Coasts and Satellite Islands
This section includes the coastal areas of northern Russia, northern Alaska, and northern Canada (along with the High Arctic islands), as well as Greenland, Iceland, and various smaller islands.
Species and subspecies
The walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) is a very large, flippered marine mammal characterized by its tusks and whiskers, which it uses to help obtain the molluscs upon which it feeds. It is still found across a large area of polar seas, although its distribution was much reduced as a result of the severe exploitation that began in the sixteenth century. It was not until the introduction of modern firearms and arctic transport, however, that the species began to be seriously threatened. It was considered an important natural resource, yielding oil, hides, and ivory. Now somewhat protected from hunting, it still faces an uncertain future due to habitat changes brought on by climate change. The Atlantic walrus (O. r. rosmarus) was historically common along the coasts of the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean southward to the Russian and Norwegian mainland and, in the Western Hemisphere, to the coast of Labrador, with vagrants being reported as far south as New England and the Bay of Biscay. Today it is found discontinuously from the eastern Canadian Arctic and Greenland to the western Kara Sea. The Pacific walrus (O. r. divergens) recovered remarkably from a seriously depleted state in the mid-twentieth century, and currently ranges from the Bering and Chukchi seas, which constitutes the core of its range, to the Laptev Sea in the west and the Beaufort Sea in the east. Vagrants are occasionally reported in the North Pacific south to Japan and south-central Alaska.
The hooded seal (Cystophora cristata) is so-named for an inflatable sac found on the head of adult males. It lives on drifting pack ice in the Arctic Ocean and the central and western North Atlantic, ranging from Svalbard in the east to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Prior to the 1940s adults were hunted extensively for their leather and oil, and the young for their distinctive blue and black pelts. The animals are also frequently killed for subsistence hunting. Numbers have increased in most areas with better protection in recent decades, which includes an allowable catch limit of 10,000 annually, but the species remains vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
The Ungava harbour seal (Phoca vitulina mellonae) is a freshwater species confined to a few lakes and rivers in northern Quebec, where the total population is thought to be less than 100.
The harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) occurs in the northernmost parts of the Atlantic and throughout much of the Arctic Ocean. The species is strongly migratory, with the main breeding grounds in the White Sea, on the pack ice in Norwegian waters (particularly off Jan Mayen), off Labrador and northern Newfoundland, and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. At the beginning of the twentieth century and even as late as the early 1940s the world population was estimated at about 10 million. Owing to reckless hunting this number had fallen to about 3 million within 20 years, where it has remained more or less stable ever since. A particularly cruel and barbaric form of commercial sealing, in which the pups are brutally bludgeoned for their fur, still takes place annually in Canada, Norway, Russia, and Greenland. The destruction is particularly marked in Newfoundland, where the small profit earned by seasonal hunters is far outweighed, economically, by the enormous damage done to Canada’s international reputation.
The Arctic Archipelago
The Arctic Archipelago includes all of the high arctic islands lying to the north of the Canadian continental mainland, with the exception of Greenland. Two subspecies of grey wolf (Canis lupus) historically inhabited the Arctic Archipelago. Bernard’s grey wolf (C. l. bernardi) is known only from a few specimens collected from Banks and Victoria islands, where it died out around 1920. The Arctic wolf (C. l. arctos) is confined to the Queen Elizabeth Islands, but is not currently considered to be threatened.
Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat in Greenlandic; Grønland in Danish) is the world’s largest island. It is almost entirely covered by a massive ice sheet, the weight of which has depressed the central land area to form a basin lying more than 300 m below sea level. Elevations along the more temperate coasts rise suddenly and steeply.
The East Greenland caribou (Rangifer tarandus eogroenlandicus) appears to have been confined to the tundra regions of eastern Greenland, where it went extinct around 1900.
Svalbard is archipelago located about midway between Norway and the North Pole. Originally used as a whaling station during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, today the only permanently inhabited island is Spitsbergen. The Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus), the smallest of all the reindeer, is confined to the Svalbard Archipelago.
Novaya Zemlya is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean of northern Russia and extreme north-eastern Europe. It is composed of two main islands, the northern Severny Island and the southern Yuzhny Island.
The Novaya Zemlya reindeer (Rangifer tarandus pearsoni) is confined to the archipelago. At the end of the nineteenth century there were about 20,000 reindeer on Novaya Zemlya. Heavily hunted both for local consumption as well as export, they would be reduced, only a few decades later, to just a handful of survivors on the northeastern part of Severny Island. Fortunately, a prohibition on hunting was put in place in time to save the subspecies, and it has since recovered.
Wrangel Island is located in the Arctic Ocean between the Chukchi and East Siberian seas. The Wrangel lemming (Lemmus portenkoi) and Wrangel collared lemming (Dicrostonyx vinogradovi) are both confined to Wrangel Island, where they are considered intrinsically vulnerable due to their small range and marked population fluctuations.