President Barack Obama’s massive expansion of a marine reserve in the Hawaiian Islands in preparation for the World Conservation Congress may have gotten international attention, but he isn’t the only Arctic leader dedicated to protecting nature.
On the other side of the world from the newly designated Hawaiian marine reserve, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made conservation moves of his own this summer and signed into law expansion of the Russian Arctic National Park (Russkaya Arktika).
“The territory of Russian Arctic National Park in the Arkhangelsk Region has been expanded,” announced the press service of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment and quoted here in English by TASS.
“The area of the national park will gain 7.4 million hectares by incorporating islands of the Franz Josef Land Archipelago with an area of 1.6 million hectares, a 12 nautical miles-wide sector of inland sea waters and a territorial sea of the Russian Federation adjoining the archipelago, with an area of 5.8 million hectares."
The expansion enlarges the park to 8.8 million hectares, making it not only the largest protected natural territory in Russia, but also the largest land-based national park and marine wildlife sanctuary.
The designation as a protected area "will contribute to the integrated conservation of the pristine islands and marine ecosystems of the northeastern part of the Barents Sea," the press statement said, including "glacial and periglacial landscapes of the polar deserts and ecosystems of offshore shallow water and sea ice, [home to endemic] Arctic fauna."
A Microcosm of Arctic Climate Change
In many ways, the newly designated National Park area is a microcosm of the ecological, economic, and security challenges and opportunities that come with a warming Arctic.
Franz Josef Land is an archipelago of 191 islands in the Arctic Ocean, Barents Sea, and Kara Sea. For much of the year, the islands are encased in sea ice, making the rocky, glaciated landscape a welcoming home to Atlantic walrus, bowhead whales, polar bears, narwhals, and while gulls.
The islands have been in intermitted use since 1926 for scientific research and military purposes. However, as the ice melts and temperatures rise, the area has seen a remilitarization of its small Cold War outposts. Russia is reopening old airfields and building new bases across the archipelago, including the Arctic Clover administrative and housing complex on the Alexandra Land of Franz Josef Land built to develop the infrastructure of the Russian northern fleet in the Arctic. In July, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that this construction would be completed by the end of 2016.
But the northern fleet isn’t the only ships to traffic Franz Josef Land.
This summer, as well as the next, polar cruise specialists Poseidon Expeditions is offering trips the islands. Trips leave from Longyearbyen, Svalbard and cruises along the National Park for 14 days, allowing tourists to kayak through icebergs, hike where polar explorers once sojourned, and learn the ropes of wildlife photography (starting at $7,295 per person, significantly less than its North American counterpart Crystal Serenity).
A National Park in Transition
While increased tourism to the National Park may be an economic opportunity, the impacts of a changing climate are not all positive.
In the past seven years alone, the coastline of Vize Island retreated more than 240 feet, according to the world Wildlife Fund Russia. This is faster than any other area of coastal erosion in the entire Russian arctic region, leaving a Soviet-era weather station once safely inland now hanging over the water’s edge.
Snowfall in the region is “far below average” according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. Such drastic changes have a dramatic effect on the wildlife that call the National Park home. Because of higher temperatures and less ice, the population of Pacific Walrus has dropped and the death toll to rise among the migratory bird species the red knots.
Although the expansion of the Russian Arctic National Park cannot stem the melting ice, it can help to preserve the habitats of these endangered Arctic animal and bird species – giving them some reprieve in an increasing dangerous homeland.