National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala is setting off to explore Franz Josef Land, one of the most remote archipelagos in the world, only 900 km from the North Pole. Home to polar bears, whales, seals and more, the team will investigate how global warming may be affecting this crucial ecosystem in ways we still do not fully comprehend. Follow his adventures throughout the month.
Interview by Lucie McNeil, Expedition Team Member
Lucie McNeil sat down with Maria Gavrilo, Deputy Director of Science, Russian Arctic National Park, Franz Josef Land for a mid-expedition update.
>We’re just over halfway through the expedition – how would you summarize the collaboration and camaraderie so far?
It’s been a very interesting and intense expedition so far. Many new faces working together, and for me, new activities and exploration possibilities. Everyone, irrespective of their professional fields are dedicated, enthusiastic and highly skilled. We all have quite a lot of experience between us, some of it very differently learned and yet we’ve managed to find common ground to combine our expertise, ideas and capabilities; we all have, I really believe, a common goal– to understand and learn the life of this remote Arctic area.
As far as I can see, our joint efforts will hopefully have a cumulative effect leading to amazing discoveries. At the same time, working in such a diverse team is no easy task, our unlimited creativity (!) faces a number of limitations – time, human and technical resources and natural conflict of interests – for example walruses usually disrupt the waters around their haul out sites which makes underwater sampling harder, and the birds my team is studying will often avoid places that our geomorphologists need to transect. But we make it work…
>You’re been to FJL before; what’s the most important scientific aspect for your discipline this time around? And personally?
I’m an ornithologist and marine zoologist, so the major scientific task for me is to evaluate the current status of the arctic seabird and marine mammals populations, under changing climate conditions and human impact. To assess the health of their population and marine ecosystem as a whole. Seabirds are known to be a good indicator of ecosystem status, so studying birds, their distribution, population numbers, foraging patterns and level of contaminants in their tissues, I can learn the overall status of local marine ecosystems. Birds are not just my professional interest, but personal as well.
My recent major project concerns the ivory gull, one of the least abundant and least studied seabirds in the world. Along with the polar bears, it is the most ice-dependent species – and it’s the Arctic’s flagship species, although not that well-known with the public. The Russian part of the species supports almost 2/3 of the world population of ivory gulls, and in Franz Josef Land there are biggest colonies in the Barents Sea. Every summer I come to the Arctic, I try to monitor as many colonies as possible, and this expedition we started with a visit to Skvortsova Bay, Alexandra Land, which has one of the largest ivory gull colonies known in the archipelago. We found ivory gulls there in good numbers, raising chicks. And during this expedition we’ve been lucky to discover a completely new colony of ivory gulls.
>Can you describe the process of your particular fieldwork method, from when the zodiacs are in the water and you’re setting off for a particular island.
Before a visit to any site, I’ll check available information on the bird life and other biodiversity known to the area, to plan the work at the site. The field methods we use may vary depending on bird and mammal population we expect to have at the area. In some places we simply do a visual transect survey, walking through the area and registering all birds seen around, trying to find their nests or chicks on tundra. Any found chicks are tagged. When there are seabird colonies, we make a visual and photo survey of the numbers.
At the beginning of the expedition were studying the distribution of seabirds at sea during non-breeding seasons, i.e. from late summer through winter to the spring migration. For that, we caught 70 specimens of three seabird species and equipped them with miniature geolocators. Next summer we have to come back and to catch the same birds to retrieve devices and download the data. Having the location of the birds means we will map their migration pathways and wintering grounds, which will reveal important nonbreeding grounds. This information is important for good management of rapidly moving activities taking place now in the Arctic shelf seas.
>What’s FJL look like in five or ten years, in your view? What will change for better or worse ecologically, and environmentally?
In terms of environmental changes, it’s not easy to say, but I’d certainly like to see more sea ice remain in FJL in summer to support Arctic wildlife, which is important for climate. However, recent trends suggest there’ll be more icebergs from retreating glaciers, rather than sea ice. There’ll surely be more human activity via National Park tourism as well as development of land-based infrastructure in some places. And there are still several sites on the archipelago where substantial `garbage stores’ exist; abandoned buildings, used and unused fuel barrels and rotting machinery from previous research activity on the archipelago – military bases and weather stations.
A few years ago a wide-scale clean-up operation began to be worked up. We visited Hayes Island a few days ago, where a big observatory populated by @ 200 research people ran from 1972 for a few decades. Now, it’s the only permanently inhabited civil settlement on FJL, with a population of 4 – 8 people year round. They live in recently installed cabins while the old station is spread around them and the lake banks. It seems like a waste plot, with old-fashion buildings, machinery and a crashed airplane. Next year a clean-up operation is scheduled here, which should remove garbage, fuel barrels and other waste. The National Park administration plans to leave the old buildings, airplane, selected machinery in place and include Hayes Island within the network sites of the open air historical-ecological museum, the project initiated by the scientists of the park.
>What impact do you hope our science collaboration and reporting out may have in Russia, and globally?
I do hope that our fruitful collaboration will emphasize the importance and advantages of scientific exploration of the Arctic for better, wider understanding of global biodiversity and processes in polar regions, and on the planet.
Many experts in different fields here can now show a near complete picture of an entire ecosystem and reveal relationships between its different levels and components. We have wonderful teams working on visualization and media projects which will showcase the scientific results through the amazing beauty of the nature and wildlife.
>What’s the next ‘big’ project you’ll be working on when you get back from here ?
Well, soon after I get back it will be already be time to plan my next field season! I have some ideas on possible expedition projects in Franz-Josef Land combining marine sciences and arts, but for now, it’s still a little secret !
>What tips or advice would you give to younger blog readers interested in working in remote / arctic national parks?
I’d be happy if young people would be interested in working here, and in other remote arctic and marine protected areas. However, these areas require not only dedicated people but also trained and dedicated. I’d recommend those who want to come here to learn the works of earlier scientists, explorers, travelers, and to read original publications and not to narrow their interests to a specific field – but rather to learn the big picture, which allows an understanding of the magical specificity of the environment. And I’d recommend to train and get a skill in basic extreme activities like climbing, sea operations, and wilderness survival.
The Pristine Seas: Franz Josef Land expedition is sponsored by Blancpain and Davidoff Cool Water.