Expedition Diaries 2015

Day 12

Day 12

Watch out for the polar bear!

There was a planned landing in the Russkaya Bay, a gulf in the Western part of the Northern Island of the Novaya Zemlya. Soil chemistry, cartographo-geodetic and historical and cultural modules conducted field work there. The first module started work away from the polar station, all the rest – in the settlement itself.

The historical and cultural module started its work right at the abandoned polar station and the brick buildings of the Northern Sea Route Administration. The Russkaya Bay used to be one of the outposts in the Soviet Arctic and 50 years ago the things were humming here. Nevertheless, it is easy to figure out that life here was extremely boring even during the most bustling periods. On the very first building the expedition members noticed a target painted near the roof. Traces of bullets were clearly seen on the target, and on the edge of the settlement there is a shooting-range covered with rusty cartridge cases. Of course, there used to be a military base in the Russkaya Bay (it was later visited by some expedition members), but shooting was the main entertainment for civilians as well. Still this can be useful as a sort of training for meeting with polar bears.

Luckily we did not meet face to face, but the guards spotted a polar bear near the brook. It headed for the settlement, so it was necessary to evacuate the expedition members.

The soil chemistry department was first to be evacuated from the brook area. The historical and cultural department tried to look for some important archives in the polar station building. But they faced different obstacles, polar bear being not the only one of them. The building was messy inside, sometimes there was a block of dim-grey ice in the middle of the room. So it is hard to find anything there, and the expedition failed to find any archives.

20150712_apu_4.jpgBut the historical and cultural department didn’t give up. They got back to the vessel, had lunch and decided to land again, but in another part of the bay, closer to the military base. They took pictures and made a video from different angles of the radio tower, old army trucks, radio detection and ranging equipment station and even the baffled tractor covered with the fisherman’s net. Of course, the combination of rusty red metal and seaweed green colours is beautiful, but for a person who is unrelated to the Arctic it is hard to understand the historical and cultural legacy of these objects. What’s the point of finding some junk on the sea shore and annually monitor its condition, describing in every detail every new rotten or fallen off part? Of course, the history of the Arctic exploration is heroic, but there are no proper (like in Pompey) ruins, because these are not ruins or artefacts. They are built into the landscape. If people leave the polar station, polar bears settle there. Eiders build their nests in barns, mosses and lichens need some more time, but they also spread everywhere.

That is why some scientists object to clearance the Arctic from litter as it actually means not environmental protection, but the balance upset.

Caution: tourists!

20150712_apu_2.jpgHowever, the litter is still cleared, and the monuments are still studied and restored, preventing them from becoming a part of natural context. We should not forget about tourists, and it is hard to explain to the tourists that the Arctic dump site is actually a special type of biotic community. Tourists love natural beauty and historical sights. The latter are still to be put to order in the Arctic.

This is one of the “Russian Arctic” national park tasks. The day before, when the expedition landed on the Zhelaniya Cape, we had a chance to see the results of their work: the most Northern part of the Novaya Zemlya is completely cleared from litter. The new meteo station building was painted. It is only necessary to clear the old meteo station area, and a tourist attraction is ready.

Arctic tourism is not really wide-spread in the Arctic yet. For example, there are more than 40,000 tourists a year on Svalbard, Norway, and only about 1,000 in Russia. However, if we take the cost of such journeys into account, it is also notable income.

Today, on July 12 three lectures took place in the Arctic Floating University. They were about Russian geopolitics in the Arctic region, green economy and about the “Russian Arctic” national park which was presented by Viktor Kuznetsov, the counselor of the park director.

The concept of creating a network of protected areas in high latitudes appeared in 1980s. Villem Barents park in the Northern Island, Novaya Zemlya, and “Franz Josef Land” wildlife reserve were supposed to become the first protected areas in this region, but perestroika and the Soviet Union collapse interfered with this process. But soon it became clear that the situation in the Arctic becomes really disastrous, especially in such remote areas as Franz Josef Land. In 1994 Russian Federation government declared Franz Josef Land a federal wildlife reserve. Soon after that the cruise trips to these islands started. The Environmental Protection Committee representatives were on board during such voyages, but that was clearly not enough to control such vast territories. Then people started speaking about a national park again. It was supposed to include Villem Barents land, Franz Josef Land and Victoria Islands, located between Svalbard and Franz Josef Land. But this project wasn’t approved by the Defense Ministry and the Ministry of Economic Development, so a compromise was found. The national park itself is located in the Northern part of the Novaya Zemlya (in other words, Villem Barents land), Franz Josef Land remains to be a wildlife reserve and the control over it is handed to the national park, and the status of the Victoria Islands is not clear yet.

By the order of the Ministry of Natural Resources issued on June 15, 2009, the project is included into governmental meetings agenda of 2010, and one year later, in summer of 2011, the “Russian Arctic” national park starts work.

20150712_apu_3.jpgPartly this work is connected with tourism development. Usually well-known tour operators hire an atomic or diesel ice-breaker which heads for the North Pole (via Franz Josef Land) or for Franz Josef Land only. One German travel agency organized tours to the Far East along the Northern Sea Route. There was one major challenge, regardless of the route. This challenge was that all foreign vessels had to go through the customs either in Murmansk, or in Arkhangelsk. Today there is the Arkhangelsk port branch on Franz Josef Land, in the Nagurskoe frontier post area. This year the vessels (and there are 3 voyages booked) will leave Svalbard for Nagurskoe and then head for their destination. Private yachts also come to the Russian Arctic from Svalbard. This means that the perspectives of the industry are quite good.

20150712_apu_1.jpgWe should not forget that apart from the scientific tasks, Arctic Floating University is adjusting the old touristic routes and is looking for the new ones. So, the most interesting part starts tomorrow: by 6 pm the RV “Professor Molchanov” is to reach “Franz Josef Land”, a real dream of any Arctic explorer.

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Updated 03.07.2015