The scientists of KU MRI Dr. A. Šiaulys and Dr. M. Bučas, who have sailed to explore Arctic habitats by yacht, state that they have to thank the great crew for the opportunity to work productively, who also fulfilled their most unrealistic wishes. The captain of the crew maneuvered the yacht in small bays, with strong winds blowing, along extremely steep slopes, floes, taking risks without fear for scientific purposes. According to the scientists there was no friction between the eight people, who lived on board the yacht within two weeks. Working for 12 hours every day, the scientists visited another Svalbard bay each time, where they collected material for their further research.
“Our work consisted of two parts. The first part included an acoustic scan of the seabed — we managed to mount a sixty-kilogram multi-beam echo-sounder (the author’s remark: a device for seabed relief measurements, mapping of a seabed), which is designed only for hydrographic vessels, on a forward sheer of the pleasure yacht (the author’s remark: on the ship’s bow). Our aim was to scan a certain area of the seabed and to find out what the depths and relief are there, and to determine the types of sediment on the basis of the data of a side scan, — whether there is rock, sludge or sand — this is a typical habitat mapping procedure. After learning the depths and the type of sediment, we lowered an underwater camera, which could be operated from the ship. This way we collected the images of the seabed, which enabled us to see what species inhabited the bottom and the peculiarities of their habitats.
With these physical and biological parameters, we will try to model the distribution of seabed habitats of other areas, where we have not been. We will try to find out the probability of certain animals inhabiting there. We wanted to start this exploration as near to a glacier as possible, and watch how flora and fauna are changing when moving away from it. Glaciers have a dual effect. Retreating they open new areas of seabed which can be colonized by species. Also, as they are melting, they bring a lot of sediment into the water, therefore it becomes opaque, a large number of suspended particles appear in it that can clog siphons and gills of marine filtering organisms. This has a negative impact”, — A. Šiaulys informed.
Dr. M. Bučas remembers that not all predefined research methods were effective in the Arctic. As he is working with the underwater vegetation, he has encountered certain malfunction of research equipment.
“I worked mostly on board. I was responsible for the mapping of macrophytes (the author’s remark: underwater vegetation). When mapping with my colleague, we wanted to use a drone and see how underwater vegetation was seen from the above, when filming over the clear water. We had tested this equipment beforehand, but when the drone was launched in the Arctic, it began to fly completely off the given course. There was some sort of magnetic disorder. We have heard from others that due to the nearby mountains the drone navigation can malfunction. So, it turns out, not all methods that work in Lithuania work there. This kind of research was also hindered by the turbidity of water caused by the melting of glaciers. The surface of the water becomes grey and it covers the vegetation on the seabed, therefore, in some places, the application of a drone was limited because of this reason also,” — M. Bučas said.
The second part of the expedition
A PhD student in Ecology and Environmental sciences at MRI, Tobia Politi, who participated in the second part of the expedition, was invited to take part in the expedition by MRI Professor Dr. S. Olenin. At first, he intended just to help Lithuanian scientists on board the ship, but later he succeeded in winning a scholarship and obtaining financing for his own research. He took the option and chose to carry out research together with Polish Institute of Oceanography therefore he had a possibility to join the MRI scientists in the Arctic. While sailing on board the ship “Oceania” he explored biogeochemical processes of the Arctic seabed.
The guy says that from the very beginning he has realized what a unique opportunity he has been given, therefore he jokes that he felt “like the chosen one” throughout all the expedition. Although he was the only stranger on board the Polish ship, he says that living on deck on board the ship for 12 days was not complicated. Everyone was kind and helpful. The most difficult part was getting the work done because there was a lot of work, and the sailing team was small. Tobia also remembers the impressions of the polar day with wonder.
“I woke up at 2.00 a. m. at night because it was always light. However, I was really lucky. While I was in the Arctic, the sun was shining throughout all ten days. This happens rarely”, — the doctoral student from Italy recalled.
During the expedition, Tobia explored biogeochemical processes of the Arctic seabed, therefore he also worked from the ship.
“I embedded the tubes of sediment columns into the seabed and pulled them out with sediment. I transferred the sediment taken from the seabed to a device called device mesocosm (the author’s remark: a close system, which reproduces natural conditions as best as possible). Then I watched how the seabed sediments react with water. This is one of the most important goals in studying marine ecosystems — to find out how the seabed water reacts with seabed sediment. Whether there is oxygen or not”, —Tobia told of his activities in the Arctic.
The third part of the expedition
Probably the most physically demanding part of the expedition was the one, in which the scientist of KU MRI, Dr. Tomas Ruginis, took part. He travelled 150 km on foot through the Arctic wild nature carrying on his back a 25 kg rucksack. He says he had a hard time taking it off the last days.
There were 8-9 points provided in advance, where we had to stop and count plastic during the trip. And it was counted as follows: you find an area of 20×20 square meters and you count all plastic residues and particles in it. At each stop you have to count three such squares. The most commonly found residues are the parts of fishing net ropes and boxes. There is not much garbage like we have. A large part of our trip was through the national park, where civilians do not get in easily. There is a natural beach, where the last traces of human activity were probably a hundred years ago. Whale hunters carried out their activity on that beach, so you can still find 5 meters long whale ribs on the beach on the go. When the water level came down, we went to pick sideburns (benthic crustaceans). We kept on going from morning till evening and 9 people slept in a tent for 10 persons. We had to guard against polar bears, so we were on watch alternately. But we did not meet them face to face, we saw only their footmarks”, — the fearless scientist tells.