Bering Strait

The Bering Strait is a relatively shallow and narrow strait, 55 miles (96 km) wide between the Chukchi Peninsula of extreme northeast Asia and the Seward Peninsula of northwest North America, connecting the Bering Sea northward arm of the Pacific Ocean with the southward Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean. The strait was first sailed by the Russian explorer Semyon Dezhnev in 1648, but is better associated with the Danish navigator Vitus Bering.

Bering entered the newly formed navy of the Russian Czar Peter the Great, and in 1724 was commissioned to explore the water routes between Siberia and North America. Although bad weather prevented him from sighting the North American continent on passing through the strait in 1728, he was, however, able to demonstrate that the Asian and North American continents are not joined. Bering was later responsible for mapping large areas of the northern Siberian coast. In 1741, he explored the Aleutian Islands where he and his crew became ill with scurvy and eventually, encountering storms and fog, were wrecked on an uninhabited island where Bering died of exposure. A few members of the expedition survived to return to Kamchatka in 1742. The Island where Bering died has been named Bering Island in his honor.

During the Pleistocene, the sea level was lowered by as much as 100-120 m and a land bridge existed

ARCTIC OCEAN

EAST SIBERIAN SEA

CHUKCHI SEA

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Bering Strait and surrounding territories, islands, and seas.

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ALASKA

between Alaska's Seward Peninsula and Russia's Chukotka Peninsula. The Bering Strait was created about 9000 years ago, as rising sea level flooded the exposed land area. It is thought that the ancestors of Native Americans and Inuit crossed the land bridge from northeast Asia into North America. The narrowness of the strait makes it possible for small boats today to cross from the Chukchi Peninsula to the Seward Peninsula, but the strait is usually frozen over from October to June. The Diomede Islands are in the strait as is the International Date Line and the official boundary between Russia and Alaska.

Pacific water flows through the Bering Strait to enter the Arctic Ocean. This water, colder and less saline than water of Atlantic origin, affects ocean currents and the density structure of much of the Arctic Ocean. The nutrient-rich Pacific waters transport large amounts of nutrients and phytoplankton and support high primary productivity in the Bering and Chukchi seas. The strait is also a major pathway for contaminants to enter the Arctic Ocean, and a gateway for migratory birds and marine mammals. In spring, waterfowl follow the major lead (linear opening in the pack ice) north to the Bering Strait to reach summer feeding grounds, and in summer these waters support major seabird nesting colonies. The strait is used by 14 species of marine mammals, who migrate between the North Pacific Ocean and the Beaufort Sea and Wrangel Island.

The Bering Straits region is home to the Inupiat, the Yupiit, an Inuit people of western Alaska, and Siberian (Chukotkan) Yupik, most of whom depend on subsistence hunting and fishing. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed by the US Congress in 1971, settling a land dispute between the US and Alaska state governments and the indigenous populations of the area. The Act entitles the Bering Straits Native Corporation (BSNC) to over two million acres of land and 30% of the revenues derived thereof. The remaining 70% is redistributed on a pro rata basis among the other 12 regional corporations in Alaska. A number of small and large business enterprises have been founded under the umbrella of the BSNC. The Mission Statement for BSNC is "To improve the quality of life of our people through economic development while protecting our land, and preserving our culture and heritage."

Ralph M. Myerson

See also Arctic Ocean; Beringia; Bering Sea; Bering, Vitus; Chukchi Sea; Diomede Islands; Seward Peninsula

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