Russian-American Collaboration Carries on in Key Arctic Ecosystem

April 30, 2014

A polar bear and her cubs feast on the remains of a muskoxen on Wrangel Island, where WCS Senior Scientist Joel Berger continues his work studying muskoxen.

In early spring on Russia’s Wrangel Island, dawn comes at 3:45 and the sky is light for 16 hours a day. My Russian colleagues and I make good progress sampling more than 20 herds of muskoxen, gathering valuable data. Yesterday, while hiking in the mountains, we again crossed polar bear tracks. As winter sea ice recedes around this Arctic island, I wonder if the bears will soon be adding muskoxen to their diet, instead of their usual fare of seals.

The contrasts between doing field research in Russia and Alaska are sharp, and nowhere more so than in the realm of safety. Here, there are no seat belts on helicopters, no shovels brought on snowmobiles (in the event we become stuck), no spare tent, bivy sack, or sleeping bag for emergencies. Rarely do our communications work. The adage I know so well — there are old biologists and there are bold biologists, but there are no old, bold biologists — is an unfamiliar one here.

Today, the winds blow, and it’s near whiteout conditions. I admire the tenacity of my coworkers. With little modern technology and minimal aerial support, they persevere. Yesterday, the temperature returned to winter with the mercury at -15 degrees F. Soon, we’ll shift camps and travel 50 miles to an unheated cabin. My Russian colleagues endure these hardships for one reason — to better understand Wrangel’s animals, their movements, and the island’s ecology.

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