Victoria Island - Franz-Josef-Land

Victoria Islandl (more detailed scale than with the other islands). Red: ice area lost during the last 50 years by increased calving and melting.

General, scenery:
Victoria Island, with an area of only about 10 km² (maximal diameter ca. 5 km), is the westernmost and loneliest outpost of Franz-Josef-Land: to Alexandra Land in the east, the distance is about 170 km. To the west, Kvitøya (White Island) as the easternmost island of the Spitsbergen archipelago, is with a distance of 60 km considerably closer and visible under clear conditions. Also by underwater seabottom profile, Victoria belongs rather to Spitsbergen than to Franz-Josef-Land. Even in summer, the island just above the 80th parallel is usually surrounded by driftice, which is moving with wind and currents.
Victoria is covered almost completely by an icecap, which reaches up to 100 m above sea level in its middle and ends in an impressive ice wall to the south, resting on the sea bottom under the water line. Accordingly, the saltwater gnaws on it increasingly with rising water temperature, causing increased calving: during the last decades, the souther ice edge of Victoria has retreated by about 500 m (red marked area on the map) - a process which will come to a halt only when the base of the ice will have retreated onto solid ground above the water line. Snow accumulation on the little area of the island is limited and cannot balance the increasing losses of ice. In a longer perspective, Victoria is likely to lose its ice cap completely.

Victoria from South.
The eastern end (right) of Victoria from south,
... and the steep calving front of the icecap to the south.
to the West, the ice cap ends on an icefree, flat promontory.

In the Northwest, the situation is different: here, flat Cape Knipovich is pointing out of the ice since more than hundred years already and along the whole northern coast, the rim of the ice cap lays on or above the water line, thus being less threatened by melting by saltwater. Contrary to the steep ice cliffs in the south, the ice cap rises only gently from the northern shore towards the center of the island. From Cape Knipovich towards the other icefree promontory at the westernmost tip, the glacier ice has retreated above the water line, with a narrow beach zone now stretching between sea and ice cap. With further withdrawal, the same is about to happen also all the way along the northern shore from Cape Knipovich to the easternmost part of the island and the center of the ice cap is losing thickness and thereby height, as well.




History: Due to the little distance from the Spitsbergen archipelago, Victoria might have been spotted already by the whalers of early 17th century, operating also in the eastern Spitsbergen waters. However, Victoria may have remained also unseen: with a possibly much smaller, or even no ice cap at that time, the island might be very low and small, and accordingly difficult to discover. The increasing Little Iceage then hindered navigation in these remote waters by much more sea ice for 200 years, and may have brought about also a considerable growth of the icecap of Victoria both in thickness and extension.
The next sightings may have occurred by norwegian hunting boats from the middle of 19th century onwards, which reached the most distant parts of the Spitsbergen archipelago by 1865, but had a tendency to keep their new discoveries to themselves in order not to invite competition. The first documented sightings are both from summer 1898: both by the Norwegians  Johannes Nilsen and Ludvig Bernard Sebulonsen, and by captain Nilsen of the pleasure yacht VICTORIA of the English excentric and friend of the Arctic, Arnold Pike. Over the following decades, the island was repeatedly visited by mostly norwegian hunting vessels.
In 1926, the Soviet Union made a general claim on all waters and territories north of Russia, including also Victoria, but without any landing.
Landings are known for 1925 by the British Arctic Expedition and in 1928 by the HOBBY and the russian icebreaker SEDOV. A norwegian attempt in 1929 to annex the island failed due to ice conditions. In 1930, a norwegian party on the sealer BRATVAAG went ashore on Cape Knipovich as the only at that time possible ice-free piece of land, erecting a cairn with a private annexation message and dropping materials for the construction of a small cabin. In 1932, the Soviet Union annected the island formally during the KNIPOVICH Expedition (leader: Prof. Zubov) - considerably later than the Franz-Josef-Land archipelago otherwise - by landing on Cape Knipovich and raising the Soviet flag there on August 29th, 1932.
Inspite of the official closure of Franz-Josef-Land by the Soviet Union for foreign vessels, at least Victoria is likely to have had secret visitors also later, especially by Norwegian hunters, due to the closeness to Spitsbergen and the difficulty of controlling these remote waters. Reports on such secret landings exist until even after World War II.
During the Cold War, a Soviet military weather and radio station was in operation on Cape Knipowich, including a radio mast on the highest point of the ice cap, and some anti-air light guns. The station was given up in 1994 in the wake of the turmoil in Russia after the end of the Soviet Union. Since then, the island is populated only by birds, resting walrusses and occasionally patroling polar bears, also in the decaying station.


Tourism: Victoria ranks certainly among the most exotic places in the European Arctic: a tiny island with an impressive looking icecap when looked at from south, far away in the nowhere of drifting ice, with good chances for observing walrusses, possibly polar bears, and quite likely ivory gulls. The given-up station is an experience in itself: crammed between shoreline and the rising icecap, besieged by walrusses and explored more often by polar bears than tourists. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been hardly more than 5 touristic landings on Victoria, as the island is often surrounded by heavy driftice and the distance to the other parts of Franz-Josef-Land is long. Usually, access is easiest in August and September.

Victoria, evening view from distant south.
Victoria from Northeast - station to the right, on top of the icecap as a little dot the radio mast.

Last Modification: 18.02.2013