occupied by seabird nesting colonies, vegetation can cover up to 100% of the ground.
Forty-one bird species have been observed on Franz Josef Land, and 14 are known to nest. The number of nesting species decreases from southwest to northeast with increasing climatic severity. The five most common nesting species are seabirds: fulmar, kittiwake, Brunnich's guillemot, black guillemot, and little auk. Franz Josef Land is an important polar bear denning area, and Arctic foxes occur in small numbers as well. Harp seal, ringed seal, and bearded seal are all common. Atlantic walruses are relatively common, and a small local population of bowhead whales exists as well. Well-developed plankton and benthic faunas exist in the waters around Franz Josef Land, but only
33 fish species have been recorded, none of which are commercially exploited.
The surface geology is dominated by horizontal or gently dipping layers of sedimentary rocks underlying basalts and dolerites. The basalt rocks crop out as vast plateaux around the northern, western, and southern periphery. Inside the basaltic arc, sheets of dolerite are exposed. On the eastern islands, the basaltic plateaux and dolerites have been removed by erosion to leave low plains of horizontal friable sedimentary rocks pierced by dykes. A series of coastal ramparts up to 50 m high are noted around the island margins, formed during the Holocene period by glacio-isostatic rise of the archipelago. Deglaciation began some time after 17,000 years BP. Raised glacimarine terraces, dated at 8000 years BP, suggest that Franz Josef Land ice masses were at or behind their present margins by the early Holocene.
The archipelago was not charted until 1873, although hunters knew of the presence of land in the area. The 1872—1874 Austro-Hungarian Teggetthoff expedition, led by Carl Weyprecht and Julius Payer, reached Franz Josef Land on November 1, 1873 and mapped the southern area. The Benjamin Leigh Smith expeditions (1880 and 1881—1882), JacksonHarmsworth expedition (1894—1897), Fridtjof Nansen and Lars Emil Johansen expedition (1895—1896), Walter Wellman expedition (1898—1899), and Georgiy Y. Sedov expedition (1912—1914) conducted further mapping. The remains of Wellman's hut were found near the distinctive rocks at Cape Tegetthoff. Until 1926, Franz Josef Land was considered a no-man's-land (Terra Nullius). On April 15, 1926, the Soviet Union proclaimed the islands as Russian territory (part of the Arkhangel'skaya Oblast'). In 1939, the Soviet government established a manned Russian meteorological station and research base at Bukhta Tikhaya, on Hooker Island. The meteorological station operated until 1958, when it moved to Hayes Island, and the research base closed in 1959.
In 1930 and 1931, international expeditions to Franz Josef Land were permitted, including a visit by the airship Graf Zeppelin in 1931, but from 1932 to 1990 the archipelago remained closed to Westerners. A clandestine German weather station did, however, operate undetected on Alexandra Land from September 1943 to October 1944. During the early part of the Cold War, the archipelago was of strategic military importance. In 1952, the Soviet Union established military bases at Nagurskoye on Alexandra Land and on Graham Bell Island. Limited Russian scientific activity was permitted from 1931 to 1962, including International Geophysical Year glaciological investigations in 1957—1958 and 1958—1959. From 1962 to 1990, scientific activity was severely curtailed due to Soviet military restrictions. However in 1990, a joint Russian-Norwegian-Polish research base was established at Bukhta Tikhaya by the Murmansk Marine Biological Institute in cooperation with Norsk Polarinstitutt (Norwegian Polar Institute), Norway, and the Institute of Oceanography, Polish Academy of Sciences. International scientific expeditions were permitted limited access by the Russian government to much of Franz Josef Land between 1990 and 1994.
The absence of commercial activity due to restricted access has contributed to environmental preservation on Franz Josef Land. Around military bases the localized environmental damage is severe, but the remainder of the archipelago is largely unspoiled. Easing of access restrictions in 1990 by the Russian government led to a steep increase in both commercial and scientific activity, causing environmental concerns. In April 1994, a nature sanctuary was established by the Russian Federation covering Franz Josef Land. The sanctuary is of the zakaznik category, allowing supervision and coordination of research and tourism.
See also Amedeo, Luigi, Duke of Abruzzi; Arkhangel'skaya Oblast'; Jackson, Frederick; Leigh Smith, Benjamin; Nansen, Fridtjof; Sedov, Georgiy Yakovlevich; Wellman, Walter
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Williams, Meredith & Julian Dowdeswell, "Mapping seabird nesting habitats in Franz Josef Land, Russian High Arctic, using Landsat Thematic Mapper imagery." Polar Research, 17(1) (1998): 25-30
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