Alexander Kirilov, Acting Director of the Russian Arctic National Park
© From personal archive

Alexander Kirilov: Russian Arctic hosts annual research expeditions including those in 2016

It’s time to review 2016. has interviewed Alexander Kirilov, Acting Director of the Russian Arctic National Park, about cleanup work, research projects and Germany’s Treasure Hunter meteorological station that has caused quite a stir this year.

Mr. Kirilov, what research projects have you been working on this year? You organize several expeditions at the national park, what did you study this year? Delegates of the "Arctic Days in Moscow" forum that began today will also discuss research activity in the Arctic.

Since the national park's inception in a specially protected area, we have been conducting annual research expeditions, and this year is no exception either.

As a rule, researches conduct brief fieldwork each spring, and a longer fieldwork season begins in the summer.

This year, members of our spring-time expedition continued to monitor marine mammal and the polar bear populations on Franz Josef Land from stationary bases and from the icebreaker Kapitan Dranitsyn. We studied polar bear habitats and recorded marine mammal and bird populations from the ship.

This summer, biological research teams worked at two bases on Franz Josef Land, including Cape Flora and Tikhaya Bay, and also at Cape Zhelaniya on Novaya Zemlya. They mostly monitored the state of the bird and mammal populations, evaluated biodiversity patterns, including insects and plants, myco-biota, and also mapped areas overgrown with plants. Slowly but surely, we are compiling a biogeographic map of ice-free and snow-free areas.

In addition, we studied key marine bird species, their migration routes, wintering and nesting sites under the SEATRACK international project. The park's researches have been involved in this project since 2013. A team of ornithologists conducted additional marine bird and mammal observations along a protracted transect leading toward the North Pole. They had to go there twice before reaching and leaving their main research station at the specially protected area. They obtained very interesting data on the state of the local environment and the distribution of animals in areas near Franz Josef Land. This data is very important for understanding the overall situation in the specially protected area.

In the late summer, experts took part in the "Open Ocean: Arctic Archipelagoes 2016 Expedition," organized by the Study and Preservation of Marine Heritage association. The Alter Ego expedition yacht, with mast, sails and its own engine, anchored at 20 locations on 17 islands in the Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land archipelagoes and at Victoria Island.

The winter is approaching. Is your park open in winter or does everything stop?

Life in the park is transformed, so to say, and believe me, this is a very difficult period. You know the old joke: "What does the sailor need the shore for? He needs it to love the sea more." We face a similar situation.

The long fieldwork season ends in October, and we start writing reports, making plans and selecting new proposals and projects. It would be impossible to implement our summer plans without the winter.

There are no retail outlets at our park, and it's hard to deliver surplus items that have not been stockpiled in advance. We must plan our supplies here, in Arkhangelsk, beforehand. But life continues in the winter. We have a research station on Alexandra Land Island that operates all year.

Do you have any plans for expanding tourism? Will you offer any new tourist programs?

We're always doing our best to attract as many travel agencies as possible, and we advise them on various itineraries.

Next year, the nuclear icebreaker 50 Let Pobedy  is to call at our park five times. The ship will sail from Murmansk toward the North Pole and back. The ocean liner Sea Spirit will call at our park three times  after sailing from Svalbard for Franz Josef Land and back. In addition, the cruise ship Akademik Shokalsky will sail the Northern Sea Route twice. But these plans are still on the drawing board because the Arctic tourist business is quite risky.

We have reduced travel times for tourists considerably. Before, a cruise liner sailing 200 nautical miles from Svalbard for Franz Josef Land had to cross the Barents Sea four times, and this meant multiple border clearance/control procedures at Murmansk. Instead of traveling 400 nautical miles in both directions, the cruise ship sailed 2,700 nautical miles in seven-eight days, including all border procedures. Travel time is now two days, at most.

How did you manage to accomplish this?

In 2015, a border checkpoint was opened on Alexandra Land Island. That checkpoint was tested in 2015-2016, handling a tourist ship from Svalbard. Actually a well-known tour operator did most of the work, and we simply helped.

In 2014, we received just 738 people. Last year, we received 1,225 people after the checkpoint opened. Since early 2016, we have received about 1,000 people because the Sea Spirit has called at our park only twice, rather than three times, as last year.

After this temporary checkpoint opened on Alexandra Land Island, part of the Franz Josef Land Archipelago, we received 292 more tourists, a 23-percent increase, during the first year.

This temporary experimental checkpoint on Alexandra Land Island should handle tourist ships on a regular basis, and this will make it possible to receive more tourists. But it did not receive several ships with passengers who wanted to visit Franz Josef Land but never reached it.

What countries do tourists mostly come from?

This year, tourists from 40 different countries visited the national park. As in previous years, in 2016 China was the largest source of tourists, accounting for 26 percent of the total, followed by Germany with 17 percent. The percent of Russians has remained more or less the same at 6 percent.

A total of nine cruises took place in 2016. Of those, five were aboard the 50 Let Pobedy nuclear icebreaker which sailed from Murmansk to the North Pole and back with a call at Franz Josef Land. The Sea Spirit made two more trips taking tourists from Spitzbergen to Franz Josef Land and back, while the Kapitan Khlebnikov icebreaker and the Hanseatic serviced the remaining two cruises which sailed the Northern Sea Route with stops at Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land. National park inspectors were present during all the trips, making sure that no one violated environmental or polar bear protection laws.

The Russian Arctic National Park carried out a clean-up program in 2015. Was it continued this year?

This year, the program to eliminate the old harmful waste was discontinued. We needed to analyze the results what we'd done in order to plan our next steps. We intend to continue the clean-up effort in 2017.

In light of global warming, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment is planning to start the new year with a geo-ecological survey of areas which were cleaned up and will continue to be cleaned in the future. We need to see the dynamics of the natural processes there to understand what changes are taking place. We also need to optimize this effort in light of the social and economic factors.

As for the work itself, we plan to reduce the amount of waste on Franz Josef Land archipelago by at least 8,000 tons. Looking back at what we achieved on the Franz Josef Land and Novaya Zemlya archipelagos, we collected and removed over 40,000 tons of waste. This nearly equals four Eiffel Towers or five Palace Bridges in St. Petersburg. We also reclaimed the land in an area of 349 Ha or 500 football pitches.

At the same time, several historically and culturally important facilities were found and studied. If we had removed everything completely, they would be able to say that there are no traces of Russians on Franz Josef Land, which means Russia has no grounds to claim this territory.

If we consider the facility to be culturally or historically significant, we will submit a request to the Ministry of Culture to preserve it, and the ministry, in turn, would make the necessary assessment. As a result, we preserved the Arctic hydrometeorological stations on Cape Zhelaniya, Novaya Zemlya, and in Tikhaya Bay on Hooker Island, several historical buildings at the Krenkel observatory on Heiss Island, and certain military facilities on the Alexandra Land and Graham Bell islands.

I would like to highlight the role played by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and personally by Minister Sergei Donskoi, who supported our initiative to preserve these historical and cultural facilities. 

In October, there were media reports on the rediscovery of the Schatzgraber ("Treasure Hunter") meteorological station that was first found in the 20th century. Were there any important discoveries at this station this year?

The Schatzgraber base has become the talk of the town with so many legends surrounding it… What happened? During the Second World War, the Arctic was not spared. The German command wanted to have a hydrometeorological base to monitor weather so as to be able to attack lend lease convoys sailing to Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. At a certain point, a radio transmitter was detected from Hooker Island. They revealed themselves by accident. Although it was impossible to identify the exact location, the direction where the signal came from was clear. The radio transmitter had to be located in the west of the archipelago.

After the war, Soviet researchers went to Alexandra Land and discovered this base by accident. What they saw were camouflaged buildings. It was obviously a base that had a purpose. It looked like people had just left it. It was mined by the book. The buildings were suitable for living, so they were demined, and for the first several years members of the Soviet polar expedition to Alexandra Land lived there until a meteorological station with appropriate housing was constructed. In the 1950s, this base was razed.

So in fact, no one was looking for it. When the German archives became available, it turned out that the Germans had similar bases in Greenland and on Spitzbergen. They are well known.

At the same time, there was also a second legend about Cape Nimrod and a German submarine base with underground caves. In fact, there are many legends. People tried looking for it, but never found anything.

In 2012, the park's senior research fellow and professional historian, Yevgeny Yermolov, started working on this story. All the agitation was caused by the images he took. We didn't expect it, since this is what we do day in and day out. In the first season, he managed to uncover 300 items. This year, more detailed research was carried out, including aerial footage of the area, which permitted us to identify and map the main facilities of the former station, including the main residential building, the firing range and the ammunition warehouse. There were a total of 18 buildings. It was the first time a research initiative of this kind was undertaken. There are very few things we know about this station, since the available data are fragmentary and contradictory. The most accurate data were published quite recently in 2001, but they were based on recollections of one of the employees of the station and lacked field data.

The story of the Schatzgraber station had an unhappy ending for its employees. They fell sick. They wanted fresh meat instead of canned food, so one of them shot a polar bear. The bear turned out to be sick, and the station employees fell ill and asked for emergency evacuation. A Focke-Wulf Condor plane was sent for them in 1944.

We organized a challenging expedition in 2016. Yevgeny was able to locate other infrastructure facilities using physical evidence he found on the ground, specifically the Cape Nimrod untraceable base and the place where Focke-Wulf Condor landed in 1944. Evidence collection was a painstaking process: bullet shells, cartridge boxes, ammunition and clothing were found. More than 300 items were transferred to the museum and added to the German collection.

The bear prevented the Germans from getting Arctic weather data, which enabled convoys to circulate in our waters more or less securely.

Have you been able to find the submarine base?

No, this is just an urban legend. The base never existed. It would have been stupid to have a base there, since a submarine in the 1940s was more like a tin can. Back then it was unthinkable to reinforce the body frame to an extent allowing the submarine to sail in ice. In addition, the crews were poorly trained. A submarine captain could be just 24 years old. There were even younger captains in the Kriegsmarine. The German command also understood that having a base there would have been an enormous waste of resources.

Are their plans to explore any other places?

Certainly. There are many historical locations and facilities on the park territory that are waiting for somebody to explore them. Some of them are threatened by the deterioration of coastal areas or biological destruction processes. This is the result of global warming. The increase in the number of people visiting this territory is also a threat.

Primarily, I'm referring to camps set up during the Baldwin and Fiala expeditions, as well as artefacts on Rudolf Island left by pioneer expeditions before the Soviet polar station was set up there, and also the Eira hut from the Leigh Smith expedition.

But there are no other sites linked to military history or the Germans. This was the only episode involving military operations in the Arctic.