On 21 May, all polar explorers in Russia celebrate their professional holiday. This day marks the opening of the first drifting ice station 'North Pole–1' in 1937. In fact, Russian exploration of the harsh polar latitudes in the Arctic began much earlier. Sergey Aplonov spoke about the early days of Arctic exploration, its current trends, and future prospects. He is a Doctor of Geology and Mineralogy and Director of the St Petersburg University Arctic Research Centre.

sergey vitalevich aplonov

Mr Aplonov, could you please tell us how Arctic research has changed in recent years in Russia and the world?

I think, the main distinctive features of the current stage of Arctic research are its complexity and truly international character. The main trend of modern polar science is the search for a balance between the inevitable economic development of the Arctic and the preservation of its fragile, largely unique ecosystem. These principles underlie all national programmes of the Arctic states including the Russian Federation, as well as international cooperation programmes in the Arctic.

I am pleased to highlight the significant role of St Petersburg University scientists in the present-day exploration of the Arctic. This includes: participation in the international project titled Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON); geological support for offshore petroleum exploration in the Arctic as part of the Rosneft Oil Company expeditions; hydrological and geochemical exploration of the Lena estuary as part of the Russian-German projects; the study of indigenous peoples of the North (now only few people remember that it was the philologists of St Petersburg University in the 1930s who developed writing systems for the peoples of the Russian Far North); environmental monitoring of the Arctic; and much more. St Petersburg University scientists regularly participate in the following marine expeditions: Arctic Floating University; Transarctica-2019; and the expeditions of the German research vessel Polarstern. Since 2012, our University has been a member of the University of the Arctic, the most respected scientific and educational association in the world. This organisation unites more than 200 universities and research centres in Europe, Russia, the USA, Canada, and non-Arctic states. Moreover, St Petersburg University was granted the honour of hosting the first ever UArctic Congress, which brought together more than 500 participants.

Today, all scientists are confident that climate change is a fait accompli. What are the main consequences of global warming in the Arctic and how will they affect the region as a whole?

Climatic changes are an unfolding process, literally, right before our eyes and, possibly, having a cyclic pattern. Scientists have long known that throughout the geological history of the planet periods of warming were replaced by periods of glaciation. One of the most significant results of the recent years is the recognition by most researchers of the consequences of global climate change, such as the degradation of sea ice in the Arctic. Now it significantly affects humans and their activities.

When considering this issue, it is important to recognise several things at once. Firstly, the consequences will not only be negative. For instance, seas released from ice mean new opportunities for navigation and the economic development of the Far North. Secondly, the reduction of the ice cover inevitably leads to changes in the circulation of water and air masses in the Northern Hemisphere, which affects not only the subpolar regions, but also the weather in Europe, Asia and North America. Thirdly, if the warming also affects the continental glaciers of Greenland and North America, it will lead to a sea level rise. It will result in enormous problems for all coastal territories and the metropolises located in them.

The problems of the reliability of climate forecasts, and the stability of the mathematical models describing them, are now the focus of attention of scientists exploring the Arctic.

I would like to note that significant progress has been made in this field of knowledge in recent years; primarily due to the overall digital transformation of climatology and hydrometeorology. Previously, we did not simply have such an amount of data and such powerful means of processing it.

You have mentioned new navigation opportunities in the northern seas due to ice cover reduction in the Arctic. Will global warming help Russia use the Northeast Passage all year round?

Arctic navigation has always been given special attention in Russia, because the Northeast Passage helps supply goods to the remote areas of the North and the Far East. It is the so-called Northern Supply Haul. In recent years, the importance of the Northeast Passage for Russia's economy has dramatically increased and it will undoubtedly be growing in the near future. The Yamal LNG project is one of the most successful projects implemented over recent years. Liquefied natural gas produced in North Yamal, an area with huge gas reserves, is transported by special ice-class gas carrier vessels from the port of Sabetta. It is taken through the northern seas to the east, to Asia Pacific, and to the west, to Europe and the USA. The significance of the Yamal LNG project lies primarily in the fact that it diversifies the cross-border sales of Russian gas to the global market, making them more flexible and profitable than traditional supplies via pipelines.

Looking to the future, we may forecast that the prospects for the Northeast Passage's becoming an international transport corridor are closely related to the development of our vast country as a whole, with its industry, infrastructure and territorial structure, and, ultimately, to the modernisation of Russia.

What must be done in the first place to successfully implement this mega project?

It is necessary to start with the modernisation of the entire port infrastructure along the Northeast Passage. So far, the few available ports are not adapted for uninterrupted and safe navigation in the harsh conditions of the Arctic seas.

A much larger problem, however, is associated with the specific features of marine freight logistics. Let us consider a 'standard' passage from Asia to Europe. Vessels working on the Yokohama–Rotterdam route not only deliver cargo from the starting point to the final point, but also load and unload at many ports of call along the way: in Southeast Asia; China; India; the Middle East; and the Mediterranean countries. You can compare such logistics to a trolleybus, with its passengers getting off and on at each of the many stops. Now imagine a trolleybus with all of its passengers travelling from terminus to terminus. This will be the logistics of the current northern passage. The problem lies not in the impossibility to equip modern loading facilities along the Arctic route: it is expensive and time-consuming, yet feasible. The main trouble is that not only the polar regions of Russia but also its vast inland areas with harsh climatic conditions are sparsely populated and almost unindustrialised. In large European ports, such as Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg, the containers are loaded from ocean vessels onto river vessels. Then they are transported to inland Europe, either by river vessels, or by rail, or by track. But where, how, and most importantly, to whom and why should cargo be transported from the ports of Pevek, Tiksi and Dikson, even if they get equipped with the most advanced loading facilities? You see, these are problems worth working on, and there will be enough work both for us and future generations.

The Arctic is a home for many indigenous peoples who immediately feel all the changes that are taking place. What measures are taken by the states of the Arctic Council to support them? And which socio-humanitarian studies are particularly in demand now in this field?

More than a half of the total Arctic population (approximately 54%) lives on the territory of the Russian North. The problem of the indigenous peoples living in this area and the quality of life of the entire population of the Arctic is of greater importance to Russia than to any other northern state. In addition, more than 20% of the Russian GDP is produced in the Northern Polar Region. It is primarily the production of hydrocarbons, oil and gas. Thus, almost a quarter of the Russian welfare is provided by the territory, whose indigenous population is poorly involved in the exploitation of its resources. Moreover, it is no secret that the indigenous peoples of the North are sceptical, if not negative, about the industrial development of the areas where they have been living for centuries. They are also sceptical about such seemingly harmless things as, for example, Arctic tourism.

Let's look at the numbers. The average share of indigenous peoples of the whole Arctic is only 10–12% of its total population. The rest are geologists, oil industry workers, military men, and other 'non-indigenous' individuals who have come to the Arctic for work, military service, and exploration. Therefore, the most important socio-humanitarian problem is the harmonisation of relations between different groups of the Arctic population. A reasonable balance must also be established between the industrial development of the Arctic and the preservation of traditional lifestyles of the indigenous peoples of the North.

This problem is one of the most difficult ones, and it is only now that we are looking for its solution. Moreover, scientists from different countries still interpret the concept of the quality of life of the Arctic population in different ways. For example, Americans and Canadians believe that it is necessary to exclusively preserve the traditions, life and culture of the indigenous peoples of Arctic Canada and Alaska. And although substantial funds are allocated for this, it seems to me that this way is detrimental. It will ultimately bring the indigenous peoples of the North to living in reservations, just like the American Indians many years ago. I would prefer another approach. It is the one chosen by the Russian scientists and shared by their colleagues from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. We must look for some ways of sustainable joint development of the entire Arctic population, the natives and the 'newcomers', while steadily improving their quality of life and preserving the traditions.

What is a successful 'Arctic project'? What do young research groups need to pay attention to when preparing scientific requests?

The Arctic is so vast and so little studied that scientists in all fields will find their place there. Obviously, in the near future, the pride of place will go to large-scale multidisciplinary projects covering several areas of knowledge at once. These areas need not be related. I believe that the exploration and development of the available mineral resources will become the economic driver for the long-term development of the Russian Arctic. For it to happen and be effective, completely new approaches and methods are required, perhaps ones still unknown to us.

The Arctic is more than just a territory. This is one of the few remaining areas on the Earth that we still know very little about.

We know that the Arctic has a significant impact on the very existence of mankind by shaping the climate of the planet. Yet it is still unknown for a fact how this works. We assume that the Arctic is fantastically rich in minerals, but we do not yet know how to use this wealth. Unique indigenous peoples inhabit the Arctic, but we still know poorly and hardly understand their way of life and culture. A human being is characterised by the desire to get to know the unknown. I am sure, this is the primary and the best incentive for exploring the Arctic, now and for many years to come.