Arctic Satellite Image of the Week: Russia discovers a new island in its Arctic

Landsat-8 image of new island discovered near Russia.

Landsat 8 image taken on June 16, 2013 of new island discovered near Russia. Image from NASA via USGS Earth Explorer.

In September 2013, two military helicopter pilots transporting equipment from Tiksi, a port city in northeast Russia, to the New Siberian Islands spotted a previously unknown island in the Laptev Sea. The discovery took place just a little ways south of the main shipping lanes used for the Northern Sea Route and has now been corroborated by geological surveying. The Russian-language version of Popular Mechanics notes that the small, low-lying island has been christened “Yaya,” or “Яя” in Russian. The rhyming name comes from the Russian word “Я,” which means “I”, for the pilot of each Mi-26 helicopter essentially shouted, “It was I who found it!” when they spotted the scrap of land.

The pilots happened to fly over the island (73°59′25″ N, 133°05′28 E) in September, when Arctic sea ice is at its lowest extent. September is the usually the first entire month to be open to shipping along the Northern Sea Route, too. I was unable to find cloud-free Landsat 8 satellite images taken over the location of the new island in September, or any of the other relatively ice-free months for that matter (July, August, and October), but I was able to find a cloud-free image taken on June 16, 2013, when the water was still frozen solid. Even despite all the thick sea ice surrounding the brown speck of land, it still manages to stick out.

Geographically speaking, the discovery reveals the extent to which the Arctic – especially the eastern Russian Arctic – still remains poorly mapped. It’s rare to hear of new islands – however small – being discovered elsewhere in the world unless they’re due to some recent volcanic activity.

Map of new island's location and Russia's new territorial waters.

Map of new island’s location and Russia’s new territorial waters.

New Siberian Islands Buildup?

Legally speaking, while the island is small, its discovery does have certain implications under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). All of the waters around Yaya Island already fall within Russian’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). But Section II explains that territorial seas extend 12 nautical miles outward from a country’s coastline. Thus, with the addition of the island to Russian territory, the country will gain 452 square kilometers of territorial seas. Once classified as territorial seas, then the water surface area, the air column above it, and the water column and seabed below it all become part of the country’s sovereign area.

UNCLOS also specifies that countries cannot levy charges on foreign ships for passing through their territorial waters, let alone EEZs. Yet because the waters are ice covered for a majority of the year, Russia is able to enforce additional regulations to prevent pollution, including by levying charges, under Article 234.

Yaya Island’s existence will cause hardly any large-scale changes in the eastern Russian maritime Arctic. But what could be more of a game-changer is the uptick in military-related activities occurring around Tiksi and the New Siberian Islands. The two helicopters that spotted Yaya were, as mentioned, ferrying unspecified equipment to the New Siberian Islands in September 2013 – one year before Russia re-opened a former Soviet military base there. So perhaps more than the discovery of the island, it’s actually the discoverers who form the real story behind the headline. In next week’s Arctic satellite image of the week post, I’ll look more into the military buildup taking place at what was their destination: the New Siberian Islands.

Vestiges of the Berlin Wall in the Arctic

A part of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. © Mia Bennett.

A part of the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery in Berlin, Germany. © Mia Bennett.

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate, issuing a challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “Tear down this wall!” he famously cried. In the autumn of that same year, in the Russian Arctic city of Murmansk, Gorbachev made a similar challenge to the world to end the divisions wrought by the Cold War in the Arctic. “Let the North of the globe, the Arctic, become a zone of peace,” he proclaimed. “Let the North Pole be a pole of peace.”

Both Reagan and Gorbachev’s visions were made real over the next few years as the Berlin Wall fell down and the Arctic became a peaceful region that fostered multilateral environmental cooperation. The 1990s witnessed both the reunification of Germany and the formation of the Arctic Council. A united Germany even became an Arctic Council observer, and the Port of Hamburg – revitalized by reunification – could one day help connect eastern Germany, the Czech Republic, and beyond to the Northern Sea Route, as I wrote a few months ago.

So on Sunday at the Brandenburg Gate, millions of people celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the wall. But no such celebrations are taking place in the Arctic, for neither Russia nor the West is helping to realize Gorbachev’s vision of the Arctic becoming a zone of peace. In April, for instance, Canada boycotted an Arctic Council meeting in Moscow over objections to Russia’s occupation of Crimea. A new report by the European Leadership Network uncovered nearly 40 instances of “brinkmanship,” or close encounters between Russian and Western forces. I mapped the data provided by the ELN on Google Maps into a polar projection, and the clustering of encounters in the Baltic Sea remains clear. In the Arctic, though, there are also several encounters, mostly near Canada and Alaska and one instance south of Greenland. In the sub-Arctic, a couple other instances occur in the Sea of Okhotsk, though they are not shown in the map below. It was therefore perhaps not surprising that over the weekend at a ceremony in Berlin, Gorbachev warned that the world was on the brink of a new cold war. He intoned, “We must make sure that we get the tensions that have arisen recently under control.”

Gorbachev, as has been widely reported, has accused the United States, the West, and NATO of triumphalism. NATO has continually expanded its footprint east, bringing the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into its fold and undermining Russian desires for a buffer zone along its perimeter. The Baltic states (which, it is worth noting, are occasionally described as “near-Arctic”) have thus lately been no stranger to Russian incursions. An Estonian policeman accused of being a spy was arrested by Russian authorities, with Estonia alleging that he was kidnapped from Estonian territory. A submarine, possibly Russian, was spotted somewhere off of Stockholm around the time that Lithuania’s new liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal was making its way to the port of Klaipėda. Russia is probably not thrilled about Lithuania’s new infrastructure, which allows it more flexibility in gas imports, and, importantly, decreases its reliance on Siberian gas. Additionally, unlike many other European countries which have 15- or 30- year gas contracts with Russia, Lithuania’s contracts with Gazprom expire next year, so it will be sooner able to restructure its gas portfolio. The first shipment of LNG from Norway arrived at the end of last month, and Lithuania signed a five-year gas supply deal with Statoil in August that could provide up to 20% of the country’s needs. Norway is undoubtedly the preferred Arctic partner for the republic that was the first to declare independence from the USSR.

September 18: A Day that will live in Arctic infamy?

Map showing close encounters with Russian military forces (source: ) and detention locations for Juros Vilkas and MV Arctic Sunrise. Location of Juros Vilkas is approximate.

Map showing close encounters with Russian military forces (source: European Leadership Network) and detention locations for Juros Vilkas and MV Arctic Sunrise. Location of Juros Vilkas is approximate.

Tensions between Lithuania and Russia, however, are not confined to the Baltic Sea. They have now extended into the Arctic. On September 18, 2014 – exactly one year to the day after Greenpeace’s MV Arctic Sunrise protestors were detained in the Barents Sea for protesting offshore drilling at the Prirazlomnaya rig - the Lithuanian-flagged fishing boat Jūros Vilkas (“Sea Wolf”) was detained by Russian authorities and towed to Murmansk. The ship, owned by Seattle based company Arctic Fishing, was accused of illegally catching 15 tons of snow crab in Russia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). While ships can navigate freely in a country’s EEZ, the sovereign country retains the right to all of the natural resources in the water column and seabed beneath.

Illegal fishing is no small matter in the Arctic (see this WWF document for a brief summary), and it is especially hard to enforce regulations there given the difficult conditions in which coast guards and other enforcement agencies must operate. Yet the issues surrounding Jūros Vilkas’ detention are complex. Supposedly, the ship’s crew thought they had been operating in the “donut hole” – the area of high seas in between the Russian and Norwegian EEZs in the Barents Sea, visible in the map above. In fact, however, the ship had illegally crossed into Russia’s EEZ, whose boundaries changed after the 2010 treaty with Norway to delimit the former “grey zone” in the Barents.

Russia notified the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission of the change, but according to The Baltic Course, the commission did not alert its member states, Lithuania among them, of this development. Alas, the view from Murmansk seems to be that there will be no forgiving buffer zones for wayward ships accused of illegal fishing in the Russian Arctic (even though Russian fishermen have themselves been described as “members of ‘the international mafia‘”). One has to wonder whether any of the Lithuanian and Russian fishermen who were onboard Jūros Vilkas are sitting in the same cells in the Murmansk detention center that the so-called Greenpeace “Arctic 30″ occupied for three months beginning one year ago.

Lines in the water

While detaining a foreign ship for illegal fishing is common practice around the world, Jūros Vilkas is being held in Murmansk on a bail of 2.25 million euros – an amount some might say is unreasonable since it is two to three times the value of the ship. Furthermore, last year, Chinese processors were buying snow crab from Alaska for around $5 a pound. If prices are comparable in the Barents, then the Lithuanian vessel’s total 15-ton catch, however illegal, was worth only $150,000.

The actions of the Russian coast guard fit the larger logic of Russia’s tough defense of its borders and, importantly, natural resources. When Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise was detained and its members prosecuted in court, the NGO’s executive director called it stiffest response his organization had encountered from a government since the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. Soon after Arctic Sunrise’s detentionRussian President Vladimir Putin signed a law allowing oil and gas corporations to establish their own private security forces to defend their infrastructure.

Today, there are thousands of segments of the Berlin Wall on display around the world. According to the head of a German NGO devoted to the Berlin Wall’s remembrance, it is “the only monument that exists on all continents,” except possibly Antarctica.” [1] But the real question we should be asking is not where those concrete slabs are displayed. Rather, the question is, where are the invisible traces of the Wall?

The answer, sadly and increasingly, seems to be in the Arctic.


[1] The Economist. The Berlin Wall: Twenty-five years on.” (Nov. 8, 2014)

Revisualizing the cryosphere

Earlier this week, I participated in the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Polar Data Visualization Hackathon in New York City. Remote sensing scientists, glaciologists, visualization experts, and designers all participated in the two-day workshop, held at the Parsons School of Design. The two-day meeting brought together all of these people so that they could harness their backgrounds to discuss how to make possible better visualizations of the Arctic and Antarctic. Sessions discussed topics from the highly technical, like “Open-source Polar Data Workflows with Tangelo Hubs,” to ones more focused on finessing the end product, like how to best display sea ice retreat to general audiences.

The workshop in New York was a sea change from the conference I had attended just a day before in Reykjavik: Arctic Circle, the largest international conference on the future of Arctic development. Northerners like the president of Iceland, the prime minister of Finland, and the former prime minister of Greenland were clear reminders of the fact that the Arctic is home to four million people. Thus, no quote put the two events in starker contrast than when one participant at the NSF workshop asked of the scientists:

“Please just remember to put the cities and towns of the Arctic on the map!”

Whereas Arctic Circle privileged the places, people, and natural resources of the Arctic – the lived environment, if you will – the NSF hackathon focused more on the geophysical features of the region. Sea surface temperature, sea ice extent, ice cores – these were the topics discussed by scientists. Marine-terminating versus land-terminating, hanging glaciers and ice-dammed lakes – such glaciological vocabulary would probably have gone right over the heads of many of the attendees at Arctic Circle. Meanwhile in New York, designers like Jer Thorpe talked about things like the “ooh/ahh factor” necessary for creating successful visualizations – ideas that would have been useful for the few presenters at Arctic Circle who put entire paragraphs of text in Times New Roman on a PowerPoint slide.

Yet while Arctic Circle attendees probably wouldn’t forget to include cities and towns on a map of the Arctic, they might neglect to include other features, like the seasonal dimension of Arctic sea ice. The area isn’t going to be open year-round for shipping, at least not anytime soon, due to the persistence of winter sea ice. Another example could be a map showing bold plans for northern infrastructure, which might overlook including the location of permafrost.

It’s hard to simultaneously depict human and physical phenomena in the Arctic without making a map look too busy. But doing so when possible would emphasize the highly intertwined nature of humans and nature.

While they emphasized different features in the earth’s polar regions, Arctic Circle and the NSF workshop hammered home the point that the Arctic matters. I long for the day when Greenland will be included in maps such as Vision of Humanity’s “Global Peace Index,” below, rather than just being a sorry gray or white featureless triangle on a map with “No Data” as an excuse.

Global Peace Index map by Vision of Humanity.

Global Peace Index map by Vision of Humanity.

Cryosphere connections

With that in mind, here are some visualizations for the week. The first map shows the cryosphere (sea ice extent in October 2014 and permanent land ice) and global shipping activity in 2004. The second map shows the cryosphere and global flight activity. They’re not really meant to be useful so much as to provoke thought about different ways to visualize the poles and the earth itself. I’ve chosen to use a stereographic projection, which retains the highest accuracy at the poles. I’ve also decided not to include any cities (except for Nuuk, Greenland as a reference point) or land masses, since I am more interested in showing the connections and relations between areas of the globe.

A polar stereographic view of world shipping activity.

A polar stereographic view of global shipping activity. Nuuk is the orange dot.

This image shows all the world’s shipping activity from October 2004-2005. The data is provided by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. The Arctic actually has a fair amount of traffic compared to the oceans around Antarctica, where the main route is from Hobart, Tasmania down to the Australian Antarctic Division’s research station. This helps elucidate the differences between the Arctic and Antarctic, especially since many people think of them as one and the same.

Lots of ships sail across the North Atlantic, with a spur leading off to the southwest coast of Greenland. Shipping remains one of the most important ways to supply communities in the Arctic. Even though this mode of transportation can’t occur year-round in the region, shipping is still one of the cheapest means of moving items from one place to another. It’s much cheaper than flying on a global scale, certainly, but especially in the Arctic given the paucity of flight connections (as the next map shows). It’s also interesting to notice the few faint blue lines that cross the Arctic ice cap; some even go into Antarctica at the bottom, and I’m not sure why.

We can also see what happens when we project a map based on the poles: areas far away, like Australia, get massively distorted. The continent appears to be the size of Asia! It’s the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of the Greenland Problem.


A polar stereographic view of global flight activity. Nuuk is the orange dot.

This map demonstrates how the poles are actually quite cut off from the global air traffic network. A lot of flights cross over the Arctic ice cap, since the area provides a shortcut for planes travelling between Asia and North America.* (I’ve written about this topic previously in the context of Arctic search and rescue.)

The image also reminds us how difficult it remains to fly to many Arctic destinations. There aren’t too many blue lines that terminate in the circumpolar north. It is possible to see a little bright spot in the North Atlantic though, to the right of Greenland: that’s Iceland, which has turned into something of an air traffic hub for flights between North America and Europe in recent years.


* The global flight routes depicted are based on great circle distances, which find the shortest line between two points on the earth. A more realistic map of global flight activity would show routes more organized into virtual traffic lanes in the sky.