Russkaya Arktika National Park Expanded

Big sky can be seen above Tegetthoff Island.
Photograph by Cory Richards, National Geographic Creative

We have lots of land conservation news going on right now (just scroll down), which can only be a good thing, and is perfect timing given the US National Park Service centennial. Jocelyn will be posting a close-up feature of a park later today, but first I invite you to imagine a new arms race between Russia and the United States – not of weapons, but rather in the sphere of conservation through protected national park expansion. President Obama just quadrupled the area of marine national monument Papahānaumokuākea, and now Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Russia expanded the island region of Russian Arctic National Park by over eighty percent. In this case, I say, the more friendly competition the better! Brian Howard reports on the Russian expansion:

Made up of more than 190 islands, Franz Josef Land is a mostly uninhabited area that is encased in sea ice for much of the year. Yet the rocky, glaciated islands are home to stunning biodiversity. The newly expanded park will protect habitat for such species as the Atlantic walrus, bowhead whale, polar bear, narwhal, and white gull.

Russia’s park expansion was signed by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev Friday and increases the size of the protected area by 28,500 square miles (7.4 million hectares). At 34,000 square miles (8.8 million hectares), the park is now the largest in Russia.

The park “will contribute to the integrated conservation of the pristine islands and marine ecosystems of the northeastern part of the Barents Sea,” the Russian government said in a statement. This includes “glacial and periglacial landscapes of the polar deserts and ecosystems of offshore shallow water and sea ice, [home to endemic] Arctic fauna.”

“This historical national park designation has shown Russia’s commitment to the conservation of the Arctic environment, and sent a powerful signal to the other Arctic nations,” says Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence who led a Pristine Seas scientific expedition there in 2013.

“Franz Josef Land is one of those few places where one can see what the world would be like without humans,” Sala adds. “It’s one of the wildest and most beautiful places I have seen, and dived, in my life; and one of the most precious natural jewels in the Arctic.” (See photos of some of the unique sea creatures that live there.)

Sala’s expedition co-leader, Paul Rose, adds that the timing of the Russian and American announcements this week proves that “we’re in a sweet spot for ocean conservation at the moment. People are seeing the success of marine protected areas around the world and they want to do it themselves. We’re also in a time of healthy competition for ocean leadership.”

The new park designation is particularly important because the Arctic is changing at unprecedented rates, thanks to global warming, says Rose.

“By the end of our lifetimes the Arctic will be unrecognizable,” he says.

There will no longer be any ice in the summer and there will likely be profound changes in populations of polar bears, fish, and other wildlife. The area will be open to vessel traffic, from cruise ships to fishermen to those looking for oil, gas, or seabed minerals.

Read the rest of the article at National Geographic.

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