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Kuril Islands

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Updated: 10.12.2003

Russian Kurilskiye Ostrova, Japanese Chishima-rettx, archipelago in Sakhalin Region, Russian Far East. The archipelago extends for 750 miles (1,200 km) from the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia) to the north-eastern corner of Hokkaido island (Japan) and separates the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. The 56 islands cover 6,000 square miles (15,600 square km).

The chain is part of the belt of geologic instability circling the Pacific and contains at least 100 volcanoes, of which 35 are still active, and many hot springs. Earthquakes and tidal waves are common; the tidal wave of 1737 attained a height of 210 feet (64 m), one of the highest on record. Parallel to the chain, in the Pacific floor, is the Kuril Trench, which reaches a depth of more than 6.5 miles (10.5 km).

The climate in the islands is severe, with long, cold, snowy winters and cool, wet, foggy summers. The average annual precipitation is 30-40 inches (760-1,000 mm), most of which falls as snow, which may occur in any month from the end of September to the beginning of June. Vegetation ranges from tundra on the northern islands to dense forest on the larger southern islands.

The only significant occupation is fishing, especially for crab. The principal centres are the towns of Kurilsk on Iturup, the largest island, and Severo-Kurilsk on Paramushir. Some vegetables are grown on the southern islands.

The Kurils were originally settled by the Russians, following their exploration in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1855, however, Japan seized a group of the southern islands and in 1875 took possession of the entire chain. In 1945, as part of the Yalta agreements, the islands were ceded to the Soviet Union, and the Japanese population was repatriated and replaced by Soviets.

Japan still claims historical rights to the southernmost islands and has tried repeatedly to persuade the Soviet Union and, from 1991, Russia to return the islands to Japanese sovereignty.

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