Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island or Wrangell Island, Rus. Ostrov Vrangelya, island, 1,740 sq mi (4,507 sq km), in the Arctic Ocean, between the East Siberian Sea and the Chukchi Sea, off NE Russia. It is separated from the mainland by Long Strait. Generally barren, frozen, and rocky, it has an arctic station and a permanent settlement. The island is a breeding ground for polar bears, polar foxes, seals, and lemmings. During the summer it is visited by numerous varieties of birds.

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 (о́стров Вра́нгеля, ostrov Vrangelya) is an island in the Arctic Ocean, between the Chukchi Sea and East Siberian Sea. Wrangel Island lies astride the 180° meridian. The International Date Line is displaced eastwards at this latitude to avoid the island as well as the Chukchi Peninsula on the Russian mainland. The closest land to Wrangel Island is tiny and rocky Herald Island located to the east.

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).


Wrangel Island consists of folded, faulted, and metamorphosed volcanic, intrusive, and sedimentary rocks ranging in age from Upper Precambrian to Lower Mesozoic. The Precambrian rocks, which are about 2 km (1.2 mi) thick, consist of Upper Proterozoic sericite and chlorite slate and schist that contain minor amounts of metavolcanic rocks, metaconglomerates, and quartzite. These rocks is intruded by metamorphosed gabbro, diabase, and felsic dikes and sills and granite intrusions. Overlying the Precambrian strata are up to 2.25 km (1.4 mi) of Upper Silurian to Lower Carboniferous consisting of interbedded sandstone, siltstone, slate, argillite, some conglomerate and rare limestone and dolomite. These strata are overlain by up to 2.15 km (1.34 mi) of Carboniferous to Permian limestone, often composed largely of crinoid plates, that is interbedded with slate, argillite and locally minor amounts of thick breccia, sandstone, and chert. The uppermost stratum consists of 0.7 to 1.5 km (0.4 to 0.9 mi) of Triassic clayey quartzose turbidites interbedded with black slate and siltstone.

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.

Fauna and Flora

Wrangel Island is a breeding ground for polar bears (having the highest density of dens in the world), seals, and lemmings. During the summer it is visited by many types of birds.

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.


Wrangel Island has a severe polar climate. The region is blanketed by masses of dry and cold Arctic air for most of the year. Warmer and more humid air can reach the island from the south-east during summer. Dry and heated air from Siberia comes to the island periodically.

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%.



Evidence for prehistoric human occupation was uncovered in 1975 at the Chertov Ovrag site. Various stone and ivory tools were found, including a toggling harpoon. Radiocarbon dating shows the human inhabitation roughly coeval with the last mammoths on the island circa 1,700 B.C., though no direct evidence of mammoth hunting has been found.

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.

Outside discovery

In 1764 the Cossack Sergeant Andrejew claims to have sighted the island, called "Tikegen Land," and found evidence of its inhabitants, the Krahay. The island is named after Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel (1797–1870), who, after reading Andrejew's report and hearing Chukchi stories of land at the island's coordinates, set off on an expedition (1820–1824) to discover the island, with no success.

British and American Expeditions

In 1849, Henry Kellett, captain of HMS Herald, landed on and named Herald Island, and thought he saw another island to the west; thereafter it was indicated on British Admiralty charts as "Kellett Land."

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.

The Arctic Ocean Hydrographic Expedition

In 1911, the Russian Arctic Ocean Hydrographic Expedition on icebreakers Vaygach and Taymyr under Boris Vilkitsky, made a landing on the island.

Stefansson expedition survivors

In 1914, the survivors of the ill-equipped Canadian Arctic Expedition, organized by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, were marooned there for nine months after their ship, the Karluk, was crushed in the ice pack. The survivors were rescued by the American motorized fishing schooner King & Winge after Captain Robert Bartlett walked across the Chukchi Sea to Siberia to summon help.

1921 Second Stefansson expedition fiasco

In 1921 Wrangel Island would become the stage for one of history's tragedies when Stefansson sent five settlers (one Canadian, three Americans, and one Inuit) in a speculative attempt to claim the island for Canada. The explorers were handpicked by Stefansson based upon their previous experience and academic credentials. Steffanson considered those with advanced knowledge in the fields of geography and science for this expedition. The initial group consisted of Allan Crawford of Canada, and Fred Maurer, Lorne Knight and Milton Galle of the US. In 1923, the sole survivor of this expedition, the Inuk Ada Blackjack, was rescued by a ship that left another party of 13 (American Charles Wells and 12 Inuit). In 1924, the Soviet Union removed the members of this settlement and established the settlement that survives to this day on the island.

Soviet rule

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.

Post-Soviet era

According to some US individuals, including the group State Department Watch, eight Arctic islands currently controlled by Russia, including Wrangel Island, are claimed by the United States. However, according to the United States Department of State no such claim exists. The USSR/USA Maritime Boundary Treaty, which has yet to be approved by the Russian Duma, does not address the status of these islands.

In 2004 Wrangel Island and neighboring Herald Island, along with their surrounding waters, were added to UNESCO's World Heritage List.


  • Anonymous (1923). "Wrangel Island". The Geographical Journal 62 (6): 440–444.

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