News Archive

posted 12/01/05

Soviet Union Conducted 130 Nuclear Tests in Remote Arctic Location, Study Says

Information available since the end of the cold war combined with existing seismic records enabled scientists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct the most comprehensive study ever made of the extent of Soviet nuclear testing at Novaya Zemlya (shown above), an archipelago above the Arctic Circle. Map courtesy of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies

The Soviet Union conducted 130 underwater, atmospheric and underground nuclear tests in a remote archipelago above the Arctic Circle over a period of 35 years, according to a comprehensive study done by scientists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the U.S. Geological Survey. Some of these tests involved multiple explosions.

In all, 224 nuclear devices were detonated by the Soviet Union from 1955 to 1990, amounting to 265 megatons of explosive energy. By comparison, there were two megatons of total energy detonated over the course of World War II, including the August 1945 detonations of two U.S. nuclear bombs over Japan.

Co-author Paul Richards, a seismologist at Lamont-Doherty and a professor of seismology at Columbia University, says that one of the main goals of the study was to document the course of modern weapons development.

"This is an extraordinary aspect of modern civilization," Richards says. "It’s what it took for the U.S.S.R. to become a nuclear superpower."

Their findings appeared in a recent issue of the journal Science and Global Security.

The tests were conducted in one of the of the most remote places on Earth – the mountainous, wind-swept Russian archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, which was also the site of the Soviet Union's largest most powerful underground test. On September 12, 1973, four nuclear devices with a total yield of 4.2 megatons were detonated on the northernmost island. The explosion had a seismic magnitude of 6.97 and triggered an 80 million-ton rockslide that blocked two glacial streams and created a two kilometer-long lake.

Construction of the test site, including relocation of more than 500 members of the indigenous population, began in 1954 after the Soviet Union determined that its test site in Kazakhstan was too close to human settlements to carry out large nuclear explosions.

Read full story: Frozen in Time: A Cold War Relic Gives up its Secrets

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is the world's leading academic center for the integrated study of Earth, its environment and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines — earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences — and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world's poor. For more information, visit