Russian Arctic National Park

Landscapes of Russian Arctic National Park. Photo: Press office of the National Park
Landscapes of Russian Arctic National Park. Photo: Press office of the National Park

Russian: Национальный парк "Русская Арктика"

Location: Russia, Arkhangelsk oblast, part of Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land archipelagos. 

Area: 1.5 million hectares 

Specialty: preservation and study of rare species of animals and of natural objects and complexes. 

Founded: June 15, 2009 


Russian Arctic National Park is one of the youngest national parks in Russia. State natural reserve of federal significance "Franz Josef Land" established on April 23, 1994 (it covers an area of more than 7 million hectares, 80% of which - is the sea area) is under its direction.


Alexandra Land (Земля Александры, Zemlya Aleksandry), Franz Josef Land. Photo: Dmitry Cherkasov
Alexandra Land (Земля Александры, Zemlya Aleksandry), Franz Josef Land. Photo: Dmitry Cherkasov

Russian Arctic National Park has active environmental activities - liquidation  of accumulated environmental damage in the Arctic and preservation of rare species of animals such as the polar bear. Since 2010 all these projects have been supported by the Russian Geographical Society. 

For example, in April 2013, with the grant support of the Russian Geographical Society, scientists began a program "Investigation of the role of "Franz Josef Land" reserve in maintaining populations of rare species of marine mammals and polar bears". Until September, Russian Arctic National Park studied islands of Franz Josef Land, which are a kind of "last resort" for the animals displaced by the civilization from everywhere and affected by climate change. 

Diet for the polar bear 

During the spring and summer stages of the expedition, scientists have carried out studies of Alexandra Land, Graham Bell Island, the White, Barents and Kara seas from ships and helicopters and covered more than 400 kilometers by snowmobiles to collect data on walruses, whales, and the largest land predator - the white bear. 


Polar bears on Hooker island. Photo: M. Ivanov
Polar bears on Hooker island. Photo: M. Ivanov

To date, the number of polar bear does not exceed 20-25 thousand individuals worldwide. The shrinking of the ice cover of the Arctic seas and the changing of the Arctic's sea ice age structure force polar bears to spend more time on the coast and on the islands; probably there is a redistribution of animals within the area. Staying a long time on the coast polar bears do not have access to their main food - seals who live on the sea ice (ringed seals and bearded seals). Hungry predators can often go to people provoking conflicts and put themselves under danger. To save this species the Russian Geographical Society has been supporting the "Polar Bear" project since 2010 the purpose of which to preserve and study these predators in the Russian Arctic, to develop non-invasive methods of collecting biological material (discarded guard hairs, droppings) for genetic studies of population structure of the species in Russia. 

In 2013 the summer in the Arctic was very different from mean annual statistics - the amount of the ice decreased markedly. Such changes affect the inhabitants of the region. During the expedition, scientists did not see any sea ice floes. And since the life of the local seals - ringed seals and bearded seals - is closely linked with the ice, it is not a surprise that the researchers never ran into these animals. At the same time seals - the basis of the diet of the polar bear. With their departure predators started to come to the rookeries, where they tried to pick out dovekies from under the rocks, and to walrus rookeries. Remarkably that the scientists saw the largest number of bears - 11 individuals - on walrus rookery on one of the islands. 

Whales in ice-holes

Spring and summer expeditions to Franz Josef Land helped identify new areas of concentration of rare Spitsbergen population of bowhead whales, listed in the International Red Book, which is a scientific achievement. 


A bowhead whale. Photo: Paul Nicklen
A bowhead whale. Photo: Paul Nicklen

In the waters of the archipelago whales live all year-round. The waters of the reserve and the surrounding area are the only known stable areas of bowhead whales’ summer feeding, and ice-holes - their regular wintering. In recent years Russian Arctic National Park with the grant support of the Russian Geographical Society has conducted monitoring that convincingly showed that the water area of Franz Josef Land is a key habitat for bowhead whales and it should be protected for the conservation of these animals. 

The results of the expeditions 

Despite the small amount of ice and a short spring season, the researchers evaluated the results of the work as good. Among other things, researchers have mapped the distribution of marine mammals and polar bears in sanctuary "Franz Josef Land." Scientists have collected extensive material on pinnipeds, walruses in particular - this is new information on their biology and distribution in the archipelago. For example, for the first time the collected data fully covers the entire summer population of the Atlantic walrus in Franz Josef Land, and also the information on the interannual variability of the number of animals on rookeries was obtained.Collected material on population-genetic features of Atlantic walruses may play an important role in the understanding of the conservation status of the group of the reserve. 

Over the spring and summer of 2013, scientists developed a methodical approach, tested new hardware, such as a small aircraft for observations in the Arctic, purchased equipment for monitoring animal populations. All this means that the researchers intend to continue their work. 

Among the results we should stress the fact that the research formed the basis for a proposal to assign status of a national park to reserve "Franz Josef Land". Te proposal to change the category is linked to the fact that the regime of the reserve makes it difficult  to control this specially protected natural territory, especially the protection of its natural systems. 


A female walrus is feeding her calf. Photo: M. Ivanov
A female walrus is feeding her calf. Photo: M. Ivanov

However, the transformation of the reserve in a national park can significantly reduce the territory of the protected area. Currently, according to the documents, the territory of the reserve is 4.2 million hectares. However, in reality it is 2.5 times bigger -  in 2006 Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute conducted a mathematical calculation of the coordinates of the corner points, based on which the area of the reserve exceeded 11 million hectares. "Franz Josef Land" sea area is 9.407 million hectares, which is 3.5 times more than those 2,591,000 hectares contained in documents. 

The scientists see the answer to the problem in creation of a marine protected zone, which should cover important habitats for marine mammals and polar bears, as well as the most important areas for these animals of the marine ecosystem, for example, flaw ice-holes. 

The work continues 

This year, the staff of Russian Arctic National Park continues the work and has already conducted the field work on monitoring fauna polynyas, populations of marine mammals and polar bears in Alexandra Land and Franz Josef Land. The plan is to continue to study the population-genetic structure of the herd of the Atlantic walrus, the polar bear population monitoring using genetic methods, as well as monitoring rookeries of walruses using remote sensing.

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