The area is very mountainous, as geologically Novaya Zemlya is the continuation of the Ural Mountains. It is separated from the mainland by the Kara Strait. The mountains reach a height of 1070 meters. The northern island contains many glaciers, while the southern one has a tundra climate. Natural resources include copper, lead and zinc.
The Russians knew of Novaya Zemlya from the 11th or 12th century, when traders from Novgorod visited the area. For western Europeans, the search for the Northeast passage in the 16th century led to its exploration. The first visit was by Hugh Willoughby in 1553. Willem Barentsz in 1596 rounded the north point of Novaya Zemlya, and wintered on the east coast near the northern tip. During this voyage the west coast was mapped.