The island was sought by Russian Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel during his arctic expedition of 1820-24; he had heard of it from Siberian natives, but he did not succeed in finding it. It was finally discovered by Thomas Long, captain of an American whaling ship, who named it for Wrangel. Later George W. De Long, an American explorer, discovered that it was a small island and not a part of the mainland, as at first believed.
In 1911 a group of Russians made a landing on the island, and in 1921 Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the Canadian explorer, sent a small party to Wrangel with a view to claiming it for Great Britain. In 1926 the Soviet government established the first permanent colony there, ousting the few of Stefansson's Eskimo settlers who had remained. The Soviet freighter Chelyuskin, trying to discover (1933) whether an ordinary cargo ship could navigate the Northeast Passage, was crushed in the ice off Wrangel Island. The party was marooned on the island but was later rescued.
Wrangel Island is about wide and in area. It consists of a southern coastal plain that is as wide as ; a central belt of low-relief mountains; and a northern coastal plain that is as wide as . The east-west trending central mountain belt, the Tsentral'nye Mountain Range, is as much as wide and long from coast to coast. Typically, the mountains are a little over above mean sea level. The highest mountain on this island is Sovetskaya Mountain with an elevation of above mean sea level. The east-west trending mountain range terminates at sea cliffs at either end of the island.
Wrangel Island belongs administratively to the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug of the Russian Federation. This rocky island has a weather station and two permanent Chukchi fishing settlements on the southern side of the island (Ushakovskoye and Starry).
A thin veneer of Cenozoic gravel, sand, clay and mud underlie the coastal plains of Wrangel Island. Late Neogene clay and gravel, which are only a few tens of meters thick, rest upon the eroded surface of the folded and faulted strata that comprise Wrangel Island. Indurated Pliocene mud and gravel, which are only a few meters thick, overlie the Late Neogene sediments. Sandy Pleistocene sediments occur as fluvial sediments along rivers and streams and as a very thin and patchy surficial layer of either colluvium or eluvium.
During the last ice age, mammoths lived on Wrangel Island. It has been shown that mammoths survived on Wrangel Island until 1700 BC, which is the most recent survival of all known mammoth populations. However, due to limited food supply, they were much smaller in size than the typical mammoth.
Its flora includes 417 species of plants, double that of any other arctic tundra territory of comparable size and more than any other Arctic island. For these reasons, the island was proclaimed the northernmost World Heritage Site in 2004.
Winters are prolonged and are characterized by steady frosty weather and high northerly winds. During this period the temperatures usually stay well below freezing for months. In February and March there are frequent snow-storms with wind speeds of or above.
The short summers are cool but comparatively mild as the polar day generally keeps temperatures above . Some frosts and snowfalls occur, with fog being commonplace. Warmer and drier weather are experienced in the center of the island because the interior's topography encourages foehn winds.
Average relative humidity is about 82%.
A legend prevalent among the Chukchi people of Siberia tells of a chief Krachai or Krahay, who fled with his people (the Krachaians or Krahays) across the ice to settle in a northern land. Though the story is mythical, the existence of an island or continent to the north was lent credence by the annual migration of reindeer across the ice, as well as the appearance of slate spear-points washed up on Arctic shores, made in a fashion unknown to the Chukchi.
In August 1867, Thomas Long, an American whaling captain, "approached it as near as fifteen miles. I have named this northern land Wrangell [sic] Land … as an appropriate tribute to the memory of a man who spent three consecutive years north of latitude 68°, and demonstrated the problem of this open polar sea forty-five years ago, although others of much later date have endeavored to claim the merit of this discovery."
George W. DeLong, commanding USS Jeanette, led an expedition in 1879 attempting to reach the North Pole, expecting to go by the "east side of Kellett land," which he thought extended far into the Arctic. His ship became locked in the polar ice pack and drifted eastward within sight of Wrangel before being crushed and sunk. The first known landing on Wrangel Island took place on August 12, 1881, by a party from the USRC Corwin, who claimed the island for the United States. The expedition, under the command of Calvin L. Hooper, was seeking the Jeannette and two missing whalers in addition to conducting general exploration. It included naturalist John Muir, who published the first description of Wrangel Island.
In 1926, a team of Soviet explorers, equipped with three years of supplies, landed on Wrangel Island. Clear waters that facilitated the 1926 landing were followed by years of continuous heavy ice blocking the island. Attempts to reach Wrangel island by sea failed and it was feared that the team would not survive their fourth winter.
In 1929 Icebreaker Fyodor Litke was chosen for a rescue operation. It sailed from Sebastopol with captain Konstantin Dublitsky in command, reaching Vladivostok July 4, 1929; here all Black Sea sailors were relieved and replaced with local staff. Ten days later Litke sailed to the North; it passed Bering Strait safely, attempting to pass De Long Strait and approach the island from south. On August 8 scout plane reported unpassable ice in the strait, and Litke turned north, heading to Herald Island. It failed to escape mounting ice; August 12 the captain shut down the engines to save coal and had to wait two weeks until the ice pressure eased up. Making a few hundred meters a day, Litke reached the settlement August 28. September 5, Litke turned back, taking all the 'islanders' to safety. This operation earned Litke the order of the Red Banner of Labour (January 20, 1930), as well as memorial badges for the crew.
In the 1930s, Wrangel Island became the scene of a bizarre criminal story when it fell under the increasingly arbitrary rule of its appointed governor Konstantin Semenchuk, who controlled the local populace and his own staff through open extortion and murder. He forbade the local Eskimos to hunt walruses, which put them in danger of starvation, while collecting food for himself. He was then implicated in the mysterious deaths of some of his opponents, including the local doctor. The subsequent Moscow trial in June 1936 sentenced Semenchuk to death for "banditry" and violation of Soviet law.
During and after World War II many German Schutzstaffel (SS) POWs and the remnants of Andrey Vlasov's Russian Liberation Army were imprisoned and died on Wrangel Island. A prisoner who later emigrated to Israel, Efim Moshinsky, claims to have seen Raoul Wallenberg there in 1962.
In 2004 Wrangel Island and neighboring Herald Island, along with their surrounding waters, were added to UNESCO's World Heritage List.