A polar bear stands sentinel on Rudolf Island in Russia’s Franz Josef Land archipelago, destination of a multidisciplinary scientific expedition in the summer of 2013.
A polar bear stands sentinel on Rudolf Island in Russia’s Franz Josef Land archipelago, destination of a multidisciplinary scientific expedition in the summer of 2013.

Franz Josef Land

The Meaning of North

This story appears in the August 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Feodor Romanenko raises his arms. “Dear colleagues,” he says, with his usual puckish smile, and then launches into his Russian-accented French. “Dear colleagues” aren’t quite the only words of English he knows, but they’re clearly his favorites, useful for summoning attention from a motley international group such as ours. Dear colleagues, I propose that we now climb up there, he says, indicating a precipitous, unstable, ugly hillside of scree. Dear colleagues, lunchtime! Let us enjoy it here atop the butte before high winds and the next snowstorm arrive. Dear colleagues, he brags cheerily to our evening assembly, today my group made five wondrous discoveries, including two kinds of basalt! and some Mesozoic sediments! and evidence of recent deglaciation! Romanenko is a geomorphologist based at Moscow State University, and after 28 seasons on the shores and the islands of the Arctic Ocean, his enthusiasm for his work is still boyish. Trudging across a severe northern landscape, he exudes contagious joy in the doing of field science—of making close observations, seeing patterns, compiling data that may help answer, among other mysteries, the question of ice.

We have come north with Romanenko into the high Russian Arctic, to an archipelago known as Franz Josef Land, and although it’s not our primary purpose, that question underlies much of what we’re here to learn. It’s really three questions: Why is the perennial ice melting? How far will that melting go? And with what ecological consequences? When you make a biological expedition into the high polar regions, Arctic or Antarctic, in this era of climate change, the question of ice is always important, whether you address it directly or indirectly.

Our approach is indirect. We have come north out of Murmansk across the Barents Sea, almost 40 of us, members of the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land, to view this remote archipelago through a variety of lenses—botany, microbiology, ichthyology, ornithology, and more. Franz Josef Land comprises 192 islands, most of them built of Mesozoic sediments covered with a capping of columnar basalt, and so flat across the top that, viewed without ice (as they increasingly are), they look like mesas or buttes in Arizona. Throughout earlier times they supported no permanent human habitation—until the Soviets established research stations and military bases on a few of the islands. That presence diminished to a tiny remnant during the 1990s, but now increased thawing, new sea routes, and economic considerations are bringing renewed attention to this area by the Russian government.

For a month we zigzag through the archipelago, drawn here and there by opportunity and driven by weather, escaping the winds that push the brash ice and the bergs, going ashore when the polar bears let us, admiring the walruses and the ivory gulls and the bowhead whales, gathering data in places where few data have ever been gathered.

We are 800 nautical miles north of the Arctic Circle. Our ship is the Polaris, a refitted tourist vessel with closets converted to laboratories, microscopes on dining tables, and an entire salon filled with scuba gear, including dry suits to protect our divers from water at 30°F (minus 1°C). The team includes Russians, Americans, Spaniards, Britons, one Australian, and a couple of Frenchmen. Each day some of us go ashore on the latest island near which we’ve anchored, to walk transects, band birds, count walruses, or collect plants, while others dive the cold water to take inventory of marine microbes, algae, invertebrates, and fish. The walking days are sometimes long, but we’re always back at the ship before dark, because dark never comes. The sun doesn’t set; it just loops around irresolutely in the northern sky. The dives are short but dauntingly cold, even for a man wearing Ninja Turtles underwear beneath his dry suit. Feodor Romanenko’s perspective is especially important among the others, not just for science but also for morale, because it combines geology with élan.

Romanenko is not so space-age in style as the divers. In his floppy-eared hat, his iridescent orange vest, and his hip waders, with his shotgun in hand, he looks like an affable duck hunter from a small town in Minnesota. His other key piece of equipment is a garden spade. Katerina Garankina, one of his Ph.D. students from Moscow State University, red haired and field hardy, assists him in the work of drawing geomorphological profiles of the islands. Michael Fay, doing the botany, is a natural on their daily outings ashore because, like Romanenko, he suffers an unquenchable craving to walk. Fay’s epic survey hike across the forests of central Africa (“Megatransect,” October 2000, and two later stories) was neither the first of his wilderness treks nor the last, and now that he’s 58 years old, dividing his time between a cabin in Alaska and a conservation job with the government of Gabon, he’s no less restless and impatient for foot travel through wild places. Arctic flora are mostly new to Fay, but on our first afternoon ashore in Franz Josef Land, I watched him identify a dozen flowering plants to at least their genera, each plant just a delicate clump of leaves within the pavement of rocks and mosses, its stems topped by tiny yellow or red flowers.

Now, nine days later on an island called Payer, Fay is down on his hands and knees again, squinting, counting petals and carpels, taking photos. He’s got 12 species in his notebook by the time Romanenko and Garankina have measured the old marine terraces sloping up from the beach.

There are old marine terraces on Payer and elsewhere because Franz Josef Land experienced episodes of uplift during the late Pleistocene and recent millennia, totaling, in some parts of the archipelago, more than 300 feet of elevation. The islands, on the far northerly wedge of the Eurasian plate, now ride higher in the water. Those uplifts have been driven by tectonic forces and to some degree by the disappearance of ice. As a glacier melts away, its mass vanishing, its weight dropping, the terrain beneath tends to rebound, like the dent in a sofa cushion after you’ve gotten up. So the very shape of the landscape, not to mention the shape of the ecosystem it supports, is determined in part by the presence or absence of ice.

Egg capsules of a whelk
Egg capsules of a whelk
Photograph by Andrey Kamenev

Since the beach landing on Payer, I’ve been doting on Fay’s flowers and scribbling notes, until I hear Romanenko call our notice to a polar bear, huge and handsome, silhouetted on a ridgeline to the west. The bear seems oblivious to us, but we know better than to assume. As it walks, its small head surges forward on the rippling muscles of its long neck, suggesting the short-range striking speed of a snake. Our assigned guard, a young man named Denis Mennikov, carries a Saiga-12 automatic shotgun with a banana clip, but the last thing we want is to bring that into action. Disappearing ice is a hardship for the bears too, one that may force some reckless behavior. Dear colleagues, please be alert.

The dynamic variability of ice is just part of what once made the Arctic, and Franz Josef Land in particular, so problematic yet enticing to explore. Fridtjof Nansen is only the most famous of the many explorers who touched at the archipelago in the course of some bold, miserable polar expedition. Things have gotten easier, not to say easy, since Nansen’s desperate bivouac up here through the winter of 1895-96. For the Pristine Seas voyage we have better maps, lesser ambitions, GPS capacity, and a more comfortable boat. We also have a leader blessed with more aplomb than some of the bullheaded chieftains of the old efforts: National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, a smart marine ecologist who has pulled together this complex international effort, with support from the Society and other sponsors, as the latest in his series of Pristine Seas Expeditions.

Not many years ago Sala was a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, teaching grad students about food webs and marine conservation but dissatisfied with his contribution to the world. “I saw myself as refining the obituary of nature, with increased precision,” he tells me during a conversation aboard the Polaris. His distress at the continuing trends of ecosystem degradation and species loss, in marine as well as terrestrial realms, led him out of academia. “I wanted to try to fix the problem,” he says. So in 2005 he assembled a SWAT team of scientists, including experts on marine microbes, algae, invertebrates, and fish, and sailed for the northern Line Islands, a remote cluster of coral outcrops in the Pacific about a thousand nautical miles south of Hawaii.

There they dived the reefs and studied them, making at least one important discovery: that predators, notably sharks, accounted for roughly 85 percent of the local biomass. That was topsy-turvy: Conventional ecological wisdom posited roughly a ten-to-one ratio of prey to predators at each level of a food web from bottom to top. Sala’s team accordingly called this the inverted biomass pyramid. In the apparent absence of masses of prey, what could possibly sustain those abundant sharks? The answer was that the prey masses weren’t really absent; they were produced copiously and continuously, in the form of small fish with high rates of reproduction, growth, sexual maturation, and turnover, and the predators continually cropped them to the point where they were inconspicuous. This is what ecologists call top-down regulation. It’s a crucial thing to know about an ecosystem. Four years later, when outgoing President George W. Bush signed a bill establishing the U.S. Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, Sala was in the room, and a mandate for preserving the inverted biomass pyramid was in the law.

With continuing support from the National Geographic Society, Sala took his Pristine Seas model to a series of other remote oceanic ecosystems, all in the tropics, where the waters were warm, fecund, rich with diversity, and clear. Then he turned his attention to the northernmost archipelago in the world, Franz Josef Land.

Franz Josef Land is a zakaznik, a nature reserve, administered within Russian Arctic National Park, so Sala established a partnership with the park and with the Russian Geographical Society. He enlisted Maria Gavrilo, an Arctic seabird biologist who serves as the park’s deputy director for science, to be co-leader. He rounded up some of the same doughty researchers (including viral ecologist Forest Rohwer, fisheries ecologist Alan Friedlander, algae expert Kike Ballesteros, and Mike Fay) and trusted dive pros from earlier expeditions, and he welcomed a dozen Russian colleagues besides Gavrilo. He brought in Paul Rose, from the Royal Geographical Society in London, for his polar diving and climbing experience, his problem-solving skills, and his ineradicable good cheer. To this distinguished group he added a handful of us media types. In late July 2013 we all sailed for Franz Josef Land, where the waters are certainly not warm or clear, and where the sea has remained nearly pristine because for so much of the year, at least until recently, it has remained largely frozen.

Our two Frenchmen, David Grémillet and Jérôme Fort, have come to study the little auk (Alle alle), a black-and-white bird that nests on cliffs and amid scree boulders and dives for its food in the frigid water. The little auk is still abundant throughout the Arctic, with a population estimated at more than 40 million—one of the most numerous seabirds in the world. But its family kinship with the great auk, an icon of human-caused extinctions—the last known pair was killed in 1844 off the coast of Iceland for a bird collector—serves as a reminder that no species is invulnerable to the pressures we humans generate. Beyond that, Grémillet and Fort have other grounds for focusing on the little auk. It’s a tiny bird, as seabirds go, second tiniest of the auk family, with small wings that allow it to swim underwater as well as through the air. Its energy costs and its metabolic rate are high. So if its environment changes, Grémillet tells me, the little auk may be more severely affected than other species. And its environment is changing—recent average temperatures in the Arctic are higher than they have been for the past 2,000 years. One study of Arctic trends projects further increases of as much as 14 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

The little auk feeds primarily on copepods, minuscule crustaceans that are the main component of Arctic zooplankton. Each bird needs to gobble thousands of them to make a square meal. “And these copepods, they have very specific temperature preferences,” Grémillet explains. “So you can predict that if these copepod communities change because of climate change in the Arctic, the little auks will show a strong response.”

How might the copepod fauna change? One of the larger and fatter kinds, Calanus glacialis, depends upon very cold water and the presence of sea ice, beneath which grow the algae that it eats. A smaller and leaner species, Calanus finmarchicus, is common in the North Atlantic and often rides currents into the Arctic but doesn’t flourish there. As the Arctic Ocean warms by a few degrees, though, the competitive balance could shift. Higher temperatures and decreases in sea ice could allow the small, lean copepods to replace the big, fat ones, to the detriment of the little auk—and of other creatures as well. Arctic cod, herring, and various seabirds feed on the copepods, and even such mammals as ringed seals and beluga whales depend on fish that feed on them. That’s why scientists consider Calanus glacialis a keystone species in the Arctic.

Grémillet and Fort catch little auks by laying out patches of “noose carpet” in which the birds get their feet tangled, and then each bird is weighed, measured, and banded. Some birds are also fitted with a time-depth recorder or a geolocator, miniaturized units affixed to a leg or to breast feathers, from which data can be retrieved. The geolocators will track migration routes south after the birds have bred. The time-depth recorders will reveal how deep a bird has dived, how long it has stayed down on each dive, and how many hours daily it has devoted to such laborious food getting. From earlier work on Greenland and Spitsbergen, Grémillet and Fort know that during winter little auks that have only Calanus finmarchicus to eat must forage up to ten hours a day to meet their energy needs. How much worse might it be if in summer, with chicks to feed and incubate, they have only that labor-intensive source of food?

So far little auks have shown admirable flexibility in the face of incremental change. But the question is, Fort says, how much further can they flex? “We think there will be a breaking point.”

On a Monday in late August, after two tries, we succeed in reaching Cape Fligely, on the north coast of Rudolf Island, the most northern of the group. Here, while the others are variously focused, Paul Rose and I escape ashore for a hike to the top of the glacier.

We climb up from the beach cautiously, because two polar bears showed themselves hereabouts last night and one again this morning. But those animals seem to have ambled away, and the coast is clear. As always, we have a security man: another young Russian, Alexey Kabanihin, who carries flares, a radio, and a Saiga-12, its clip loaded with blank rounds preceding the real ones. It’s a glorious sunny day. From the western cape where we’ve landed, a great dome of ice rises gently inland and upward, a smooth arc sweeping toward nothingness like the curvature of the moon. Far below, afloat on the steel blue water, is the Polaris. In crampons, with ice axes, Rose and I start crunching up the slope, Kabanihin lagging behind. The ice is soft on its surface, beaded like corn snow, and sturdy beneath; the footing is good. After a day of shipboard confinement yesterday, Rose and I are thrilled with this getaway and can hardly control our foolish grins. But as we’re nearing the top, a voice from Kabanihin’s radio breaks our mood. It’s Maria Gavrilo, saying: “Paul, the polar bear smells you. And is coming toward you. Climbing the glacier. I suggest you come down.”

We look at each other. “Roger, Maria,” Rose says. “That is all understood.” He shuts her off. We have no idea that she’s coping with an ugly situation below—too many of us now on the island, spread out, unresponsive to cautions, and bears moving about. Can we go ahead just a little? Rose asks Kabanihin, who shakes his head and gestures with crossed arms: absolutely nyet. But we’re thinking: da. “One minute?” pleads Rose. When the poor young man cringes indecisively, we both take off running. With a combined age of 126 but adolescents at heart, Rose and I gallop away, onward, beyond reach of authority and good sense, to a point very near—if not exactly—the highest spot on the northernmost landmass of Eurasia. Get a GPS reading, I say.

He reports: 81 degrees, 50.428 minutes north. Elevation: 174 meters. I scribble those numbers in my notebook. Data. Then we run back to Kabanihin, who looks unhappy, though not as unhappy as he soon will.

Descending over the curvature of the dome, we see one polar bear between us and the ship, another bear off to our left. The bear in front is climbing toward us. The other is seated but turning its head as we move. I realize the situation is serious when Kabanihin hands me a flare. We shuffle on. Stay quiet, Kabanihin signals. Stay close. He seems very nervous. The glacier is big and open, and it belongs to the bears. We try to angle between them, but the one ahead closes that angle, striding toward us with purpose. Suddenly I feel as if we’re just three pieces of dark meat on a very white plate. I keep an eye on the left bear, expecting it to charge while Kabanihin is distracted by the other.

Kabanihin sets his gun on the ice. He takes back my flare, unscrews the cap, and fires it toward—but not precisely at—the bear ahead. A red phosphorus Tinker Bell skitters across the ice. When that bear scampers leftward a few dozen strides, we have an opening to go.

We’ve been lucky. Getting ourselves killed, or getting a bear killed, Sala reminds us later, would have ruined the expedition.

On the northeast coast of Hayes Island, near the middle of the archipelago, stand the remains of an old meteorological outpost known as Krenkel Station, which pulsed with activity during the Soviet era. Established in 1957, it grew to include several tall antennas held up by guy wires, a launchpad for smallish research rockets, a miniature rail line for moving supplies and equipment, and dozens of buildings. At its peak 200 people worked and lived at Krenkel. Now there are just half a dozen, and at least two dogs, a black-faced husky and a creamy one, which greet us curiously at the beach when Romanenko, Garankina, Fay, and I jump ashore.

Our presence has been cleared with the head of the station, and he leaves us to wander unsupervised through his little fiefdom of wreckage. Only the dogs come along.

The station thrived from about 1967 to 1987, according to Romanenko. Elsewhere in Franz Josef Land, a Soviet air base supported long-range bombers that took off and prowled the Arctic in nervy readiness, just as bombers from American bases did. But Krenkel Station was not part of that. It was scientific in purpose and even modestly internationalist, through a collaborative arrangement with French meteorologists launching similar research rockets elsewhere. Then came the big changes at the turn of the 1990s, as the Soviet Union approached its own breaking point.

We can scarcely imagine, we who didn’t go through it, what that was like: a stressful, confused, and anxious as well as thrilling time for many Soviet citizens, and no doubt especially hard in the boonies, as the distant central government metamorphosed so shockingly. Franz Josef Land is as far into the boonies as you can get. Making matters worse, in 2001 Krenkel Station was devastated by a fire. Personnel were pulled out and not replaced. They left their little houses, their recreation center with its two pianos and its pool table and its library, and they boarded boats or helicopters that carried them back to the mainland. Romanenko seems to see all that in his mind’s eye as we walk amid the ruins of this little polar station.

“C’est la fin de l’empire,” he says, not complicating his French with past tense. The end of the empire. He’s old enough to remember.

More than one empire has fallen since an Austro-Hungarian expedition came to these islands in 1873. More than one flag was raised here that no longer flies. More than one geophysical expectation, such as the existence of an Arctic continent, has been debunked. The North Pole is real, as a determinable if invisible point, but the early explorers such as Nansen, who came or went via this archipelago with their dog teams and their ice-riding ships, failed to reach it. Franz Josef Land has been a memorable waypoint on the glorious polar route toward frustration and disillusion. Its lonely flat-topped islands, with their parapets of basalt, stand as emblems of frigid adamance; they testify that, though men can be stubborn and resourceful and brave, nature is surpassingly complex and strong.

The remains of old Krenkel Station temper that testimony to nature’s preeminent power in their ambivalent way: with hundreds of tons of industrial garbage and with delicate vestiges of the humanity of those who hunkered here.

Because the station is part of Franz Josef Land and because Franz Josef Land is within the administrative ambit of Russian Arctic National Park (though not yet enjoying full park protection itself), park authorities have initiated cleanup operations at Krenkel. They envision subsuming the site within a planned muzey pod otkrytym nebom, or great open-air museum. But they will face some delicate decisions about where remediation should stop and preservation begin. When a place lands on the junk heap of history, how do you tell what’s history and what’s junk?

Even more delicate, and far more consequential, will be decisions made in Moscow about renewed Russian military attention to the Arctic. In early November 2013, just two months after we finished our voyage, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced plans to deploy a squadron of warships with ice-breaking capability to protect new trans-Arctic sea routes as well as potential oil and gas deposits. As of 2011, according to the Russian news agency Novosti, 95 percent of Russia’s natural gas reserves and 60 percent of its oil reserves lie in the Arctic region, although most of the fields are beneath the Barents and Kara Seas, closer to the mainland. The pattern of the discoveries of those fields and the warming climate have encouraged Russia to look farther north. The defense minister’s announcement even mentioned reopening the air base on Franz Josef Land. Will this proprietary surge, if it happens, be compatible with protection of Arctic ecosystems? Enric Sala, a calm optimist, thinks it will. After all, Vladimir Putin himself is thought to harbor conservationist sympathies—but who can tell with Putin? Sala hopes that Franz Josef Land will soon receive full protection as a national park and reckons that a strengthened military presence “can actually help with enforcement.”

The question of ice underlying all these issues will not be answered by any one expedition. Measurements can be taken, photographs can be shot, comparisons can be made between ice coverage now and what early explorers saw, but the matter of causality is vast and intricate. The scientists on this team do what good field scientists always do: They gather quantitative observations of particulars. Making dive after dive in the freezing water, Alan Friedlander identifies 16 species of shallow-zone Arctic fish and begins pondering why diversity here seems to be low. Kike Ballesteros, likewise spending his days in a dry suit, with numbed fingers and reddened cheeks, makes a thorough inventory and biomass assessment of the marine algae, something never before done. Maria Gavrilo and her team census ivory gulls, kittiwakes, guillemots, little auks, common eiders, and glaucous gulls, measuring, weighing, banding, and placing geolocators on some. Forest Rohwer and his graduate student Steven Quistad capture billions of viruses from a variety of hospitable media, such as beach slime and guano, and will derive insights from sequencing their DNA back in a U.S. lab. Mike Fay identifies and collects more than 30 species of flowering plants. Daria Martynova samples the water column for copepods, gauging the penetration of that North Atlantic species Calanus finmarchicus into the Arctic realm of Calanus glacialis. Such efforts, and all the other observations gathered during this expedition, will help answer smaller questions within the big one.

Is the planktonic community changing? Are the kittiwakes and the guillemots reproducing as successfully as in the past? Have the sea-bottom fauna or the terrestrial flora been affected by trends of temperature change? Have the polar bears become more concentrated on islands, marooned there now that the sea ice has vanished from Franz Josef Land during summer? Have the planktonic changes, if any, had a discernible effect on the population of little auks? This is ecology—everything interconnected. The whole body of data and analyses will be pulled together within coming months into a compendium report under Sala’s editorial eye.

Through the end of our journey and beyond, I carry vividly in memory a moment that occurred near the beginning, while I was ashore on Hooker Island with the Frenchmen. We had spent a long afternoon with their noose carpets deployed, getting only modest results. They had caught and processed three little auks. It wasn’t enough data, and at that rate they would need to change their tactics or choose a different site. Then, as Fort and I gathered our gear to depart, Grémillet spotted an adult auk hiding between the boulders, where auks place their nests. He grabbed it. Doing that, he spotted something else: a chick. He grabbed the chick too and turned to us, an auk in each hand. Measuring and banding a bird takes two hands; extracting a blood sample takes four. These two scientists, after a slow day, were suddenly busy. So Grémillet handed me the chick. I accepted it in my cupped hands, with a high sense of privilege, and tried to shield it from the wind.

Little auks have long lives, up to 20 years, and reproduce slowly, one chick a year. Each chick is precious. The period from hatching to fledging, the most vulnerable time in an auk’s life, is about 25 days. This chick had just hatched. It was a ball of fluffy black down, the size of a plum, with a beak. Trusting and helpless. After a short time I passed it gingerly back to Grémillet, and he returned it to its nest.

Recalling the moment now, I wonder where that particular bird is. I wonder whether it survived its 25 days in the rocks, fledged, and flew away from Franz Josef Land to a wintering ground somewhere, an exemplary little auk, intrepid and resilient.

This Pristine Seas Expedition was generously supported in part by Blancpain, Davidoff Cool Water, and your National Geographic Society membership.

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