National Geographic : 2013 May
60 national geographic • may 2013 Cape Blossom Cape Waring Evans Point Sovetskaya 3,593 ft 1,095 m Ushakovskoye Somnitelnaya (abandoned) Mamont Mts. Western Plateau Eastern Plateau C entralM ts.MamontKrasin Bay SouthB ay Doubtful Cove Rodgers Cove East Siberian Sea Chukchi Sea Mineev Mountains (DEN.)ARCTICCIRCLESiberiaRUSSIAU.S.CANADAGreenland Wrangel Island ARCTIC OCEAN North Pole 0° 90°W 30° 60° Scale varies in this perspective. Distance from Cape Blossom to Cape Waring is 91 miles (147 kilometers). MARTIN GAMACHE, NGM STAFF SOURCE: UNESCO reliable, polar bears have often sought summer- time refuge on the island in recent years as well. Wrangel also supports the largest population of Pacific walruses, and the only snow goose nest- ing colony in Asia. It is home to snowy owls, muskoxen, arctic foxes, and reindeer as well as massive populations of lemmings and seabirds. And yet, in merciful contrast to the boggy Sibe- rian mainland, there are no mosquitoes. Since ancient times Wrangel Island has been felicitously perched on what might be called the ice cusp. Because the island was never com- pletely glaciated during recent ice ages and never completely inundated by seawater dur- ing periods of ice retreat, the soils and plants in its interior valleys offer a glimpse of undis- turbed Pleistocene tundra unique on the planet. “When you go to Wrangel,” says Mikhail Stishov, a Moscow-based WWF scientist who lived 18 years on the island, “you’re going back hundreds of thousands of years. It’s a place of ancient biodiversity, but it’s also very fragile.” Paleontologists believe Wrangel is also the last place where woolly mammoths lived. A dwarf subspecies thrived here as late as 1700 B.C ., more than 6,000 years after mammoth populations elsewhere became extinct. Their curved tusks can be found everywhere on the island, lying on the gravel beaches, in streambeds, even leaning against ranger cabins—trophies from another epoch. “When the pyramids were being built in Egypt, elephants walked around on Wrangel,” says Alexander Gruzdev, the reserve’s director. “Its proximity to, but isolation from, the conti- nental patterns of Asia and North America cre- ated a unique natural structure. There’s no place quite like it in the world.” Though Arctic animals have long flourished on Wrangel, people most emphatically have not. Lying 88 miles off the coast of northeastern Si- beria, Wrangel was for centuries little more than Once thought to be the tip of a polar continent, the 2,900- square-mile Wrangel Island has been a highly restricted Russian zapovednik, or nature reserve, since 1976.