Beginning of environmental scientific cooperation between Norway and Russia in 1992

Beginning of environmental scientific cooperation between Norway and Russia in 1992

Looking back: Norway’s relations with its neighboring superpower to the east have often been strained. In this article, Salve Dahle and his co-authors give an eyewitness account of the period immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, when cross-border tensions began to ease.

By: Salve Dahle, Lars-Henrik Larsen and Alexei Bambulyak // Akvaplan-niva

Early in the morning of July 30, 1992, I woke up in my cabin aboard the RV Dalnie Zelentsy. We had entered a narrow fjord at the southern end of Novaya Zemlya on a foggy night, seeing nothing.

Eager to see what nature was like in this legendary “Cold War” archipelago, I peeked out of my little porthole. Through the mist, my gaze fell on a large warship that had run aground and lay on its side, guns pointed skyward.

Along the beach, scrap metal, logs and debris filled the rest of my view.

When the fog lifted, an arctic tundra and mountainous landscape in all its summer beauty was revealed, but with great scars from its history of being the Soviet Union’s northern center for nuclear testing.
I understood that we had arrived in Guba Chernaya, and that my colleague Lars-Henrik Larsen and I, together with our Russian partners, were about to make history.

Background – Historical Changes

With hindsight, it is difficult to understand that for several decades during the Cold War there was almost no cooperation between Norway and the USSR. The Kirkenes border was essentially closed. The long-standing and prosperous trade and social exchanges across the border known as the Pomor trade came to an abrupt end after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

The only ongoing cooperation between Norway and the Soviet Union during the Cold War years was in fisheries management, based on agreements from the 1950s and 1970s.


During the 1980s, rumors of environmental disasters in Siberia abounded in the Western press. In Kirkenes people demonstrated against the ‘clouds of death’ from the nickel smelters just across the border, and there was great fear that pollution, oil and radioactivity could be transported with the Siberian rivers in the Arctic Ocean and the rich fishing grounds of the Barent Sea.

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The famous 1987 speech in Murmansk by Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev launched the processes that ended the Cold War and the subsequent fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe. As part of development, Arctic countries have taken their first steps towards cooperation to gain a better understanding of the Arctic environment. In December 1991, scientists from Arctic countries met in Tromsø to agree on priority contaminants and study protocols.

Original 1992 map showing the nuclear test sites and dump sites of Novaya Zemlya. Map: Polish Academy of Sciences, Sopot, and Murmansk Institute of Marine Biology, Russian Academy of Sciences, Murmansk

The Tromsø meeting launched the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme. AMAP eventually became one of the working groups of the Arctic Council, which was established in 1996. AMAP’s ability to organize work in the Arctic was essential, and the guidelines of the AMAP for sampling and scientific analyzes were crucial to enable comparison of results across borders and to understand the effects of long-range transported pollutants.

Landing in Guba Chernaya to collect land samples for contaminant analysis. Photo: Salve Dahle/Akvaplan-niva

The beginning of a new era

Our trip in July 1992 was the first expedition including scientists from Western countries on a Russian ship in Russian seas after World War II.

To emphasize the importance of the undertaking, the expedition was led by the director of the Murmansk Marine Biological Institute (MMBI) of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Dr. Gennady Matishov. In addition to the Akvaplan-niva scientists, three Norwegian ornithologists and two representatives of the oil company Amoco took part in this “complex” expedition, alongside 15 researchers from the MMBI.

Landing in Guba Chernaya. Photo: MMBI

The team’s mission was to study marine biodiversity and establish the level of various contaminants of concern: heavy metals, petroleum hydrocarbons and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Our colleagues at MMBI also took samples for analyzes of artificial radionuclides. The expedition collected sediment samples along the Kola Coast, across the Pechora Sea, in the fjords of Novaya Zemlya and in the deep trough south of the archipelago.

The sampling also included sediments from nuclear waste dumps. The illegal dumping by the Soviets of nuclear waste in Russian waters had just been revealed by the “White Books” published by the scientist Alexey Yablokov, in the service of President Boris Yeltsin.

Sampling of bottom sediments for analysis of contaminants. Photo: Gunn Karin Karlsen/Akvaplan-niva

What we learned

This was the first of several joint Akvaplan-niva and MMBI expeditions. In the years that followed, Akvaplan-niva researchers and Russian colleagues traveled across the Norwegian and Russian European Arctic, visiting Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, Svalbard, military ports and commercial areas around Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, and the Kara Sea, into which the huge Ob and Yenisey rivers flow. At many sites visited, this was the first time that Russian and Western scientific teams had collaborated.

The joint work represented a major contribution to the AMAP reports and demonstrated that pollutant concentrations in the Russian Arctic were no higher than in other Arctic locations. The alarming environmental picture painted around the breakup of the Soviet Union could not be supported by our findings. There were, however, “hot spots” connected to ports and military installations, as well as nuclear test and dump sites. For example, the concentration of radioactive pollution in Guba Chernaya measured in 1992 was among the highest ever observed in the marine environment of the world. However, our study also showed that the high levels were in the deepest parts of the fjord. Concentrations south of the archipelago were within the ranges found elsewhere in the Barents Sea.

RV Dalnie Zelentsy


The nearly four-week 1992 trip aboard the RV Dalnie Zelentsy was an adventure in many ways. We worked alongside scientists who were experienced but unfamiliar with their previous work, and vice versa. There were language problems: English-speaking Russian scientists were almost non-existent at the time (although several spoke German or French) and our Russian skills were sketchy.

Nonetheless, we bonded for life. In a situation like today, with growing tensions between Russia and Western countries, it is important to remember this. Friendship also motivates us to strive to continue the important cross-border scientific cooperation, which in itself helps to ease tensions across borders.

This story is originally published on the Fram Center website

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