Kuril Islands

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Kuril Islands

Kuril Islands (kyo͝orˈēl, ko͝orēlˈ) or Kuriles (kyo͝orˈēlz, kyo͝orēlzˈ), Jap. Chishima-Retto, Rus. Kurilskiye Ostrova, island chain, c.6,020 sq mi (15,590 sq km), Sakhalin region, E Russia. They stretch c.775 mi (1,250 km) between S Kamchatka Peninsula and NE Hokkaido, Japan, and separate the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. There are 30 large and numerous small islands; Iturup is the largest. Atlasova volcano (7,674 ft/2,339 m) on Atlasova Island is the highest point of the chain. The islands are mainly of volcanic origin. Active volcanoes are present and earthquakes are frequent. The low temperature, high humidity, and persistent fog make the islands unpleasant for human habitation. There are, however, communities engaged in sulfur mining, hunting, and fishing. Significant deposits of petroleum, magnesium, titanium, and rhenium have been identified.

In the 18th cent. both Russians and Japanese claimed the islands (they are still known in Japan as the Northern Territories). In 1875, Japan gave up Sakhalin in return for Russian withdrawal from the Kuriles, and the Japanese held the islands until the end of World War II. The Yalta Conference ceded the islands to the USSR, and Soviet forces occupied the chain in Sept., 1945. Japan has challenged the Soviet (after 1991, Russian) right to the Kuriles, and demanded the return of the four southernmost islands, which had been treated as part of Hokkaido prior to World War II. The failure to resolve the impasse has been a major stumbling block in Russo-Japanese relations since the end of the war, leading at times to tensions.

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Kuril Islands


an archipelago separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean and extending from the Island of Hokkaido (Japan) to the Kamchatka Peninsula (USSR). The more than 30 large islands and numerous small islands and rocks, with a total area of 15,600 sq km, are part of Sakhalin Oblast of the RSFSR.

The archipelago consists of two parallel chains of islands (the summits of underwater ranges), known as the Greater Kuril Chain, stretching for 1,200 km, and the Lesser Kuril Chain, rimming the western end of the Greater Kurils for 120 km and separated from them by the South Kuril strait. The islands are separated by the Kuril straits. The deep Kruzenshtern and Boussole straits divide the Greater Chain into a northern group, comprising the islands of Shumshu, Alaid, Paramushir, Shirinki, Makanrushi, Avos’, Onekotan, Kharimkotan, Chirinkotan, Ekarma, Shiashkotan, and the Lovushki reefs; a central group, consisting of Raikoke, Matua, Rasshua, the Srednii and Ushishir island groups, Ketoi, and Simushir; and a southern group, including Brouton, Chernye Brat’ia, Urup, Iturup, and Kunashir. Every island is a volcano, a fragment of a volcano, or a chain of volcanoes either joined by foothills or separated by low-lying isthmuses. The Greater Chain is composed chiefly of volcanic and volcanic-detrital strata. The most ancient rocks, the Cretaceous formations on the Lesser Kurils, are crushed into comparatively simple folds broken by faults. The structures of contemporary volcanoes lie unconformably on these rocks. In the Greater Chain are 160 volcanoes that have been active in the Anthropogenic period, including 104 that have been active in the Holocene. The lavas contain xenoliths of metamorphic rocks (amphibolites, pyroxene-amphibolite, crystalline shales), which apparently make up the base of the islands. Mineral resources include deposits of sulfur, hot springs, and ore manifestations of mercury, copper, tin, and gold. There are frequent, sometimes powerful, earthquakes.

The terrain is mountainous, with elevations of 500–1,000 m; the maximum elevation is 2,339 m (Mt. Alaid). Only Shumshu and the flat islands of the Lesser Kuril Chain are plains. The coasts are mostly steep or terraced, with the exception of the isthmuses, where they are low and sandy. There are few sheltered inlets.

The climate is moderately cool and monsoonal. The average temperature of the coldest month, February, is –6° to 7°C, although winter temperatures may fall to –25°C. August temperatures range from 10°C in the north to 17°C in the south. Annual precipitation may total as much as 1,000 mm in the south and about 600 mm in the north. Winter snowfall accounts for 25 percent of the precipitation. The cold Kuril current cools the islands, especially the northern and central sections of the archipelago and the Pacific slopes of the southern islands, contributing to the formation of prolonged, low-lying fogs. The slopes of the southern islands facing the Sea of Okhotsk are heated by the warm Soya current, and in the summer there is less fog here. The winter monsoon and polar-front cyclones bring frequent snowstorms and gales. The greatest number of sunny days are in the fall, but especially strong typhoons, with gales and hurricane winds also occur at this time.

The large islands are dissected by numerous rivers and streams, some of them mineralized. There are many lakes, including crater lakes dammed up by lavas and lagoon lakes. Some small islands have no fresh springs.

Soils are chiefly soddy, meadow, and alluvial. In the forests the soils are slightly podzolic, with a large admixture of volcanic material.

There are 992 known species of flowering and vascular cryptogamic plants on the Kuril Islands, including 43 species of trees, 93 of shrubs and semishrubs, nine of lianas, five of bamboo, and 842 of herbaceous plants. Of these, 26 species are native. The flora of the northern islands and some of the central islands is similar to that of Kamchatka, consisting of alder and mountain ash woodlands, dwarf Siberian pine, and Empetrum nigrum. On Ketoi and to the south, woodlands of elfin birch and Kuril bamboo are prevalent, and at higher elevations are woodlands of dwarf Siberian pine and alder. This type of flora is also characteristic of some of the southern islands (Urup, Medvezhii Peninsula on Iturup Island). In the southwest grow sprucefir and broad-leaved forests with lianas and bamboo thickets, similar to the mixed forests on Hokkaido. Here are also sparse woodlands of Kuril larch. Meadows and swamps predominate on the flat islands of the Lesser Chain.

The fauna of the northeastern part of the island arc is similar to that of the Kamchatka Peninsula, and the fauna of the southwestern islands is much like that on Hokkaido. The islands are inhabited by bears, ermine, foxes (dark brown and red), and Siberian chipmunks. Birds are numerous, particularly sea birds, living in colonies on the reefs. The sea and rivers abound in fish, including fish of the salmon family. Marine animals such as the ringed seal and Steller’s sea lion are numerous, and occasionally fur seals and sea otters are encountered.

The chief occupations of the inhabitants are fishing and, in the southwest, also logging. There is a fish-processing industry. The main cities are Kuril’sk and Severo-Kuril’sk.

The first information about the Kuril Islands was provided in 1697 by the Russian explorer V. V. Atlasov. In 1745 most of the Kuril Islands appeared on the General Map of the Russian Empire in the Academy Atlas. The islands were studied in the 18th century and early 19th by D. Ia. Antsiferov, I. P. Kozyrevskii, I. M. Evreinov, F. F. Luzhin, M. Shpanberg, I. F. Kruzenshtern, and V. M. Golovnin. By the Russo-Japanese Treaty of 1855, all the Kuril Islands north of Iturup were declared Russian possessions. By the Russo-Japanese Treaty of 1875, Russia ceded 18 of the islands to Japan, which in turn recognized Russia’s sovereignty over the Island of Sakhalin. The islands were under Japanese rule from 1875 to 1945. At the Crimean Conference during the Great Patriotic War (1941–45), the Kuril Islands were transferred to the USSR. The islands were liberated from the Japanese by the Soviet Army in 1945 during the Kuril Landing Operation. By the Peace Treaty of San Francisco (1951), Japan renounced all claims and rights to the islands.


Geologiia SSSR, vol. 31, part 1. Moscow-Leningrad, 1964.
Efremov, lu. K. Kuril’skoe ozherel’e. Moscow, 1962.
Korsunskaia, G. V. Kuril’skaia ostrovnaia duga: Fiziko-geograficheskii ocherk. Moscow, 1958.
Gorshkov, G. S. Vulkanizm Kuril’skoi ostrovnoi dugi. Moscow, 1967. Atlas Sakhalinskoi oblasti. Moscow, 1967.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.