Can you really see Russia from Alaska?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 15 2008 5:25 PM

Can You Really See Russia From Alaska?

Yes, but only the boring parts.

Russia and Alaska. Click image to expand.
Neighbors Russia and Alaska

In her Sept. 11 interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson, Sarah Palin had this to say about Russia: "They're our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska." Is that true?

Yes. Russia and Alaska are divided by the Bering Strait, which is about 55 miles at its narrowest point. In the middle of the Bering Strait are two small, sparsely populated islands: Big Diomede, which sits in Russian territory, and Little Diomede, which is part of the United States. At their closest, these two islands are a little less than two and a half miles apart, which means that, on a clear day, you can definitely see one from the other. The Diomede Islands are often blanketed by persistent fog, which makes visibility difficult. On a clear day, though, a person standing at sea level can see a little less than three miles across the ocean. You can see farther if you go higher—at the highest altitude on Little Diomede (919 feet), you can see for about 37 miles. (Between mid-December and mid-June, when the water between the two islands freezes, an intrepid explorer can just walk from one to the other.)

The tactical importance of this proximity is debatable, however:Big Diomede has no permanent population though it does house an important weather station. Alaskans can, however, see into the future from Little Diomede since Big Diomede (or Ratmanov Island, as it's known to the Russians) is on the other side of the International Date Line.

You can also see Russia from other points in Alaska. According to a New York Times article written in the waning years of the Cold War (when the Alaska-Siberia border was known as the "Ice Curtain"), if you stand on high ground on the tip of St. Lawrence Island—a larger Alaskan island in the Bering Sea, southwest of the Diomedes—you can see the Russian mainland, about 37 miles away. The same article claims that you can see Russia from the Tin City Air Force facility at Cape Prince of Wales, which is the westernmost point of the mainland Americas.The station chief at Tin City confirms that, for roughly half the year, you can see Siberian mountain ranges from the highest part of the facility.

It's not as if Alaskans can see into the heart of the Kremlin, though. The region you'd be seeing from these vantage points is the Chukotka autonomous district, a massive, desolate expanse of about 285,000 square miles with a population of about 55,000. (That's an area roughly the size of Texaswith a population the size of Pine Bluff, Ark.) Chukotka has fewer than 400 miles of road and no railroad infrastructure; the population is mostly employed in mining and subsistence hunting. The more strategic areas of the Russian coastline, militarily speaking—the Kamchatka Peninsula, home to a nuclear submarine base, or Vladivostok, headquarters of the Russian Pacific Fleet—are not visible from Gov. Palin's home state.

Palin does have Obama beat, though: The closest foreign territory to Hawaii is the Micronesian Republic of Kiribati, but at more than 1,000 miles away, it's not remotely visible with the naked eye.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Stephen Blank of the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, Greg Durocher of the Alaska Science Center, Clifford Gaddy of the Brookings Institute, and Vance Spaulding of the Tin City Long Range Radar Site.

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