For the world’s northernmost archipelago – sitting around 900km from the North Pole –  Franz Josef Land is a long way from any form of civilisation. In fact, the archipelago (part of the Russian Arctic National Park) is close to 3,000km away from Moscow – highlighting just how isolated the region is.

Despite this, Franz Josef Land has seen its fair share of history over the centuries and has been an important strategic point for conflict during war time. So, before you hop onto the Franz Josef Land Explorer, let the team at Aurora Expeditions share a few of the secret historic moments that have shaped the archipelago over time.

Austro-Hungarian expedition

Exploration around the North Pole was extremely limited during the 18th and early 19th centuries due to heavy ice shelves and ship design. However, as technology improved as well as the appetite for seal, more ships headed north – discovering various island groups near the North Pole.

Although there were countless Norwegian sealing vessels fishing in the Franz Josef Land area around the 1860s, the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition of 1872-74 is credited with the discovery of the archipelago. Aboard the schooner Tegetthoff, Austria-Hungary explorers Julius von Payer and Karl Weyprecht wanted to find the allusive north-east passage and be one of the first groups to reach the North Pole.

Drifting in the strong Arctic Ocean currents, the ship locked onto a new landmass which the pair aptly named Franz Josef after the Emperor of Austria (Franz Joseph I). This discovery led the expedition to many more islands in the archipelago which helped plot the chain on maps.

Over the next 60 years, there were up to six more expeditions to and around Franz Josef Land. Some expeditions had fishing and hunting in mind, others to reach the North Pole. Of course, several others wanted to further document the archipelago – discovering new inlets, harbours, islands – eventually setting up camps and huts for further research efforts in the future.

1926 – incoming Soviet Union

In the opening paragraph we mentioned that Franz Josef Land was part of the Russian Arctic National Park, but haven’t mentioned Moscow at all in its discovery. Well, this is quite the story.

Despite the Austro-Hungarian North Pole Expedition, no country had officially claimed the land as its own (something very common at the time). As such, after several expeditions between 1923 and 1926, the Soviet Union declared its annexation of all land located between its mainland and the North Pole. This certainly wasn’t without anyone noticing. Norway was concerned about its right to access ripe seal and whale hunting grounds, while Italy had inherited Triest, the city where the Austro-Hungarian expedition set off from.

When tourism calls – 1990 onwards

Protests from both countries were quite passive, with Norway continuing to establish meteorological stations on Franz Josef Land for a number of years. Russia had begun to do the same and this was soon the reason behind the Soviet’s decision to ask Norway to respect its territorial waters. To this end, no Western expedition ventured to Franz Josef Land between 1930 and 1990 as the Soviet Union displayed more dominance in the region, especially during World War II.

So, what changed? After more than half a century of Russian ownership, there were international calls for expeditions to Franz Josef Land to restart. This led to a venture between the Academy of Sciences, the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Polish Academy of Sciences which represented the first non-Russian expedition for over 50 years.

After this time, we saw more tourism to the region – with tourists even visiting old Russian military bases and stations around the archipelago. Over time, Russia has also begun to work with other nations to establish national parks and to protect the natural environment.

Franz Josef Land has had a colourful history – come see it for yourself on an exploration with Aurora Expeditions. For more information, get in touch with our team today.


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