The Novosibirsk archipelago: mystery lands of mammoths


The Novosibirsk Islands Arctic Desert ecoregion is an extreme north archipelago shrouded in mystery and legend. Also known as the New Siberian Islands, the island chain is the natural border between Laptev and East Siberian Seas. The archipelago comprises three groups of islands: the Anzhu Islands, the De Long Islands, and the Lyakhovsky Islands. Yakov Permyakov was the first to record the existence of the Novosibirsk Islands during his 1712 expedition from the Lena River to the Kolyma River. Permyakov discovered the island now known as the Great Lyakhovsky Island. Between 1821 and1823, Pyotr Anjou explored the other part of the archipelago, later named after him, in depth. In 1879-1881, the De Long Islands were discovered by American explorer George W. De Long. Some remote islands of the archipelago were discovered in the 20th century.

The Novosibirsk Islands are covered with Arctic moss and lichen, with spots of yellow poppy, buttercups, whitlow grass, rockfoil, and other flowers.
The islands’ animal life includes reindeer, polar foxes, lemmings, polar bears, snow owls and willow grouse. In summer, ducks, geese, and waders can be seen wander around there. The islands are composed of permafrost alternating with soil, and the global warming of the last few decades has led to the melting of ice and the contraction of firm ground. Scientists believe that the coastline of these islands has been shrinking. Konstantin Zaitsev, Vice President of the Association of Polar Explorers, who headed a 2012 integrated expedition that studied the current state of the Novosibirsk Islands explained that the disintegration is caused by the thawing of permafrost, which leads to soil subsidence and landslides. Soil is washed into the sea and the islands are contracting.

Like many other Arctic territories, the Novosibirsk Islands are of immense historical, scientific, and cultural importance. The archipelago is known as the land of mammoths, the world`s largest placers of mammoth bone whose remains are still scattered in abundance in recent beaches, drainage areas, river terraces and riverbeds across the islands. On the island of Zhokhov, which is a part of the New Siberian Islands archipelago, a campsite for people of the Stone Age (about 7 thousand years ago) was found, the northernmost known site of an ancient man. Originally it was these mammoth tusks that attracted people to these far-off frigid lands. Of course, there were other big animals there aside from mammoths. Excavations revealed the bones of horses, saiga antelopes, and buffalo. These abundant bones, even skeletons of megafauna along with the mammoth ivory found in these islands are preserved by permafrost, in which they are encased. The permafrost periodically developed in Late Pleistocene loess, solifluction, pond, and stream sediments as they accumulated. The radiocarbon dating of bones, ivory, and plants, optically stimulated luminescence dating of enclosing sediments, and uranium-thorium dating of associated peats demonstrate that they accumulated over a period of some 200,000 years. Radiocarbon dates obtained from the collagen of 87 mammoth tusks and bones collected from Faddeevsky, Kotelniy, and New Siberia islands ranged from 9470±40 BP to greater than 50,000 BP.

Scientists believe that the islands were part of a big continent, Arctida, which could have had a totally different climate. They have a lot of theories regarding climate change regarding the Arctic. It was once a blossoming land. All excavations and animal remain confirm that it was not always covered in ice throughout its history. The reindeer could have reached it over ice, they will not go somewhere if there is only an ice desert ahead, but they would go somewhere only if they knew they could find food or if they are driven there by humans. In fact, animal bones are not the only things that have been unearthed from the permafrost. People have found the seeds of Pleistocene plants (the Quaternary period that lasted from 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago), grasses that are more characteristic of steppe vegetation rather than the Arctic tundra. These grasses grow on low hills formed by a melting ice stratum. Ancient plants that big Arctic animals could have grazed on come to the surface as ice melts and soil subsidence progresses.   

the Novosibirsk Islands is where the legend locates the mysterious Sannikov Land. In the early 19th century, merchant and trapper Yakov Sannikov reported that he had seen vast lands north of Kotelny Island. Numerous expeditions have sought to find these lands ever since, often at the cost of human life. An expedition led by Lieut. Pyotr Anjou fruitlessly looked for Sannikov Land in the 1820s. Russian geologist and Arctic explorer Baron Eduard von Toll devoted many years of his life to the search. In 1900, he went to the Novosibirsk Islands on board the Zarya as a member of a Russian polar expedition. The expedition failed to find Sannikov Land even though it managed to carry out a comprehensive study of that part of the Arctic. Moreover, Baron von Toll was lost without a trace during the exploration survey. Geologist and writer Vladimir Obruchev used the story as the plot of his novel, Sannikov Land, or the Last of the Onkilons, which was published in 1926. The novel describes a warm wooded territory populated by the Onkilon tribe. A movie based on the novel was released in the 1970s. Sannikov Land has not been found, but there is a theory that it did exist. Vitaly Stepanov of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute suggested that it was an island made of soil and ice that melted. According to polar scientist Vasily Burkhanov, Sannikov Land was a drifting ice island.

Despite a rich history of exploration, the New Siberian Islands have yet to be fully explored. The area of this archipelago is one of the most remote and difficult-to-access parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Although some 10 to 15 expeditions worked in this area in the second half of the last century, it could be said that almost none of them produced results which contributed to understanding of the late Quaternary history of this part of the world. In the Soviet period, the islands housed a number of polar stations that conducted regular research. But today the stations are abandoned. Now that the North Sea Route is growing in importance as a transport artery, the archipelago is begging to be explored. The archipelago is one of the key points because it is practically in the middle of the North Sea Route. Studying how the islands were formed and melted could lift the veil over the future, not only in the Arctic but also the world over. Scientists also believe that a conduct full-scale investigation for many years is needed. There are solar activity cycles that affect climate change, but it can only be studied with the help of long-term monitoring.

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