Arctic Floating University Returns from Arctic Ocean with Unique Finds

The expedition ‘Arctic Floating University 2022: The Changing Arctic’ on the Professor Molchanov research vessel concluded on 16 July. The researchers shared the first results of the expedition at the Conference on Waste and Microplastics in the Arctic, which was held in Arkhangelsk as part of the main events of Russia’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2021–2023, which are being organized by the Roscongress Foundation.

“The Arctic Floating University is 10 years old. It’s crucial that our project be included in the programme of Russia’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The Association of Floating Universities was organized our university’s involvement. We are thrilled that the movement is developing every year. This year, we made some very interesting and important discoveries, which is particularly important given the plans for the development of the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation,” Konstantin Zaykov, vice rector for information policy and international and interregional cooperation at Northern (Arctic) Federal University (NAFU), said in comments about the results of the expedition.

The voyage lasted 22 days, during which 55 participants – scientists, graduate students, and students from different cities of Russia – visited the White, Barents, and Kara Seas, the Novaya Zemlya archipelago, Vaygach Island, and Sosnovets Island. The expedition’s scientific programme consisted of eight blocks, including the microbiology and biodiversity of the Arctic, oceanology and meteorology, the study of marine debris and microplastics, as well as historical and cultural heritage.

“This year, we managed to pass through almost the entire northern part of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. In addition to the traditional landing sites – Cape Zhelaniya, Russian Harbor, and Ledyanaya Harbour – we worked in Murmanets Bay on the Kara side and Ivanov Bay on the Barents Sea side for the first time,” said Alexander Saburov, head of the expedition and director of the Institute for Strategic Arctic Development at NAFU.

The Arctic Floating University has long been dealing with a hot topic for modern science – the study of microplastics and marine debris.

“Unfortunately, this issue is becoming increasingly relevant for the Arctic. This year, a record amount of marine debris was collected from the coast of Novaya Zemlya. In Murmanets Bay, we found about 3,000 pieces of garbage, mostly plastic. Debris has been lying for more than a year. This can be seen from the degree of defragmentation, weathering, and traces of ultraviolet exposure. We saw a hot spot of marine litter accumulated in the Barents Sea: nowhere in the Russian part of this region is there such an amount of plastic litter on the coast,” said Alexandra Yershova, director of the Laboratory for the Study of Plastic Pollution of the Environment at Russian State Hydrometeorological University.

Yevgeny Yermolov, the director of the Department for the Preservation of the Historical and Cultural Heritage of the Russian Arctic National Park, made some valuable finds associated with Pomor crafts and shipbuilding. The Pomors, or seasiders, are an ethnographic group descended from Russian settlers who lived on the White Sea coasts. The researchers managed to recover a unique ancient embroidered Pomor ship from Oransky Islands, the northernmost one that has been found in Russia. Ship fragments were also found in Murmanets Bay and Ivanov Bay. The Pomors explored the Arctic centuries ago, long before the Europeans, and new information about them is very important for historians.

“We noticed that the avifauna of the Barents Sea and its islands is changing dramatically. First of all, more southern species are moving to the north. At Cape Zhelaniya in the very north of Novaya Zemlya, we found barn swallows and mallards. Another trend is the process of Atlantization: seabirds, primarily skuas and boobies, are moving eastward from the Atlantic to the Arctic. A new bird colony has appeared on Cape Konstantin, which shows that living conditions have become more favourable. Apparently, climate warming for inhabitants of the high-latitude Arctic is creating positives and not just negatives,” said Irina Pokrovskaya, a senior researcher at the Biodiversity Laboratory of the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

The 2022 expedition paid special attention to microbiological research.

“Scientists still know very little about how polar microbial ecosystems function. They are very important though. My work involves searching for bacteriophages – viruses that can destroy pathogenic bacteria. Nadezhda Sachivkina from the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia has gathered a large collection of so-called ‘red snow’. This is the habitat of Chlamydomonas nivalis microalgae, which has the potential to produce new antioxidant and antimicrobial compounds. Research by Pavel Nazarov from Moscow State University is related to non-culturable microorganisms. Great scientific breakthroughs are possible in this area since this specific bacteria, which cannot be grown in laboratories, could be a source of new antibiotics,” Artemy Goncharov, director of the Laboratory of Functional Genomics and Proteomics of Microorganisms of the Institute of Experimental Medicine, said in comments about the expedition results.

Floating universities are a unique Russian educational technology based on the UNESCO principle of learning through research, said Alexander Milkus, director of the Learning through Research organization and coordinator of the Association of Floating Universities.

“Thanks to the Arctic Floating University project, we have a unique opportunity to conduct regular hydrological and oceanological research in the Barents and Kara Seas. This year, in the north of the Kara Sea, we managed to catch the Atlantic water mass, which affects the biodiversity and hydrometeorological situation in the Arctic, and also brings in microplastics. Students at the floating university work together with oceanologists, learn in the real world, and listen to lectures by professionals,” said Viktor Merkulov, the leading engineer at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute.

The Arctic Floating University was organized by NAFU and the Northern Administration for Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring. This year, the project’s partners were the Russian Geographical Society, the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East and the Arctic, the Far East and Arctic Development Corporation, and the Arkhangelsk Region government.

The expedition members presented the results of the expedition as well as their scientific discoveries and expedition finds to Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East and the Arctic Alexey Chekunkov during his working visit to the Arkhangelsk Region. The minister offered high praise for the expedition and wished the participants success in conducting scientific research for the benefit of the Russian Arctic.

A cross-cutting priority of Russia’s chairmanship of the Arctic Council in 2021–2023 is to ensure responsible governance for the sustainable development of the Arctic with a social, economic, and environmental balance. The chairmanship programme aims to enhance the efficiency of scientific activities and the practical applicability of its results in the region, optimize the use of scientific infrastructure, promote new technologies and best practices in the implementation of joint projects, as well as improve training for specialists working in high latitudes, including through the implementation of the ‘Learning through Research’ concept.