Most of Wrangel Island, and Herald Island, is a federally protected nature sanctuary administered by Russia's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. The island, and its surrounding waters, were classified as a "Zapovednik" in 1976 and, as such, receive the highest level of protection and exclude practically all human activity other than for scientific purposes. The Chukotka Regional government extended the marine protected area out to 24 nautical miles in 1999. As of 2003, there were four rangers who reside on the island year-round. In addition a core group of about 12 scientists conduct research during the summer months.
Wrangel Island is about 125 km wide and 7,600 km2 in area. It consists of a southern coastal plain that is as wide as 15 km ; a central belt of low-relief mountains; and a northern coastal plain that is as wide as 25 km. The east-west trending central mountain belt, the Tsentral'nye Mountain Range, is as much as 40 km wide and 145 km long from coast to coast. Typically, the mountains are a little over 500 m above mean sea level. The highest mountain on this island is Sovetskaya Mountain with an elevation of 1,096 m 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, formerly, two Chukchi fishing settlements on the southern side of the island.
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 are 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 (0.43 to 0.93 mi) of Triassic clayish 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.
Wrangel Island is a breeding ground for polar bears (having the highest density of dens in the world), seals, walrus, and lemmings. During the summer it is visited by many types of birds. Arctic foxes also make their home on the island. Cetaceans such as bowhead whales, gray whales, and belugas can be seen close to shore.
Woolly mammoths survived there until 2500–2000 BC, the most recent survival of all known mammoth populations. Isolated from the mainland for 6000 years, about 500 to 1000 mammoths lived on the island at a time. Domestic reindeer were introduced in the 1950s and their numbers are managed at around 1,000 in order to reduce their impact on nesting bird grounds. In 1975, the musk ox was also introduced. The population has grown from 20 to about 200 animals. In 2002 wolves were spotted on the island; wolves lived on the island in historical times.
The flora includes 417 species of plants, double that of any other Arctic tundra territory of comparable size and more than any other Arctic island. Forest occupies about 15% of the island's area. 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 dry and cold Arctic air masses 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.
Wrangel Island is influenced by both the Arctic and Pacific air masses. One consequence is the predominance of high winds. The island is subjected to "cyclonic" episodes characterized by rapid circular winds. It is also an island of mists and fogs.
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 140 km/h (87 mph) or above.
There are noticeable differences in climate between the northern, central and southern parts of the island. The central and southern portion is warmer, with some of the valleys having semi-continental climates that support a number of sub-Arctic steppe-like meadow species. This area has been described as perhaps being a relict of the Ice Age Mammoth steppe, along with certain areas along the northwestern border between Mongolia and Russia.
The short summers are cool but comparatively mild as the polar day generally keeps temperatures above 0 °C (32 °F). Some frosts and snowfalls occur, and fog is common. Warmer and drier weather is experienced in the center of the island because the interior's topography encourages foehn winds. As of 2003, the frost-free period on the island was very short, usually not more than 20 to 25 days, and more often only two weeks. Average relative humidity is about 83%.
According to a 2003 report prepared by the Wrangel Island Nature Preserve, the hydrographic network of Wrangel Island consists of approximately 1,400 rivers over 1 kilometer in length; five rivers over 50 kilometres (31.07 mi) long; and approximately 900 shallow lakes, mostly located in the northern portion of Wrangel Island, with a total surface area of 80 km2 (31 sq mi). The waters of the East Siberian Sea and the Sea of Chukchi surrounding Wrangel and Herald Islands are classified as a separate chemical oceanographic region. These waters have among the lowest levels of salinity in the Arctic basin as well as a very high oxygen content and increased biogenic elements.
This remote Arctic island is believed to be the final place on Earth to support woolly mammoths as an isolated population until their extinction about 2000 BC, making them the most recent surviving population known to science. Initially, it was assumed that this was a specific dwarf variant of the species originating from Siberia. However, after further evaluation, these Wrangel island mammoths are no longer considered to have been dwarfs. The presence of modern humans using advanced hunting and survival skills probably hastened their demise on this frozen isle, which until recently was ice bound for most years with infrequent breaks of clear water in some Arctic summers. A mirror development can be found with the dwarf elephant on Malta, originating from the European species.
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 c. 1700 BC. Though no direct evidence of mammoth hunting has been found, today this is not considered as a valid observation to discard any hypothesis. The presence of mammoths on the island of Wrangel more than 5000 years after their extinction on the mainland is considered as a strong evidence that the climate change hypothesis as the cause of the quaternary extinction event is not consistent with the survival of woolly mammoth on this island and the island of Saint Paul, so many authors today argue that the most likely cause of extinction of the mammoth in the continents was excessive hunting.
A recent research shows how mammoth population was experiencing a genetic meltdown in the DNA of the last animals, a difference when compared with examples about 40,000 years earlier, when populations were plentiful. These data bear the signature of genomic meltdown in small populations, consistent with nearly-neutral genome evolution. They furthermore suggest large numbers of detrimental variants collecting in pre-extinction genomes, a warning for continued efforts to protect current endangered species with small population sizes.
Paleoeskimos established camps on the southern side of the island for marine hunters. By the time Wrangel Island was discovered by Europeans there was no aboriginal population.
A legend prevalent among the Chukchi people of Siberia tells of a chief Krachai (or Krächoj, Krahay, Khrakhai), who fled with his people (the Krachaians or Krahays, also identified as the Onkilon or Omoki – Siberian Yupik people) across the ice to settle in a northern land. Though the story may be 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. Retired University of Alaska, Fairbanks linguistics professor Michael E. Krauss has presented archaeological, historical, and linguistic evidence that Wrangel Island was a way station on a trade route linking the Inuit settlement at Point Hope, Alaska with the north Siberian coast, and that the coast may have been colonized in late prehistoric and early historic times by Inuit settlers from North America. Krauss suggests that the departure of these colonists was related to the Krachai legend.
In 1764 the Cossack Sergeant Stepan Andreyev claimed to have sighted this island. Calling it Tikegen Land, Andreyev found evidence of its inhabitants, the Krahay. Eventually, the island was named after Baron Ferdinand von Wrangel (1797–1870), who, after reading Andreyev'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.
In 1849, Henry Kellett, captain of HMS Herald, landed on and named Herald Island. He thought he saw another island to the west, which he called Plover Island; thereafter it was indicated on British admiralty charts as Kellett Land.
Eduard Dallmann, a German whaler, reported in 1881 that he had landed on the island in 1866.
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." An account appeared in the Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1868 (17th Meeting, at Chicago), published in 1869, under the title "The New Arctic Continent, or Wrangell's Land, discovered August 14, 1867, by Captain Long, of the American Ship Nile, and seen by Captains Raynor, Bliven and others, with a brief Notice of Baron Wrangell's Exploration in 1823".
George W. DeLong, commanding USS Jeannette, 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 westward, passing within sight of Wrangel before being crushed and sunk in the vicinity of the New Siberian Islands.
A party from the USRC Corwin landed on Wrangel Island on August 12, 1881, claimed the island for the United States and named it "New Columbia". 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 USS Rodgers, also searching for the Jeannette, landed a party on Wrangel Island, also in 1881 but after the Corwin party. They stayed about two weeks and conducted an extensive survey and search.
In 1911, the Russian Arctic Ocean Hydrographic Expedition on icebreakers Vaygach and Taymyr under Boris Vilkitsky, landed on the island. In 1916 the Tsarist government declared that the island belonged to the Russian empire.
In 1914, members of the Canadian Arctic Expedition, organized by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, were marooned on Wrangel Island 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.
In 1921, Stefansson sent five settlers (the Canadian Allan Crawford, three Americans: Fred Maurer, Lorne Knight and Milton Galle, and Iñupiat seamstress and cook Ada Blackjack) to the island in a speculative attempt to claim it for Canada. The explorers were handpicked by Stefansson based upon their previous experience and academic credentials. Stefansson considered those with advanced knowledge in the fields of geography and science for this expedition. At the time, Stefansson claimed that his purpose was to head off a possible Japanese claim. An attempt to relieve this group in 1922 failed when the schooner Teddy Bear under Captain Joe Bernard became stuck in the ice. In 1923, the sole survivor of the Wrangel Island expedition, 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 American and 13 Inuit (one was born on the island) of this settlement aboard the Krasny Oktyabr. Wells subsequently died of pneumonia in Vladivostok during a diplomatic American-Soviet row about an American boundary marker on the Siberian coast, and so did an Inuit child. The others were deported from Vladivostok to the Chinese border post Suifenhe, but the Chinese government did not want to accept them as the American consul in Harbin told them the Inuit were not American citizens. Later, the American government came up with a statement that the Inuit were 'wards' of the United States, but that there were no funds for returning them. Eventually, the American Red Cross came up with $1600 for their return. They subsequently moved through Dalian, Kobe and Seattle (where another Inuit child drowned during the wait for the return trip to Alaska) back to Nome.
During the Soviet trip, the American reindeer owner Carl J. Lomen from Nome had taken over the possessions of Stefansson and had acquired explicit support ("go and hold it") from US Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes to claim the island for the United States, a goal about which the Russian expedition got to hear during their trip. Lomen dispatched the MS Herman, commanded by captain Louis L. Lane. Due to unfavorable ice conditions, the Herman could not get any further than Herald Island, where the American flag was raised.
In 1926, the government of the Soviet Union reaffirmed the Tsarist claim to sovereignty over 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 surrounding the island. Attempts to reach the island by sea failed, and it was feared that the team would not survive their fourth winter.
In 1929, the icebreaker Fyodor Litke was chosen for a rescue operation. It sailed from Sevastopol, commanded by captain Konstantin Dublitsky. On July 4, it reached Vladivostok where all Black Sea sailors were replaced by local crew members. Ten days later Litke sailed north; it passed the Bering Strait, and tried to pass Long Strait and approach the island from south. On August 8 a scout plane reported impassable 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. Making a few hundred meters a day, Litke reached the settlement August 28. On 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 commemorative badges for the crew.
According to a 1936 article in Time Magazine, Wrangel Island became the scene of a bizarre criminal story in the 1930s when it fell under the increasingly arbitrary rule of its appointed governor Konstantin Semenchuk. Semenchuk controlled the local populace and his own staff through open extortion and murder. He forbade the local Eskimos (recruited from Provideniya Bay in 1926) to hunt walrus, 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.
In 1948, a small herd of domestic reindeer was introduced with the intention of establishing commercial herding to generate income for island residents.
A prisoner who later emigrated to Israel, Efim Moshinsky, claimed to have seen Raoul Wallenberg there in 1962. However, despite the legends, there never was a Gulag camp on Wrangel.
Aside from the main settlement of Ushakovskoye near Rogers Bay, on the south-central coast, in the 1960s a new settlement named Zvyozdny was established some 38 km (24 mi) to the west in the Somnitelnaya Bay area, where ground runways reserved for military aviation were constructed (these were abandoned in the 1970s). Moreover, a military radar installation was built on the southeast coast at Cape Hawaii. Rock crystal mining had been carried out for a number of years in the center of the island near Khrustalnyi Creek. At the time, a small settlement, Perkatkun, had been established nearby to house the miners, but later on it was completely destroyed.
Resolution #189 of the Council of Ministers of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) was adopted on March 23, 1976, for the establishment of the state Nature Reserve "Wrangel Island" for the purpose of conserving the unique natural systems of Wrangel and Herald Islands and the surrounding waters out to five nautical miles. On December 15, 1997, the Russian Government's Decree No. 1623-r expanded the marine reserve out to 12 nautical miles. On May 25, 1999, the (regional) Governor of Chukotka issued Decree No. 91, which again expanded the protected water area to 24 nautical miles around Wrangel and Herald Islands.
By the 1980s, the reindeer-herding farm on Wrangel had been abolished and the settlement of Zvezdnyi was virtually abandoned. Hunting had already been stopped, except for a small quota of marine mammals for the needs of the local population. In 1992, the military radar installation at Cape Hawaii (on the southeast coast) was closed, and only the settlement of Ushakovskoe remained occupied.
According to some American activists, 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 specifically address the status of these islands nor the maritime boundaries associated with them.
On June 1, 1990, Secretary of State James Baker signed an executive agreement with Eduard Shevardnadze, the U.S.S.R. foreign minister. It specified that even though the treaty had not been ratified, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. agreed to abide by the terms of the treaty beginning June 15, 1990. The Senate ratified the USSR–USA Maritime Boundary Agreement in 1991, which was then signed by President George Bush.
In 2004 Wrangel Island and neighboring Herald Island, along with their surrounding waters, were added to UNESCO's World Heritage List.
In 2014 the Russian Navy announced plans to establish a base on the island. The bases on Wrangel Island and on Cape Schmidt on Russia's Arctic coast reportedly consist of two sets of 34 prefabricated modules.
In Jules Verne's novel César Cascabel, the protagonists float past Wrangel Island on an iceberg. In Verne's description, a live volcano is located on the island: "Between the two capes on its southern coast, Cape Hawan and Cape Thomas, it is surmounted by a live volcano, which is marked on the recent maps." In Chukchi author Yuri Rytkheu's historical novel A Dream in Polar Fog, set in the early 20th century, the Chukchi knew of Wrangel Island and referred to it as the "Invisible Land" or "Invisible Island". Also, in Cassandra Clare's Mortal Instruments: City of Heavenly Fire, the last book in the series, Wrangel Island was the seat of all the world's wards, the spells that protected the globe from demons and demon invasion.