The faces behind Arctic features

The Arctic landscape has many interesting features, many of which have names that derive from a range of languages. But who... or what... are they named after? Over the summer months, Bachelors student Annabel Flatland from Williams College in the USA joined Grace Shephard and the POLARIS project for an internship on Arctic geology and geophysics, and found out some of the origins behind a couple of the names along the way.

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Annabel during her stay in Norway

Volcanoes and churning seas and mountains, oh my! Located at the top of the world, the Arctic has captured the imagination of explorers and scientists alike. At the center of this polar region is the Arctic Ocean, a place peppered with unique features and perhaps somewhat unfamiliar names. Indeed, if you look at a map of the Arctic today, both above and below the icy water, you’ll find many story book sounding locations like the “Lomonsov Ridge” or “Gornych Hills.” What are some of these features, and where did their names come from?

Willem Barentsz’s Sea

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Just off the coast of mainland Norway and Russia, the Barents Sea is sometimes called “The Devil’s Dance Floor” by sailors. Indeed, its waters are rough and choppy, not unlike the Arctic adventures of its namesake. Willem Barentsz was a Dutch cartographer from the 1500s, known at the time for his keen navigational skills. He reasoned there must be a “northeast” passage through the Arctic, because the sun shines all day in the summer, so the farther north you go the less ice there will be. He took 3 voyages to find this passage: In the first he unsuccessfully tried to bring a polar bear home, in the second he turned back because the sea suddenly froze, and in the third he perished after the ship became stuck between ice floes. In addition to the sea, a protein in the molecular structure of the fruit fly is named in honor of the explorer.

The Chukchi’s Peninsula

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The Arctic may be a deadly destination for Dutch sailors like Barents, but the Chukchi have always called their region of northeastern Siberia home. Over time they’ve learned to adapt to the Arctic environment, even developing a unique breed of hardened reindeer who become plump whilst munching on moss during the short summer months. The Chukchi were first mentioned by the Russians in 1641, when Cossacks demanded yasak or “tribute” for the Tsar. When the Cossacks grew aggressive, the Chukchi responded with bows, spears, knives, and slingshots. This prompted the Tsar to declare that the “Chukchi pay yasak in the amount and quality which they determine themselves, according to their will.” Today, there are about 16,000 Chukchi living in the Arctic, and they are known for their traditional dances and ivory carvings. The Chukchi Peninsula, plateau, abyssal plain, mountains, and sea are named after the indigenous Chukchi people.

Mikhail Lomonsov’s Ridge

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Running through the middle of the Arctic Ocean, the Lomonosov Ridge is an 1800 km long submerged mountain range, ripped from the Barents Sea margin around 56 Million years ago when this part of the Arctic Ocean (the Eurasia Basin) formed. It is an important geopolitical feature because Canada, Denmark, and Russia claim that the ridge is a natural prolongation of their continental shelves, and have made claims for all, or part of it, to the  United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The fate of the territory may be decided in the decades to come, but the Lomonosov Ridge was named for Mikhail Lomonsov, the “Father of Russian Science.” When Mikhail was 19, he walked from his village in northern Russia to Moscow, and was admitted to the Slavic Greek Latin Academy by falsely claiming to be a Kholmogory nobleman. Despite humble beginnings, Mikhail advanced quickly, and was soon studying under famous Enlightenment period scholars such as Christian Wolff. In 1755, he helped found Moscow University, and in the following years he discovered the law of conservation of mass and the atmosphere of Venus. The Lomonosov Ridge, Lomonosov city, a lunar crater, a martian crater, and the 1379 asteroid, Lomonosova, are all named in his honor.

Maria Klenova’s Valley

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Snuggled between the Amerasian and Eurasian basins is the deep Klenova Valley. This valley is the only deepwater gateway between these basins, reaching 2750 m below sea level, and is aptly named after Maria Klenova who opened gateways into geology for many women in the 20th century. Early on, Klenova made groundbreaking work mapping the world below the Barents Sea, but her dream was to go to Antarctica. In the 1940s she tried to join scientific vessels, but was informed that her presence would prevent men from sharing “vulgar anecdotes.” Even whaling vessels wouldn’t let her on board. Finally, she approached the First Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, declaring, “I am not a woman, I am a Professor!” After this she was allowed on the Ob research vessel, and her work contributed significantly to the first Antarctic Atlas. Local newspapers called her “the old sea dog” and her expeditions attracted international attention. Today, Klenova Seamount near Brazil, Klenova Peak in Antarctica, and Klenova Crater on Venus are all named after her.

Zmey Gorynych’s Hills

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Who says sea monsters don’t exist? When scientists saw the three hills on the Knipovich Ridge off the east coast of Greenland, they imagined the heads of a sea serpent lurking beneath the depths. Or more specifically, Zmey Gorynych, a ferocious dragon-like creature from Russian fairy tales. Sometimes Gorynych had 3 heads, and sometimes 6, 9, or 12. The wiley reptile was known for turning into a handsome young man (to win the affection of unsuspecting humans), or kitchen tools, like brooms and oven forks (presumably with the alternative approach to blend in). Today, you can see Zmey Gorynych–or at least a 15 m tall sculpture of it–in Kudykina Gora Park in Russia. Nestled in between the park’s donkeys, rams, hippotherapy classes and various art objects, is a massive dragon whose 3 heads spew real flames on weekends and holidays. While Zmey Gorynych is an impressive attraction at amusement parks, so far scientists have not discovered the Gorynych Hills to be anything other than, well, hills on the seafloor. But then again, Zmey Gorynych is a master of escaping detection…

We would like to acknowledge that the idea for this blog post was inspired by a previous lecture as part of the course "A Changing Arctic" (ISSMN4030) by former CEED colleague Nina Lebedeva-Ivanova.

You can discover more features and naming origins at NOAA/GEBCO


By Annabel Flatland
Published Sep. 1, 2022 10:00 AM - Last modified Sep. 1, 2022 10:47 AM
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The CEED blog covers some behind-the-scenes about our latest research and activities. The contributors are a mix of students and staff from The Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics, Dept. of Geosciences, University of Oslo, Norway.