Franz Josef Land

Franz Josef Land (Земля Франца Иосифа/Zemlja Frantsa Iosifa) is an extensive archipelago of 191 islands located in the northeast Barents Sea region of the Arctic Ocean. They are situated 360km north from the islands of Novaya Zemlya, 470 km west from Severnaya Zemlya and around 1,000 km south from the geographic North Pole. The islands form the northernmost regions of the European Arctic and are bound by the waters of the open Arctic Ocean to the north, the Barents Sea to the south and by the Kara Sea to the southeast.

In all, there are 6 main islands — Prinz Georg Land (2,741 km²), Wilczek Land (2,054 km²), Graham Bell Island (1,709 km²), Alexandra Land (1,051 km²), Salisbury Island, and Hall Island — and 20 medium-sized islands. The remaining 135 islands are all small (accounting for less than half of one percent of the archipelago's area) and bring the total landmass of the group to 16,134 km². Terrain on the islands consists of elevated tablelands and low hills — reaching their highest point of 620 m above sea level on the island of Wiener Neustadt.

Most of the islands are extensively glaciated — up to 85% of the archipelago's landmass is permanently covered in ice — with an average ice thickness in the region of 180 m. The largest ice mass is found on Graham Bell Island (the large island on the extreme right-side of the above image), where the Windy Dome Ice Cap (Kupol Vyetreniy) reaches a depth of over 500 m and rises to 580 m. Glaciers on the islands of the Franz Josef Archipelago are currently in a state of retreat. Large areas of the main islands and their coastal margins remain ice-free however. For much of the year the surrounding sea waters are also frozen over, only becoming at their most ice-free in July (when the above image was taken) and August.

Climatic conditions on the islands are not as severe as their latitude would indicate — weather systems moving in from the North Atlantic help to ameliorate the climate somewhat. Winters are severe however, with average temperatures in the region of -25 to -30° C. During the brief summer daily maximums are between 0 and 2°C.

Despite the harsh conditions, the islands are ecologically important and are home to important populations of Walrus, Arctic Fox and Polar Bear. Bird species with regionally important colonies include: Little Auk (Alle alle), Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle), Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) and Thick-billed Murre (Uria lomvia).

image: MODIS rapid response project at nasa/goddard space flight center