PLACES | 09.13.17
High Stakes in the High North
A remote island that harbored the world’s last mammoths is becoming a holdout for Arctic wildlife once again.
These shaggy, horned creatures are one of the many archetypal Arctic species that thrive on Wrangel Island, a little-known hotspot for polar biodiversity. Berger, a wildlife biologist at Colorado State University, came to Wrangel as part of a joint Russian-American project to understand how climate change and other factors, such as predation by polar bears, might be affecting the island’s roughly 900 muskoxen. The island’s isolation, along with its cold, dry polar climate, have created a unique and surprisingly biodiverse ecosystem. Despite the harsh conditions, more than 400 varieties of plants persist here—twice the number found on any other similarly sized piece of Arctic tundra—as well as hundreds of mosses and lichens. Some of them are not found anywhere else on Earth.
Wrangel Island was named after a 19th century Russian explorer who inferred its existence by observing seasonal bird migrations and listening to stories from indigenous people in northeastern Siberia. Today, the island and its surrounding waters are classified as a zapovednik—the highest level of environmental protection afforded by the Russian government—as well as a UNESCO World Heritage site. These designations are a testament to the island’s rich diversity of plant and animal life, some of which found its way here thousands of years ago.
Between its remoteness and unique blend of flora and climatic conditions, Wrangel Island has become a destination for many Arctic animals. The island hosts more than a hundred migratory bird species and seven resident species of land mammals, some on the edge of extinction. But as the climate heats up again, this once-isolated area has also become more accessible, exposing it to more intensive human activities. Large cargo ships are cutting through the thinning sea ice along the Siberian coast; companies are exploring offshore oil and gas deposits; and Russia is beefing up its Arctic military bases. The question now is whether Wrangel will be transformed by these development pressures, as other parts of the Arctic have, or if it will be protected and continue to serve as a refugium for some of the Arctic’s most iconic animals.
On the whole, the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Sea ice has thinned and shrunk. As the sun beams down on newly opened expanses of water—boosting evaporation, cloud formation, and rainfall—the Arctic is also becoming wetter. Wrangel Island is not immune to these changes. Computer models project that most of the island’s coasts could be ice-free throughout the year by 2100, though the loss may happen more slowly than in some other parts of the Arctic. Here, as elsewhere, there will be winners and losers as ecosystems transform in response to the shifting climate.
“It was crazy. When I found them, there were about 6,000 animals dead at once.”
—Alexander Gruzdev, Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve director
In contrast, polar bears on the island appear to be doing relatively well, all things considered. Wrangel Island remains one of the main, concentrated denning sites in the Arctic. Similar sites in Churchill, Manitoba and on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago have been seeing fewer bears than in the past, because some years the sea ice forms too late—or not at all. The female bears are then forced to find alternate denning locations. “This is a dynamic system, so there will be good and bad years,” says Andrew Derocher, a polar bear biologist at the University of Edmonton. But it’s all “part of the longer-term decline.” The number of denning sites is falling.
The polar bears that live on the Chukchi Sea move between Alaska and Russia via sea ice. They stick with the ice as long as they can, says Karyn Rode, a wildlife biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, but “the northerly drop-off point is going to be Wrangel.” As such, female bears now spend more time on Wrangel Island than they did just two decades ago. Rode recently tracked radio-collared female bears and found that twice as many bears came ashore during low sea ice conditions, and they stuck around for 30 days longer than in the past.
While they’re on the ice, polar bears live off of fatty seals they forage. Once they move onto land to den, the bears usually fast. But retreating ice floes have forced the bears onto land earlier, and for longer periods of time. The females can’t go without eating for such extended periods and still manage to reproduce successfully. Anecdotal evidence suggests the bears may be changing their diet accordingly, and scientists don’t know what impact this might have—for the bears or the ecosystem. In 2015 rangers on Wrangel watched a bear rush a group of walruses hauled out on the beach, seemingly to incite a stampede so that it could pick off the injured and the dead. Gruzdev says he has also seen polar bears scavenging muskoxen, reindeer, and whales, and has watched them dig out Arctic lemming burrows in search of the tiny rodents.
But there is a growing permanent human presence on the island, too. The Russian government recently installed solar panels and a wind turbine to generate electricity for its scientific activities, and modernized its six guest houses. In the past few years, as Russia has expanded its military presence in the Arctic, Wrangel Island has gained a new radar array and medical complex. Several additional buildings are planned for this year, according to The Independent Barents Observer.
Russian military experts have called the installations necessary for Russia to protect its strategic and economic interests in the area, including oil and gas deposits, as well as control of the Northern Sea Route that spans the country’s Arctic coast and threads the narrow strait that separates Wrangel Island from mainland Russia. The Russian government has been developing—and promoting—the route in earnest, hoping to persuade shipping companies to travel between Asia and Europe along its coasts, instead of through the Suez Canal. Since melting sea ice has recently made the route more navigable without an icebreaker ship, taking this shortcut would, for example reduce the distance between the Japanese port of Yokohama and London by more than 4,000 nautical miles. Despite the increased risks of navigating unpredictably icy waters, the Chinese government is keen to use the route, which it calls the “Ice Silk Road,” to cut the journey of its ships to Europe by up to 10 days.
Oil operations on the U.S. side of the Chukchi Sea also threaten the island. A risk assessment made by the Natural Resources Defence Council using computer models found that if an uncontrolled oil spill were to occur from a well off the northwest coast of Alaska, it would have a 20 percent chance of reaching Wrangel Island. Shell Oil Company has since abandoned its search for oil there, but future exploration remains a possibility. Although President Obama banned all future offshore oil and gas drilling in the U.S. waters of the Arctic Ocean in the final weeks of his term in 2016, President Trump has since signed an executive order to extend offshore oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.
Whether or not it will carry on in this role will likely depend on maintaining, and perhaps strengthening, environmental protections. The recent development activity on Wrangel has raised alarms for the United Nations’ World Heritage Committee. It has warned the Russian government repeatedly that unless management improves, Wrangel Island risks being added to the list of World Heritage sites in danger. Committee members are concerned that the growing human presence could threaten the safety of the polar bears and lead to more human-wildlife conflict.
“This is the closest thing to the end of the Earth”
—Craig Perham, polar bear biologist
ABOUT THE Photographer
Sergey Gorshkov was born in a remote village in Siberia and has been photographing wildlife in the region for many years. He is the founding member of the Russian Union of Wildlife Photographers, and has received several international photography awards for his work. He has a particular passion for the Russian Arctic, and is in the process of documenting the entirety of this challenging landscape from east to west.
ABOUT THE Writer
Hannah Hoag is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor based in Toronto, Canada. She has published stories in Nature, The Atlantic, Discover, Wired, New Scientist, Sapiens, The Globe and Mail, and elsewhere. She is the former (and founding) editor of Arctic Deeply and a contributor to The Science Writers’ Handbook.
Hannah Hoag Sergey Gorshkov
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