Arctic Beringia

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As their sea ice habitat diminishes in the Arctic, Pacific walruses increasingly use coastal lands to haul out, and feed in the surrounding shallow waters.
Maxim Chakilev
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WCS is working to mitigate the impacts of development and resource extraction on Arctic wildlife such as the yellow-billed loon, which is increasingly subject to entanglement in fishing nets.
Cameron Rutt

Arctic Beringia is one of the world’s great ancient crossroads, the area of land that bridged the eastern and western hemispheres 12,000 years ago. Today, it encompasses the land and water bounded on the west by Russia’s Kolyma River; on the east by the Mackenzie River in Canada’s Yukon; on the south by the Kamchatka Peninsula; and on the north by the shallow shelf areas of the East Siberian, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas. It is celebrated for its cultural, biological, ecological, and geological significance, and teems with wildlife from whales and walruses, to caribou, musk oxen, and vast flocks of migratory birds.

At Beringia’s heart is the narrow Bering Strait region, the only marine gateway between the Arctic Ocean and the Pacific. The strait is a key migratory pathway for marine mammals heading to and from the Arctic Ocean, as well as a key route for ships traveling from Europe and Scandinavia over the Northern Sea Route. These waters support threatened populations of marine mammals and other wildlife whose natural cycles are attuned to snow and ice melt, freeze-up, and other seasonal rhythms of the Arctic. In turn, these wildlife support the food and cultural security of a diverse array of indigenous communities that have thrived in this area for thousands of years.

Today, rapid warming of the region’s climate—at a pace twice as fast as the rest of the world—is forcing Arctic wildlife, including walruses and eider ducks, to adapt at an unprecedented rate. Accomplishing effective conservation in Arctic Beringia will require participation from three nations, the Russian Federation, United States, and Canada, as well as local Chukotka, Alaska, and Inuvialuit Settlement Region governments and indigenous political entities.

Fast Facts

  • Key habitats for Arctic wildlife include two areas of public land in the United States, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve.
  • In 2013, a new multi-segment Russian national park, Beringia, was created in Chukotka, presenting new opportunities for international collaboration.
  • During Beringia’s existence in the last Ice Age, people and wildlife lived in this “refugium” that bridged Asia and North America. Woolly mammoths and mastodons, as well as brown bears, moose, and other present-day species lived in this area..

Challenges

Beringia is experiencing profound impacts from global climate change. Its normally ice-armored coastlines are softening and eroding, affecting critical habitat for shorebirds, waterbirds, and fish. Lakes are draining as permafrost melts. Disappearing summer sea ice threatens walruses, polar bears, and other marine mammals that rely on the surface to rest, eat, and float to new feeding areas. More temperate species of bears, foxes, fish, and seabirds are moving north, creating competition with their Arctic counterparts.

Escalating industrial development, including oil and gas activities and a growing number of large maritime vessels transiting the increasingly ice-free Arctic waterways, are also creating a new dynamic for the region’s wildlife. Ships transporting petroleum products and chemicals pose heightened risks to bowhead whale and walrus populations migrating through the strait, as the probability of oil spills increases. The availability of high-value mineral resources has encouraged large-scale mining in new areas. These industrial developments threaten both wildlife and the region’s indigenous communities that rely on marine mammals for food security and cultural identity. However, responsible development is also a critical component of the region’s economic security.

WCS Responds

WCS’s Arctic Beringia Program has staff based in Fairbanks (Alaska) and Whitehorse (Yukon), with support in Russia from our Vladivostok Office and collaborating organizations, including the Russian Academy of Sciences. Together we aim to ensure Beringia remains one of the most productive marine and terrestrial complexes on the planet, with healthy populations of polar bear, walrus, arctic fox, musk oxen, ice-dependent seals, shorebirds, and other Arctic species.

Through collaborative efforts, WCS conservationists are advancing strategies to protect key Arctic refuges, developing best practices for industrial activities, and foster local stewardship of wildlife and their habitats. The long-term health of both wildlife and human communities are key measures of success in this globally important region.

Examples of our activities in Alaska and Chukotka include:

  • Synthesizing scientific research and recommendations to conserve Pacific walrus on coastal haul-outs
  • Establishing measures to mitigate the threats of increased international shipping through the Bering Strait
  • Measuring climate change impacts to musk oxen herds
  • Assessing the National Petroleum Reserve’s status as the North American stronghold for wolverines
  • Monitoring migration, productivity, and long-term trends of tundra-nesting birds
  • Reducing impacts of industrial infrastructure that artificially elevate the populations of predators (e.g., foxes) threatening these birds
  • Minimizing the entanglement of yellow-billed loons in fishing nets

From the Newsroom

WCS Lauds U.S. and Russia for Commitment to Protect Transboundary Arctic AreaSeptember 14, 2012

Walruses Move Ashore as Sea Ice MeltsMarch 30, 2012

As their sea ice habitat diminishes in the Arctic, Pacific walruses increasingly use coastal lands to haul out, and feed in the surrounding shallow waters. Because this phenomenon poses new threats to walrus populations, conservationists are adopting new strategies to monitor and protect them.

In the Arctic, Fewer Icebergs, More ShipsMarch 16, 2012

Marine mammals contend with new industrial developments in the Arctic as local waters become increasingly ice-free during the summer and fall.

An Arctic Adventure: Day 8June 18, 2010

This week, WCS scientists are trekking across the vast and remote Alaskan Arctic and deep into the National Petroleum Reserve to explore how best to conserve Arctic wildlife in the midst of expanding energy development. WCS conservationist Steve Zack is chronicling the trip for the New York Times' Scientists at Work blog.

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