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The Klaipėda University scientist, who spent the summer in the Arctic: „There are meadows now, where it used to be lakes”
05-11-2019

When other scientists of Klaipėda University Marine Research Institute (KU MRI) worked in Svaldbard waters in the Arctic, investigating, how melting glaciers change the environment of the Arctic and benthic (sea-bed) habitats, a junior scientist of Klaipėda University Marine Research Institute Julius Morkūnas was catching long-tailed ducks (lat. Clangula hyemalis) and performed surgeries to them in Kolguyev Island. Now the scientist recalls the everyday life in the Russian Arctic with a smile. Having heard of such a life most of us would probably shiver.

Although J. Morkūnas is already not a freshman in the Arctic, he also has helped in similar investigations before, this year the Land of permafrost met him and other members of the expedition especially inhospitably – without the sun and with the temperature no more than 5-6 ℃ for June. During the summer expedition the scientist had to warm up clothes in a sleeping bag, and to shovel away the snow from the tent.

The expedition, for which the KU scientist left according to the project of colleagues from Germany, was devoted to preservation of long-tailed ducks and other sea ducks wintering in the Baltic Sea. German and Russian scientists had already been investigating these endangered species of ducks in the warm period of the year for several consecutive seasons. They had been monitoring ducks’ hatching success — how many juvenile ducklings are hatched; how much ducks eat.

This year, among the ten people, who travelled in the expedition, the only Lithuanian – J. Morkūnas – got in. Previously he had assisted a little to the team of German scientists in similar research. Julius also had had some experience working with the same species of ducks in Lithuania, where they return for wintering.

“I was the only Lithuanian. Since I am a veterinarian by profession, my main goal during the expedition was to insert the transmitters into the ducks. I kept the record of long-tailed ducks, assisted in finding their nests. I implanted transmitters in the caught birds and according to the data they sent, I monitored, where they were flying. Prior to this, for some years, certain light recorders – devices that record the length of light in the course of the day were placed.

According to the date and the length of the daylight, it was possible to tell the coordinates of the place where a particular bird was. This could be determined with the accuracy of +/- 300 km. This year, we have implanted more precise devices – satellite transmitters, which have been inserted inside of the bird. The transmitters send a signal to the space every few days, and the satellites use the signal to locate the bird, and then, they send the data back to the data centers; when we connect to the centers, we can see, where a particular bird is“ – the Lithuanian presented his work in the Arctic.

The method of implanting the transmitters in the birds had already been used for the first time by KU with the project “Denoflit“ in 2012, so Julius Morkūnas was well acquainted with the implantation methodology. In order to perform such surgeries, the scientist had to take all the equipment with him to the Arctic – anesthesia machine, medications, various transmitters, lamps.

“I took with me two suitcases with things for the surgeries and one suitcase with my personal belongings“, – the KU scientist recalls.

All household activities took place in separate tents. One tent was for surgeries, another tent for toilet, and yet another was a kitchen.

“In the helicopter, you carry all your belongings – one tent to live in, another common tent for food preparation, a tent to be used as a storeroom for technical items and food supplies, and others as well. Also, you take with you a generator. We turned it on for a couple of hours a day to charge various GPS devices, computers, work tools, portable radios, which we used for communication, while we were out for work. We were taken by helicopter to the place, where nobody is present within a distance of 630 km. You will not meet anyone there, even though in the island itself, there is a village, meteorological station and a couple of oil-rigs.

There is no telephone connection there and the only civilization, which you can see is a liner flying 2-3 times per week from Archangelsk to the New Land. If it is windy and overcast, you cannot see even it. The only possibility to connect to the civilized world is a satellite telephone, which we used to write standard messages of 160 characters to our families several times per week and to receive weather forecasts for a few days ahead from our colleagues on the mainland. Relying on them we decided, if it was worth going out for work or not“, – the KU scientist shared his memories.

However, according to J. Morkūnas, there was no friction to live for 34 days without sunset with the same people. After all, the tundra reaches are vast, and each person had his own tent.

J. Morkūnas does not hide that this summer it was very cold in the Arctic, at the place where they were working. The wind was always very strong, constantly blowing through private tents and it was impossible to sleep even at night. In the end of June there still was a very strong wind and heavy rain. Also one day the tents were even covered by snow. The temperature in July reached 5-6℃, so the members of the team had to wear winter gloves and caps.

“Actually, there were no sunny days in fact, so it was always chilly. Before going to bed, I put my pants and socks into a sleeping bag, so that I did not have to put on the clothes that got cold in the tent in the morning. Getting out of the sleeping bag and getting dressed was the most unfavourite part of my day“, – the KU scientist laughs.

Though the group of scientists went to the expedition to carry out research not for the first time, and they knew what to expect in the severe Arctic, nevertheless, the weather conditions caused certain inconveniences while carrying out the expedition work. For example, the surgery tent for the transmitter implantation never warmed up to suitable temperature.

“We caught the ducks, made them injections of sedatives and then we returned to make a surgery to the separate surgery tent. In order the equipment could operate, the temperature in the surgery must be at least 20 ℃. But that never happened. The temperature rose to 17 ℃ the highest. We set up a furnace and put warm bottles around the gas mixer – anesthesia machine, because it hardly works at low temperatures.  Then we implanted the transmitters in birds and carried them back to set them free. They recovered within a couple of hours. We did not see immediately where they were flying because we did not have the Internet. We have implanted 14 transmitters in total, 13 of which are still transmitting data about the location of the birds,“ – the employee of KU MRI disclosed.

Everyday life in the Arctic

Despite severe weather conditions, if it was not raining or snowing, every day the group of 10 scientists started for the tundra to perform their tasks. They carried rucksacks on their backs, which were full of equipment for research and spare clothing, and they covered about 20-30 km per day.

The tasks were of a very wide range: from observation of hatching habitats, searches of nests to catching the birds and their ringing. Some scientists worked with ducks, some caught half snipes, and others counted the nests of geese.

The KU scientist tells that certain monitoring areas were allocated for the performance of these works where the number of hatching ducks is monitored year after year.

“It is like that: you line up every 5 meters and go through the tundra. As the birds fly up from under your feet, you record their nests, record the coordinates of their nests, measure and weigh the eggs.”

When listening to the narrative of Julius Morkūnas, it may seem that every day in the expedition is like an ordinary day in the office. Every member of the expedition knows his responsibilities, and every day the work starts and ends at the time set up unofficially.

“At about 9.00 a.m. we had our breakfast, then at about 10 o‘clock we left for work and we stayed there until 07.00-08.00 o‘clock in the evening, when the sun started setting and the weather was getting cold at the same time. When you are back, you maintain the equipment, enter your data. You also do household work – clean fish, cut firewood. You take drinking water from the streams, go fishing. The next day everything is similar again“, – the employee of MRI said.

Sometimes the routine of the expedition participants was destroyed by the strong wind or heavy rain. Then they stayed in their small “tent camp“, and engaged in private activities or household work.

“We had a mobile sauna – a tent with a separate furnace. When we fired it up, the water warmed up and we could wash ourselves. We did it at least once a week, mostly, when the weather condition did not permit us to go on the expedition. Also, when it was raining, we entered data, some people wrote their diaries or took photos“, – the researcher recalls.

The bio-toilet also was in a separate tent. In another tent, there was a kitchen equipped with a special wood-fired fireplace, and the scientists cooked on it and a pilaf, and the Ukrainian borsch.

“Every day there were two people on duty who prepared breakfast and dinner for the whole group, washed up the dishes after the cooking. We stored some food products in car freezers, powered by generator, and we hid such products as sausages or processed cheese underground in the frozen ground, in the holes, which we dig to the depth of 30-40 cm. We covered those places by bags or moss, and the products preserved well for a long time“, – J. Morkūnas said.

“And, as we lived more than a month at the temperature of 5℃, there was a shortage of fire-wood that we had brought with us. We had to look for extra supplies nearby and to carry boards and wood we found for a couple of kilometers.”

Frost is not the only danger

It may seem what the dangers can be found in the tundra wilderness, in the island, surrounded by water from all sides. It turns out that the dangers exist and even a number of them.

Such a simple natural phenomenon like fog can become a real enemy in the expedition.

“All of us were carrying GPS devices; as sometimes such a fog rose that you could find no way back, when you were just 50 m away from the camp. It was like a wall, and the surrounding landscape everywhere was similar“, – the scientist stated.

And this is not the only case, when the Arctic nature can trip you up. Sometimes even in the literal sense of the word.

“When we arrived to catch ducks, there still was ice on some lakes; the ice broke under the feet of two people, and they got into ice cracks. We pulled them out.

At the foot of the mountains, where there is more shade, even in summer much of the snow remains. Sometimes, when you are walking through the snow, it breaks down somewhere at the bottom, so there is always a chance to sink in the snow up to the half of your body. In addition, we wore high boots so that we could cross the steams. Sometimes early in the morning, where the water reached 20-30 cm, you could walk with your boots rolled down, but on the way back, if the snow melted during the day, the water reached up to a half meter.

It is an unenviable situation, if you do not have other dry clothes with you. Being wet, you have to walk back to the camp for 2 or 3 kilometers. So, when we went for work, we always took with us spare clothing: from spare gloves, socks to pants. You never know, what can happen”, – J. Morkūnas shared his experience.

But perhaps the greatest danger in the Arctic, though rather rare, is white bears that migrate through the island.

“We went to work to the fields without guns, and if bears had attacked, we would not have had any chance to escape. But bears usually do not come to the middle of the island, they walk along the coasts. They also come in winter time, when the ice approaches the island; so in summer it is rather safe there“, – the scientist stated.

Disappearing lakes

  1. Morkūnas’ colleagues, who worked in another part of the Arctic (reference) have mentioned that talks about climate change are grounded. It is visible to the naked eye that glaciers are shrinking. Though the scientist, who caught long-tailed ducks, worked in the Arctic, where no glaciers are present, he says he has noticed other signs that show the change of the climate.

“When walking through the tundra, we can notice that in the places, where shallower lakes used to be, now there are meadows. While working in the course of 4-5 years, it is possible to notice that the water level of other lakes is decreasing. Such are the main effects of the climate change – drying up of the tundra and the decreasing amount of water.

Furthermore, currently shallower lakes freeze up from two sides, top and bottom. In winter, when it starts freezing, the ice begins to increase at the edges and it covers the top first, and then the bottom. When the ice starts melting, the top melts first, but the bottom layer still remains for some time. If sometimes you sink into the ice from the above layer, you still will be able to walk on the hard bottom“, – the employee of MRI maintained.

Another question, raised by the participants of the expedition, was: why long-tailed ducks are reducing in number so significantly? It is easiest to count the whole population of long-tailed ducks in Lithuania, as almost 80-90 percent of them winter in the Baltic Sea. People, who record ducks, can see that the population of these birds reduced by 60 percent over the last 25 years. So, where do they disappear? Are the problems in the Arctic or in their wintering places?

“This year, when it was windy and wet in the Arctic, we noticed that only two pairs of ducks with their juvenile ducklings could be found in the approximate area of 2000 ha. A few years ago, with very good weather and warm spring, we found about 10 pairs with juvenile ducklings in the ten times smaller area. So far it is difficult to state anything exactly. When the project is over, it will be clearer. After all, the Arctic does not freeze in winter as much as before. Maybe birds stay to winter somewhere else, not in the Baltic Sea?“, – the scientist, the participant of the expedition, speculates.