Amid environmental fears, UNESCO makes first ever mission to Russia’s remote Wrangel Island

A UNESCO mission has traveled to the remote Wrangel Island in Russia’s Far East, as concern grows among some experts that expanding oil industry and military activities could harm the protected island.

The mission headed by Francesco Bandarin, the UNESCO assistant director-general for culture, arrived at the east Arctic island on Aug. 12, the UN agency said.

Tundra on remote Wrangel Island. The island in Russia's Chukchi Sea waters is protected by UNESCO. (NOAA)
Tundra on remote Wrangel Island. The island in Russia’s Chukchi Sea waters is protected by UNESCO. (NOAA)

The mission’s task was to assess the state of conservation of the area, as well as potential threats to its status as World Heritage site. Included in the mission were also two high-ranking officials from the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and State nature protection authority Rosprirodnadzor, the Russian Ministry informs.

The visit came after the World Heritage Committee in its 40th session in 2016 “expressed its utmost concern” over increased human presence and ongoing construction of facilities on the island. These activities could have a serious impact in the sensitive Arctic environment in the area, the organization makes clear in a report.

The island of Wrangel was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2004. The protected area includes the mountainous Wrangel Island (7,608 square kilometers), Herald Island (11 square kilometers) and surrounding waters. According to the UN body, the area has “the highest level of biodiversity in the high Arctic.”

The report adopted by the World Heritage Committee in 2016 urges Russia to “halt the construction of facilities and any associated activities until their impacts […] have been assessed.”

The UN organization is especially concerned over oil activities around the island. The body requests information from the Russian side that oil exploration and exploitation is prohibited in the area.

World Heritage Committee “notes confirmation […] that seismic exploration vessels incidentally entered the waters of the property only in order to seek shelter from storms.”

Furthermore, the Committee “regrets that no information was provided on the current status of the oil exploration projects that are planned or ongoing in the vicinity of the property.”

Russia is requested to submit a report about the state of the conservation of the area, which is to be addressed in the 2017 session of the World Heritage Committee. In case Russia fails to properly address the concerns, the Committee will consider including the Wrangel island in its List of World Heritage in Danger.

State oil company Rosneft has over the last years acquired several major exploration licenses in the east Arctic waters. Only in the waters surrounding the Wrangel Island, Rosneft has three license areas: the Severo-Vrangelsky 1 and Severo-Vrangelsky 2, as well as the Yuzhno-Chukotsky. The company has lately engaged in wide-ranging seismic mapping of its Arctic licenses.

In 2016, the company conducted as much as 35,000 km of 2D seismic mapping in 10 of its Arctic license areas. In addition, another 5,100 square kilometers of 3D mapping was conducted in four licenses, the company informed.

Wrangel Island is also a location for enhanced military activities. The Northern Fleet is building a string of new and upgraded bases all across the Arctic coast, including in east Arctic sites such as New Siberian Islands, Cape Shmidt and Wrangel Island.

In the course of 2017, the Russian Armed Forces intend to build a total of 68 buildings and facilities on Wrangel Island and Cape Schmidt. The construction work is considered highly complicated as neither of the two places have an airfield.