Expedition journals
© Vladimir Melnik

Exploring the Arctic with the Russian Arctic National Park

Maria Gavrilo, deputy director for science at the Russian Arctic National Park, tells arctic.ru about the park's scientific expeditions.

What expeditions have you sponsored in 2015?

Usually we do field work in spring and summer. In the spring — April and May — we monitor sea mammals and the polar bear. This is a very important period for the bears: females and cubs emerge from their dens. A bit later, the mating season begins, and May is the bears' main feeding period. Ice clearings are of much interest for observation too; they are real oases in an ice desert, where you can see a lot of interesting animals, like whales, as well as birds.  In July and August we'll continue to monitor birds and walruses and to study sea birds migration. For August, we've planned a massive Russian-Norwegian "census" of polar bears in an area stretching from Svalbard to Franz Josef Land archipelago.

Let's start with spring. WWF Russia's trilateral expedition took place in mid-April, as suggested by the WWF back in 2013. The WWF staff asked me if it was possible to organize an expedition to the Kara Sea islands to assess polar bear habitats and suggest new areas for protected natural areas. The idea sounded right but it wasn't so easy to implement. It took us nearly a year to plan the possible logistics.

As a result, the WWF project was carried out by two organizations. One was the Russian Arctic National Park that provided the scientific backing (we sent three scientists, and I was the expedition's scientific adviser, plus two colleagues from the expedition center). The logistics were handled by the scientific expedition center at Maritime Heritage: Let's Explore and Preserve It Association, which was created a year ago as a commission under the Association for the Implementation of Minor Maritime and Coastal Research Projects aimed at exploring and preserving maritime heritage. WWF representatives were also on the scientific team and covered our operation in the media.

In April, we used aircraft to fly the team to the Kara Sea, and this explains its name, AviaKara-2015. It's still winter in April in the Arctic and you can work either from a powerful ice-breaker or from a helicopter.

Our target was Vize Island which the WWF specifically instructed us to make an overview of. But since we were in such a remote area, we decided to examine all that was within our financial and organizational capabilities. As a result, we visited the primary islands of the remotest islands in the northeastern Kara Sea. Apart from Vize Island, we explored Ushakov Island, reached the coast of Schmidt Island (these three are the northernmost islands on the Kara Sea shelf), and flew over a part of the coast of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago.

We took two Mi-8 helicoptersfrom Khatanga. Our expedition base was on Sredny Island located to the west of the central part of the Severnaya Zemlya archipelago. Sredny is a sort of Severnaya Zemlya hub with a TOL strip, a frontier post and a polar weather station. Many expeditions head for both the archipelago and the North Pole from there. We also used it for our 300-350-kilometer radial flights. Our objective was to spot and count any animals and any signs of animals, primarily polar bears, but we also noted seals, walruses and birds.

Was that a visual count?

I would say it was visual aerial monitoring and photo recording. In an aerial survey you have to obey the methodology strictly in terms of preplanned routes, flight parameters and recording techniques. We had somewhat different objectives.  

Nevertheless, all observations were recorded with regard to time and coordinates. The flight parameters were recorded as well. We had forward observers in the cockpit, and cameramen and photographers were on both sides of the aircraft cabin. Before we left, my colleagues from the Arctic and Antarctic Institute had selected some space photographs for us. So we had background information on the state of the ice cover, and we knew what to look for and where. We went to almost every location we had planned on. Apart from the Vize, Ushakov and Schmidt islands I mentioned, we visited the coast of Komsomolets and the October  Revolution islands, the coastal area of the Laptev Sea and Maly Taimyr Island, Vilkitsky Strait, and Cape Chelyuskin. We had to cut some routes short because of the weather, but this is unimportant. On the whole, we were fortunate in having good weather. Only once did we have to cut short a flight and go back to Sredny and wait for 24 hours. But we managed to carry out a large survey in a matter of four days.

As a result, we spotted 12 polar bears. We didn't see this year's cubs, but we chanced upon two females with last year's cubs and adult animals. Not much, but it conforms to the average indicators: one animal per 200 kilometers. Also we surveyed anything but the most densely populated bear habitats. At the same time, trace activity was occasionally very intense; we could see traces with particular clarity on light snow-covered young ice. We photographed animals' traces, holes dug by bears, and the remains of their seal hunting. There are tentative maps indicating the distribution of the animals and animal traces against the background of a satellite ice status image. But even these preliminary results confirm the theory that the animals concentrate in the ice brim area as well as where there are ice lanes and young ice.

One of the most interesting observations was a school of white whales that we spotted in high latitudes among heavy ice. They were heading north along a narrow channel that had formed in the ice cover. It was very beautiful! Thus, we obtained very valuable data to help us understand the general distribution and migration of this endemic Arctic species, about which we still know very little. It is commonly believed that white whales come to the Kara Sea from the Barents Sea in the west for summer feeding. But most obviously the animals we saw were local inhabitants, and it points to the possibility that the white whale inhabits these parts in seasons other than the summer.

Do the beluga whales live there all year?

Yes, it appears they do, because the sea before the place where we saw them was covered with hundreds of kilometers of ice, so they didn't get there by chance. This small discovery will be put in the common trough of information in the white whale file. We still need to analyze the data collected by the ice patrols over the past years. In the 1960s and the1970s, it were not satellites but onsite patrols that watched ice movement, and they collected a wealth of valuable information about birds and animals, including white whales, in the Arctic Ocean.

What other animals did you see in the Arctic?

On our way back, we flew along the Shokalsky Strait in the Severnaya Zemlya Archipelago towards the Laptev Sea. The picture was completely different there, because it was an area where a huge stationary clearing could potentially develop, and a clearing is a source of food and hence life, a kind of oasis in the icy Arctic desert.

Our theory has been proved correct: the ice edge and clearings are areas of increased biological productivity. There were many polar bear tracks and the polar foxes that followed them. We also saw traces of bear-hunting activities such as open ringed seal dens, traces of blood indicating good hunting, and polar bears stalking their prey near ice clearings. Overall, the picture was quite dynamic and similar to that on Franz Joseph Land. By contrast to this, it was rather empty on the Kara Sea side. But then again, this corresponds to the theory and the known differences in bio-productivity in the Kara and Laptev seas.

We saw Laptev walruses in the Laptev Sea, which are an endemic population from the Russian Red Data Book.

The coastal part of that clearing was full of dovekies. There were tens of thousands of them. The largest bird colonies on the archipelago nest on the coast of October Revolution Island facing the clearing, and most of them are dovekies. They go there long before nesting time, as soon as the weather permits, to fatten up in the rich waters of the clearing before laying eggs. Apart from dovekies we also saw black guillemots, glaucous gulls and ivory gulls, but there weren't that many of them.

In conclusion I'd like to say that it was the first biological aerial observation of this scale held in the region in the spring. Even though it was only an aerial observation, a kind of reconnaissance rather than a comprehensive inspection, it was still very important. Before that, any observations there were made either in passing or as part of other expeditions, mostly during ice patrol missions, which stopped 30 years ago. But no special research expeditions were sent there.

What are the results?

I've prepared a report, drawn up several charts and maps to show the distribution of various animal species, formulated proposals on the areas that should be included in the Special Protected Natural Areas (SPNA), and forwarded them to the WWF. In short, the main problem is as follows: the system in the region's marine SPNAs, including the Great Arctic State Nature Reserve and the federal Northern Reserve (which is part of the Great Arctic State Nature Reserve), only has a limited marine area and not along all parts of the reserve. To be able to effectively protect the polar bear, marine mammals and birds, a nature conservation plan should be approved for the marine areas where they live in the different phases of their annual cycle. We have indicated some of these areas as a result of this expedition. One is a stationary flaw polynya in the eastern part of the Severnaya Zemlya Archipelago with areas of shore ice.

After discussing the project with the WWF, we'll formulate more detailed proposals for the protection of the most important areas. We could even propose including some of them in the list of protected areas. After that we'll forward our proposals to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. In fact, this is a very important issue, considering the large-scale, quickly developing oil and gas industry on the Arctic shelf. Moreover, this development is moving especially fast on the Kara Sea shelf. We must hurry before it's too late!

When did the next expedition take place?

We conducted our regular scientific explorations in the Franz Josef Land federal nature reserve from the end of June through August. Our mission was to monitor and study sea birds and mammals, and to make an inventory of other components of the biota such as insects, fungi, and marine invertebrates.

Yet, the main focus of our work remained with ornithology. In addition to monitoring the avifauna, we continued to work on the long-term research project to study the marine period of birds' migratory life cycle. We chose two key "bird" points — Cape Flora of Northbrook Island and the Silent Bay at Hooker Island. We also did some work on marine mammals in these areas, as there were walrus rookeries there, and whales come there for feeding…

But let's start with the birds. Apart from general avifaunistic observations and counting the number of birds in the colonies, we have been involved in the SEATRACK project (tracking seabirds at sea). It's a large international project covering five countries in the northeastern Atlantic from Greenland to Iceland and Svalbard, and further to the east — all of the Barents Sea, including Franz Josef Land archipelago. This project is carried out under a strictly coordinated program dictating the use of the agreed upon procedures and protocols of observation. The ornithology community has picked the key species of birds — the most common species (in order to obtain comparable results from different regions), as well as the most numerous ones and consequently significant in the marine ecosystem. These are the indicator species, and they should be quite numerous, because you need statistics. There is a specific set of such species in similar geographical locations and environmental conditions.

Which birds were selected for observation in the Russian Arctic zone?

The set of species differs slightly from location to location, because the project covers a vast part of the Russian Arctic, from Murmansk and the White Sea to Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land archipelago. On Franz Josef Land, five species of birds were selected for study: thick guillemot, dovekies, glaucous gulls, kittiwake, and common eider. They are all different: the former dive into the water and catch fish, others dive to catch crustaceans, and still others do not dive but catch and collect anything they can in the sea and on the shore, still others fish on the surface and dive to the bottom and collect shellfish. In other words, these five types cover all the trophic niches of the marine ecosystem, which is why they were selected.

How long has this project been underway and what are the specifics?

The project has run for three years, and we've been involved since 2013. The basic idea is to track the migration of seabirds outside their breeding period, and find their wintering places and migration routes. To do this, the birds are fitted with colored plastic rings that hold miniature GLS-loggers with light sensors and timers, in addition to standard metal rings attached to the leg. They record information but do not transmit it, they simply store it. This is the project's specificity: as there is no transmitter, we need to attach the data logger, and a year later find the same bird, remove it and download the data. That's all!

Fortunately, the selected species of birds tend to return to their former nesting places. So we'll go back to the colony next year, to the place where we ringed the birds, and look for the birds with color rings and loggers among the hundreds of others…

And the bird actually remembers last year and won't let us catch it…

Very true! This year as well as the last, we came across some extremely vindictive, uncooperative kittiwakes. It took us 40 minutes, or an hour, to try and catch one, but they wouldn't let us. They land quite close, but once you start bringing the loop closer, they watch for it and fly away at the last minute. I had to let them go, wave good-bye, and that was it.

Why is it so difficult? The thing is that a recording logger is 90% cheaper than a transmitter that delivers information via satellite. When it comes down to it, we either use 40 recording loggers or four satellite transmitters. Of those four, one or two can fail, and the data for statistics will be as good as lost. True, we are unlikely to catch all of last year's 40 birds, but 50% is believed to be a good return — which is still 20 birds, and not two.

In 2014, by the way, we had a very small return, for various reasons. Two of the areas were inaccessible — we just couldn't get there, because when we ringed the birds in the area, there was clear water. In 2013 we sailed on a boat, climbed Rubini Rock and attached loggers on the birds. At the same time a year later, everything was clogged with ice, and we couldn't even reach the foot. The rock itself was impossible to climb because of the snow cornice hanging from the edge of the plateau. By the way, that didn't come down until the end of the summer…

2014 was very cold and icy. We ringed 70 guillemots and kittiwakes in the Rubini Rock area, but we never got a chance to remove the loggers that year.

We had a little luck this year, though. We managed to reach the rock and climb it and remove the loggers from three kittiwakes. But the ringed guillemots never returned to their nesting place…

A similar pattern was seen at Cape Flora: there was no sign of the guillemots that were ringed in 2014 either. But we managed to take three-fourths of ​​ last year's loggers from kittiwakes. We also retrieved half of the loggers from the dovekies at Silent Bay. So all in all we did pretty well!

How long does a logger work?

The recorder can work for a long time, but the logger, depending on the model, can work — that is, accumulate data — for up to three years. In other words, we'll probably receive data on the birds that we caught and ID'd two years ago for the entire period. So the hope of receiving information on especially uncooperative birds is still alive.

In fact, loggers/geolocators are a real breakthrough in ornithology. The miniature sensors that are available today can be fixed on sparrow-sized birds and even large insects. We've been using these loggers for two years now, and today there are about 300 marked birds flying in our territory.

The initial decoded data show that our birds, for example, little auks (dovekies) have their specific routes and spend the winter somewhat away from the well-known wintering locations.

Besides birds, what else will you study during the expedition?

The scope of our interests is very wide — from the biggest representatives of our fauna, whales and walruses, to gnats and fungi that are hardly visible in the moss.

Everyone knows about polar bears and walruses. They are the so-called flagship species of the Arctic biota, but life in the Arctic is very diverse and its small inhabitants are just as interesting and sometimes even more important in terms of the sustainability of the ecosystem as a whole.

For example, we have a joint project with Perm State University on chironomid midges, or zvontsy as we use to call them in Russian.

You discovered them in 2012 on Franz Josef Land?

Yes. To be more accurate, the first and only records on chironomid midges from Franz Josef Land archipelago go back to 1930. No one has paid attention to these small but, as it turns out, rather numerous inhabitants of the archipelago since then. Meanwhile, their aquatic larvae are the core diet of many tundra birds, for example, sandpipers.

Andrei Krasheninnikov, my colleague zoologist from Perm University, explained the procedure for their collection and storage, and now I collect Arctic gnats for him, while he plans to visit to us.

Are these gnats something special?

These gnats are not bloodsuckers; adult gnats do not eat at all; they are aphagues; they do not fly very high (it is cold and windy around here) and they buzz very quietly. By the way, this is the most cold-resistant insect. They have a kind of antifreeze; in other words, their hemolymph (this is a kind of blood-like liquid) contains special polysaccharides and proteins, which prevent it from freezing in subzero temperatures. The chironomid midge is the only insect that can survive in the Antarctic. In specialist Russian literature, this midge is known as the Wingless Fly Belgica antarctica. It turns out, however, that it's not a fly, but a gnat. Andrei has discovered a new species of chironomid midges on Franz Josef Land and named it in honor of the archipelago, Hydrobaenus franzjosephi. This discovery coincided with the 140th anniversary of the discovery of the archipelago.

In the spring, word had it that a regional census of polar bears would be taken on Franz Josef Land in August. What about that project?

Yes, some serious studies were planned for August. They are necessary to estimate the number of bears on a given territory. Depending on the status of the ice, this project should have spanned Franz Josef Land and the adjacent ice edge zone.

In the north of the Barents Sea, there is the Barents Sea subpopulation of the bear, including Svalbard (Norway), Franz Josef Land archipelago and the northern part of Novaya Zemlya, together with the adjacent waters. A bear doesn't care where the Russian-Norwegian border runs. To estimate its population, the count should be taken simultaneously on an area from Spitsbergen (Svalbard) to Novaya Zemlya. The research period is chosen when the ice cover is minimal so that the bears are concentrated in a small area. When there's a lot of ice, the bears are spread out, and flying over such a vast area is too expensive.

Such a census was last taken in 2004. At that time, the Russian Arctic National Park was not established yet, but there was a nature reserve and the census was taken by specialists from the National Scientific Research Institute for Nature Studies (today, the Ecology National Scientific Research Institute) jointly with the Norwegians. They estimated the population at 2,700 bears.

According to the plan, this year, the bear census was to have been taken by the Norwegian Polar Institute, specialists from other organizations invited by the Norwegian group, the Ecology Institute and the Russian Arctic National Park.

The expedition was to have taken place aboard a Norwegian icebreaker with support from Norwegian helicopters. That proved to be a fatal obstacle, which scuttled the project that had taken at least five years to prepare. In mid-summer, our application, which was filed in accordance with the established procedure to the relevant ministries and government agencies, was rejected. The vessel was denied permission to move from Spitsbergen directly to Franz Josef Land, skirting Murmansk (which would have taken an additional 10 days or so, i.e., almost half the time allocated for our work in Russia). It was denied despite the fact that in the summer of 2015, three tourist cruise ships passed through the new section of the port in the Franz Josef Land area to the archipelago directly from Spitsbergen.

The expedition season in the Arctic ended early this year. Were you back on the mainland in late August?

Of course we could have stayed until September, but we achieved the principal goals, expanding the geographic basis of research, and we did not have a vessel of our own so we "hitched a ride," returning home on a nuclear-powered icebreaker with a group of tourists.

What happens in the Russian Arctic National Park in the winter?

It's easier on Novaya Zemlya as there are no other people there now except us. There used to be a polar weather station there, but it was closed (it now operates in an automatic mode). That is to say we are the only people on Cape Zhelaniya. Our specialists go there in the summer and leave in the fall. In other words, it's a purely summer season. We plan to establish a year-round fixed-site facility on Novaya Zemlya, but it is unclear yet when the plan will be carried out.

Apart from us there are other settlements on Franz Josef Land. There is a meteorological station on Heiss Island, where between four and eight people work year-round. In addition, there is a border guard post there with an unknown number of servicemen: as they say, less than 100, but more than 10. Their military camp is also there all year. We have very good relations with the border guards. We use their aircraft. They provide seats for us at our request. Last year, we stayed with them during the spring expedition. In the winter of 2014/2015, for the first time, some park employees spent the winter at the recently launched Omega base. However, this is beyond the scope of our research. So far, our work is seasonal. The upcoming winter is the time for processing and analyzing the data we obtained.