From nuclear tests to polar bears reserve

Polar bear with cub. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

Russia’s Arctic archipelago of Novaya Zemlya was by a governmental decree on Monday transformed into a nature reserve. A total of 132 nuclear bombs were detonated at the islands from 1955 to 1990.


The new nature reserve will be one of the largest in the world and by far the largest protected area in the Arctic Ocean, covering more than 80,000 square kilometres. From the south to the north the two islands at Novaya Zemlya is 900 kilometres long. Most of the northern island consists of peak mountains and glaciers.

The creation of the nature reserve has been planned for a long time and the decree on establishing it was signed by Prime Minister Valdimir Putin on Monday, reports RIA Novosti.

Commenting the nature reserve Putin said this is a “unique space with high biodiversity and high bioproductivity.”

According to WWF-Russia, the nature reserve could compensate for the damage to the dwindling polar bear population from global warming. Some studies say two thirds of the world’s 25,000 polar bears could die by 2050, as the ice they use to hunt seals melts due to global warming.

But, Novaya Zemlya is far from being virgin nature. In the period from 1955 to 1990, the archipelago was the Soviet Union’s main test site for larger nuclear weapons, first in the atmosphere, later underground. Because of its remote location Novaya Zemlya was considered most suitable for hydrogen bomb tests, weapons with large explosive force.

The last full-scale nuclear weapon test at Novaya Zemlya was on October 24th, 1990 inside a tunnel, near the Matotchin Straight.

Russia’s nuclear forces still conduct so-called sub-critical nuclear weapons tests at the northern test field. Subcritical tests contain the ingredients of a nuclear warhead, some few grams of plutonium or uranium, but fizzle out without any thermonuclear blast and, theoretically, are not accompanied by radioactive emissions.

Geographically, Novaya Zemlya belongs to Arkhangelsk Oblast, but in practice the military controls all activity and admittance.

The polar bear population on Novaya Zemlya is genetically the same as living on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. 64 percent of Svalbard consists of different nature protection reserves.