Siberian Rusty: Russia’s Despoiled Wrangel Island

There are few places on earth more hostile to human life than Russia’s Wrangel Island – when it comes to climate, comfort & communication, even Siberia seems cozy. That hasn’t stopped people from trying, however, though the price paid in attempts to colonize this lonely outpost have left a poisonous legacy of environmental despoliation on a massive scale.

(images via: USA State Department and TrekEarth)

Wrangel Island (not to be confused with Alaska’s Wrangell Island) is named after Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel (1797–1870), who in the early 1820s searched for an island mentioned in local legends but never found it. The island that bears his name is located northwest of Siberia’s Chukchi Peninsula along the 180° meridian at 71° north latitude. Its harsh “severe polar climate” (the record low temperature was -57.7°C or -71.9°F) is at its bone-chilling worst during the 2 months between November 22 and January 22 when the 2,800 square mile (7,300 sq km) island doesn’t see a sunrise.

(images via: Lyn Gualtieri, Visions 2200 and Cameron Davidson)

The polar opposite – literally – of a tropical paradise, Wrangel Island is thought to have been the stomping grounds of the world’s last Woolly Mammoths though the remains found on the island indicate these holdouts against extinction were a much smaller variety. These insular dwarf mammoths, Mammuth primigenius wrangelensis, may have survived into the second millennium BC, thousands of years after their larger cousins vanished into history.

(images via: Lyn Gualtieri and Gigazine)

The remoteness of Wrangel Island probably shielded the last mammoths from human predators. Though prehistoric Siberian hunters and Russian fur traders visited on a temporary basis, it wasn’t until 1926 that the first permanent settlement on the island was established at Ushakovskoye.

(image via: RussiaTrek)

Though the first child born on Wrangel Island was recorded at the settlement in 1928, villagers have had to be evacuated a number of times. Ultimately, Ushakovskoye was not sustainable: Vasilina Alpaun, the village’s last resident, was killed outside her home by a polar bear on October 13, 2003.

(images via: Corbis and Sergey Gorshkov)

Various attempts to colonize Wrangel Island in the 20th century by Russia, Canada, the United States and the Soviet Union have left a bitter and unsightly legacy: environmental degradation on a massive scale. The pollution is striking in a visual sense but more insidious is what is unseen – slow but steady contamination of the island’s soil and groundwater by leaked petrofuels. Though Wrangel Island is a horribly cold place much of the year, temperatures rise to 15°C or 60°F during the all-too-brief summer months from June through August. Not uncoincidentally, summer is when Wrangell Island sees an astonishing burst of plant and animal life.

(images via: Gigazine and Sergey Gorshkov)

Biologists estimate over 400 species of plants flourish on Wrangel Island, twice the number found on any other Arctic tundra territory of similar size. The island is a favored polar bear breeding ground and other animals found in abundance include Arctic Fox, Arctic Wolves, Snow Owls, Snow Geese, lemmings, seals and walruses.

(image via: RussiaTrek)

Migrating birds consider the island a crucial stopover point and introduced large mammals such as reindeer and musk ox have thrived. The government of the USSR, in a rare pro-environmental move, established the Wrangel Island State Reserve in 1976. The 1,730,000 acre (700,000 ha) reserve was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004.

(images via: Sergey Gorshkov)

These worthwhile green initiatives clash with the extreme despoliation that has occurred on other parts of Wrangel Island. Seemingly endless rows of used oil drums litter the treeless landscape while structures and buildings meant to be temporary are gradually being reduced by arctic winds and relentless freeze/thaw cycles. How to explain this disfiguring mess?

(images via: Sergey Gorshkov)

The expansive garbage dumps on Wrangel Island result from a combination of its extreme isolation and forbidding climate. Human settlements in frosty climes require fuel, typically shipped in standard 55-gallon oil drums.

(image via: Sergey Gorshkov)

Transportation by ship is expensive; by helicopter even more so – and bringing empty drums back to their original shipping point by those methods isn’t economically feasible. And so the drums are stacked outdoors, each one containing small amounts of residual fuel that leaks onto (and into) the ground as the drums slowly corrode.

(images via: Russian Geographical Society and RussiaTrek)

Russian wildlife photographer Sergey Gorshkov (above, left) has spent years visually documenting the oft-savage beauty of Russia’s far eastern regions. “I have begun shooting wild nature imperceptibly, taking pleasure which I can’t compare with anything,” says Gorshkov. “I want to photograph the native wildlife such what it is, what it always was and what it should remain for our children.”

(images via: Sergey Gorshkov)

Gorshkov’s eerily beautiful record of Wrangel Island’s spoiled landscape adds a new dimension to his photographic style, capturing the island’s wildlife amidst the flotsam and jetsam of human profligacy. Regardless of the post-apocalyptic scenery surrounding them, Gorshkov’s subjects manage to maintain their essential dignity and natural, timeless beauty. That’s more than can be said for the people who created the mess in the first place.