EarthArt: A New Fractal Mystery

By Tom Yulsman | February 25, 2013 10:55 am

Drainages make a fractal pattern in this satellite image accessed with Google Earth. Can you guess where it is? (Image: © 2011 Google)

Update: We have a winner! Ron Broberg correctly identified this landscape as being on Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago off Russia’s northern coast. In his answer, Ron even posted a link to a Google Maps satellite image showing the exact location. Check the end of this post for an overview map showing Novaya Zemla, as well as some fascinating information about this remote place. It served an important military purpose for the Soviet Union…

Being the remote sensing geek that I am, I often explore satellite images, looking for cool patterns and other features in nature. One that frequently catches my eye are fractals.

In a recent post, I featured the amazing fractal drainage pattern cut into the sediments along the Platte River in Nebraska. Today, I offer up another fractal drainage pattern.

As before, it is a screenshot of a satellite image I accessed using Google Earth. Can you guess where it is? I’ll give only one hint: If you are guessing Alaska because of the glaciers, you’re incorrect. This feature is not in the United States.

For those new to the concept of a fractal, it is a pattern that is self-similar across many different scales. In the image above, you’ll notice that the very smallest branches of the drainages look pretty much the same as the very largest ones.

So, launch Google Earth, explore the globe, and try to figure out where in the world this is. Leave your answers below. And I’ll come back later to declare a winner!

Novaya Zemlya is an archipelago off Russia’s northern coast. The location of the fractal drainages pictured in the image at the top of this post is marked here with the red pushpin. (Image: © 2011 Google)

The fractal drainages seen in the image at the top of this post are located in Novaya Zemlya. The archipelago consists of two main islands, and the drainages are on the northern one. Geologically, Novaya Zemlya is an extension of the Ural mountains.

During the Cold War, Novaya Zemlya was vitally important militarily for the Soviet Union, serving as a site for testing of nuclear weapons. Here’s an excerpt from a report by Columbia University and USGS researchers on the remarkable amount of testing that went on there:

At Novaya Zemlya (Russian for “New Land”), a total of 130 tests were carried out high in the atmosphere, at low levels above water, at the water/air interface, below water, and underground. These 130 tests entailed 224 separate explosive devices, including by far the largest atmospheric and underground tests of the Soviet Union, and that country’s only tests above and below water. About 265 megatons of nuclear explosive energy was released at Novaya Zemlya from 1955 to 1990, in some of the most extreme environments to be found anywhere on Earth. Contamination by radionuclides is apparent at some locations there today.

  • Liam Proven

    Greenland somewhere, I am betting. More than that, I cannot say. It’s quite a big place even in Gall-Peters Projection.

  • Michael McConnell

    I would have to agree with Liam. I looked at both Norway and Iceland, I don’t see anything similar.

    • Michael McConnell

      Also, looked at Chilean fjords — didn’t see anything similar. (Spent all of 5min on it….)

  • henry


  • Jeremy

    Receding glacier? Perhaps, Iceland?

  • Ishmael

    Ellesmere Island in Northern Canada is my guess.

  • Ron Broberg
    • Tom Yulsman

      Most excellent! How did you get it?

      • Ron Broberg

        Like most things – trained intuition. Been staring at a lot of google maps for other purposes. Like most here, I recognized glaciers and a fjord-like coast. Used that and the strongly striated landforms plus the reddish tints for clues. Checked the Canadian arctic archipelago first. Looked like the right terrain, but I couldn’t match the interior lake features. Tried Antarctica next and thought I had a hit on the Kergulen but still no match on the lake. So off I went to the Russian Arctic to see what I could see …

        • Tom Yulsman

          Awesome! I’ll be doing more of these regularly, so check back. I think I may need to make it harder next time…

  • Doug Lucchetti

    My guess is somewhere on Ellesmeere or Baffin Island

  • Tom Yulsman

    We have a winner! Ron Broberg nailed it. It is, indeed, Novaya Zemlya. I’m going to post an update showing exactly where it is from.

  • hobova

    These are fun and educational.

    • Tom Yulsman

      I’ll keep doing them!

  • Maritza Diaz

    I love The Sciences of The Cosmos! !!



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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