Wrapped in fog, three polar bears congregate on a hillside on Wrangel Island

Photo: Geoff York / Polar Bears International

Wrangel Island: Polar Bear Gathering Place

By Geoff York, Senior Director of Conservation



27 Nov 2019

Russia's Wrangel Island plays a prominent role in the history of Arctic exploration. Men have died trying to find it, some while trying to occupy it, and others while trying to leave its remote shores. For years it remained a legend, a possible Arctic continent locked behind impenetrable ice. The Island’s namesake, Ferdinand Wrangel, came within 50 miles of its shores in the 1820s, but never saw the island and was forced to retreat back to mainland Russia.

At that time in history, the sea ice extent and thickness were much greater and more consistent than today—and the summer melt much shorter, if it occurred at all. Then, as now, stormy weather and fog were frequent in the region, further helping to conceal this mythical place. It would take another 40 years after Ferdinand Wrangel’s voyage before explorers and whalers actually landed on its shores, first on the small neighboring Herald Island, then on Wrangel itself—some 200 kilometers from the Siberian coast.

While unknown to people, the island was quite well known to seabirds, shorebirds, migratory geese, waterfowl, and wildlife. The earliest explorers remarked on the abundance of polar bears and walrus during the short summer months, along with myriad seabirds, ducks, and geese.

Walrus haul out on a narrow beach on Wrangel Island

Photo: Ulyana Babiy / Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve

Walrus haul out on a narrow beach on Wrangel Island.

Polar bears have long used the island both as a resting place in summer when the sea ice melts and as a prime denning site for pregnant female bears. Current research there, led by Dr. Eric Regher of the University of Washington, confirms that Wrangel is an important summering and denning area for this population and suggests that it could play a critical role as a haven for the bears as the Arctic continues to warm.

Important sanctuary

Due to extensive early studies by Russian scientists, we know that Wrangel served as a final refuge for several species from the Late Pleistocene, including a unique variety of wooly mammoth. The fossilized teeth and tusks of these extinct mammals can still be seen poking out of the tundra and lying in streambeds. Ironically, Wrangel Island may serve as a sanctuary once again—this time for modern sea-ice-dependent species like polar bears and walrus.

Fast forward to 2019, one of the warmest years in human history. Wrangel and Herald islands have been classified as a State Nature Reserve or Zapovednik—the highest level of protection in Russia. The marine waters that surround them are also protected, among the first granted that status in the Arctic. While fogs and stormy weather still frequent the area, summers are now dramatically free of ice well into the autumn.

A snowy owl surveys the island's vast landscape

Photo: Ulyana Babiy / Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve

A snowy owl surveys the island's vast landscape.

This year marked a record early break up and a record low for summer sea ice extent across the Chukchi Sea, and, as I write this at the end of November, there remains an unsettling area of open water in the Chukchi as the monthly average extent just tied 2017 for the second lowest ever for the month. Warming is impacting the island itself as open seas make it a wetter place and warmer temperatures melt the permafrost. Reserve staff have documented significant changes in the mineral composition of some streams just in the last decade as melting permafrost releases new salts into the watershed. It has also been tied to significant rain-on-snow events that have decimated its reindeer population in recent years.

Changes afoot

As global inaction on the climate crisis continues, and more temperature records are broken well beyond the Arctic, what does the future hold for this special place? The island's unique location, straddling the international dateline and set solidly within the historically productive waters of the Chukchi Sea, may bode well for some species, but not all the current residents or migratory visitors. New species are already testing the land and waters, with confirmed use of its rivers by salmon—including one exploratory run of sockeye. In the marine environment, not unlike Hudson Bay to the south, orcas have also been sighted with new regularity in the Chukchi Sea.

Perhaps, as with the mammoths before them, Wrangel will serve as a refugia for at least some polar bears as they struggle to adapt to a rapidly changing sea ice system. The abundance of walrus and large whales suggest this is at least possible. The same will likely be true for walrus themselves, which use both Wrangel and Herald islands along with large haul-outs on mainland Chukotka. Whether that extra time will help them is in our hands. Will we act in time to stabilize sea ice loss, or will polar bears become the latest species to make their last stand on this unique Island?

Geoff York recently spent two months in Russia and four weeks on Wrangel Island as a part of a research team conducting ground-based population surveys to develop a base-line dataset and explore new den monitoring efforts. Dr. Eric Regehr is the principal investigator of the tudy; for more information, contact him at eregehr@uw.edu. The research will help scientists better understand how polar bears are using this island as a resting place during the ice-free season and as an important denning location.

Primary funding for this year's study was provided by the University of Washington, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Polar Bears International (thanks to the generosity of the High Point Community Foundation and Salesforce), the Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve, and the All-Russian Research Institute for Environment Protection. In addition to Regehr (University of Washington), fieldwork was conducted by Ulyana Babiy (Wrangel Island State Nature Reserve), Stanislov Belikov and Angelina Gnedenko (All-Russian Research Institute for Environment Protection), and Geoff York (Polar Bears International).