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KU scientists, who investigated the Arctic: „It is visible to the naked eye that glaciers are shrinking“.

Recently the scientists of Klaipeda University Marine Research Institute (KU MRI) returned from the expedition to the land of permafrost — the Arctic. In cooperation with the scientists of Polish Institute of Oceanography, they investigated how melting glaciers change the environment of the Arctic and benthic (sea-bed) habitats.

The scientists of neighboring countries join their forces in scientific research not for the first time. They step into the Arctic applying their strengths based on excellent bilateral scientific relationship and year-long cooperation between the MRI Professor Sergej Olenin and Polish Academy of Sciences Institute of Oceanography Professor J. M. Weslawski.

Polish Institute of Oceanography has already shown itself in polar research. They have established a biological station in the Arctic and they have been working there for decades. Meanwhile Klaipėda University scientists have broad knowledge related to the mapping of bottom habitats, biogeochemistry, marine ecosystems, sea-bed habitats, modelling.

Scientists of Klaipėda University Marine Research Institute Dr. Sergej Olenin, Dr. Andrius Šiaulys, Dr. Martynas Bučas, Dr. Tomas Ruginis, Dr. Diana Vačiūtė, PhD student from Italy Tobia Politi and KU Master’s student Edvinas Tiškus participated in different parts of the expedition. Different challenges were faced during each of them, because the methods of research material collection as well as means of transport varied.

The first part of the expedition

“The expedition was divided into three parts. During the first part we went to Spitzbergen, where the Polish scientific sailing ship “Oceania“ had already arrived at by the Arctic Ocean. Then we divided into two teams — four people went on board the yacht “Magnus Zaremba“, while others sailed on board the bigger ship “Oceania“. PhD student of Marine Research Institute Tobia Politi also sailed on board this ship. We sailed together for three days. Those, who were sailing on board the yacht, explored shallower places, and those on board of the ship explored the deeper ones. After that, a part of the team from the big ship was transferred to the yacht, which continued the work in Istfjord, the rest were taken to the airport, and the ship continued sailing towards Hornsund, on the way disembarking the land expedition with Dr. Tomas Ruginis. He walked along the wild Arctic coast for more than a week, as we joked “to feed bears”, — told the scientist of Marine Research Institute Dr. Andrius Šiaulys, who was sailing in Svaldbard waters on board the yacht.

According to the scientist Dr. A Šiaulys, the scientists had a lot of objectives while exploring the Arctic. They managed to implement most of them, and some of them — on the last day of the expedition. “Together with a warming climate the species of warmer waters, so called boreal species, enter the Arctic districts. Such species live, for example, in Lithuania. Also garbage which can be covered by marine organisms (biological coating) is constantly brought in the area. Earlier, when it was colder, the species brought in with garbage just did not survive, that is why the Arctic was naturally protected from them. However, the climate is becoming warmer and these species will be able to inhabit the Arctic. They will influence the local ecosystem. This is how a chain effect occurs — the climate is getting warmer; therefore, glaciers are melting. With melting glaciers, the split-off icebergs scrape seabed, this way they destroy local habitats, and the water of a melting glacier carries a lot of inorganic substances into bays, and so increases its turbidity. This contributes to the loss of local habitats, and at the same time non-native species start arriving which can already settle in the new environment.

One of the objectives of the expedition was to find a boreal species — a blue mussel (Mytilus edulis), which also lives here, in Lithuania. It can survive in warm summers and rather cold winters. In other words, it is completely adapted to Lithuanian climate. Historically, some thousand years ago it lived in Svalbard, when climate in the Arctic was warmer than it is now. Following cooling of climate, this species became extinct. It was rumored that this species introduced itself in the Arctic, therefore we aimed at finding it. We succeeded to do it on the last day of the expedition in Trygghamna Bay just at the edge of a glacier!

Also, we aimed to collect a maximum number of boreal sideburns (author’s remark: benthic crustaceans), which compete with a local species. In the course of the project we will make their genetic analysis — we will seek to find out where they are spreading from. We wanted to clear out the same about the above mentioned mussels. We are investigating, which region they are genetically closer to — the Baltic region, Norwegian region, or maybe they came from the Faroe Islands”, — the scientist of Marine Research Institute told about the goals of the expedition.

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.

  1. Ruginis’ main objective was to investigate how much plastic is dumped in the Arctic. He says that the initial results excited him.

”Before the trip, I had the illusion that there would be more garbage, there would be animals attached to plastic garbage on the coast, but I did not find any. The plastic we found was dried up and it was dumped long ago. Such a result that we did not find too much plastic was not good for the scientist but as a human being I felt fine. It means that the environment is not so polluted yet”, — T. Ruginis was pleased.

Despite the fact that there was less garbage in the Arctic than it was expected, the men remember the case for which they felt well ashamed.

“There are a lot of tourists in the Arctic as cruise ships often call there. For example, a cruise ship with 4,000 people arrives, and the town itself has only 2,000 residents. Therefore, of course, we found some trash left by tourists, the first of which was Russian. We started to resent, “how the Russians have no shame here”, and then we saw another garbage — Lithuanian tetra pack, on which was the label something like “Environmentally friendly tetra pack…”. It was a great shame. It turns out that Lithuanians leave behind and such traces”, —the scientists of KU told, feeling the responsibility for their nationals.

Everyday life in the Arctic

When talking about life in the Arctic, the men who spent expedition in the ocean said they hoped it would be worse. They said they had taken warm clothes, but very often they did not need even gloves. Dr. A. Šiaulys, who participated in the expedition for the second year, witnessed that the conditions were incomparably better than the previous year, when they had to work in an open sea in the icy wind and rain. This year the bravest even bathed in 8 degrees Celsius water at glaciers.

The scientists say that they had to eat tinned food for 11 consecutive days, but the thought that the crew who had brought the yacht “Magnus Zaremba” from Poland had been eating the same canned food even for three months comforted them. Still, on the last days they managed to catch cod and prepare a seaweed soup which was real refreshment.

According to M. Bučas, he was skeptical about such an adventure before the trip. He said that he wanted to go somewhere warmer, but when he arrived there, spectacular views impressed him. Caves that were washed out by melting snow on top of the mountains, creating an illusion of architectural buildings, made a huge impression.

Now the scientists are facing the most challenging “phase of the expedition”. The material collected within two weeks will have to be analyzed. This process will take all winter and only then it will be possible to find out more accurate results of these investigations. So far, the scientists of KU MRI are reassuring that glaciers are still in place, although it is visible to the naked eye that glaciers have decreased significantly.