In June 2021, the Arctic Floating University will pull anchor from the city of Arkhangelsk towards the Novaya Zemlya Archipelago and the Franz Josef Land Archipelago. Last summer, due to the pandemic of the novel coronavirus infection, the expedition had to be cancelled. Instead an online lecture course was organised.
COVID-19 has also made adjustments to the Floating University this year with only Russian researchers taking part in the Arctic Floating University – 2021. Representatives of 13 research and academic institutions will study: the geological structure and palaeontological characteristics of sections; climate change; biodiversity of soils and landscapes; and the hydrology of the Arctic seas. Sergey Snigirevsky, Associate Professor in the Department of Sedimentary Geology at St
Petersburg University, is the head of the initiative project of the University ‘Late Devonian
Palaeosols and Root Systems of Northern Timan (Russian Arctic)’. He also takes part in the Arctic Floating University – 2021. In an interview, he spoke about plans for the expedition and about the preparation of a special research and academic programme.
Mr Snigirevsky, how was the selection of the participants in the Arctic Floating University organised?
All members of the expedition were selected according to a competition that took place in several directions. I was in the pool of employees from Russian research and academic institutions. According to the up-to-date information, a total of 55 people will go on the expedition; some of them are students.
The Arctic should certainly be explored. This is one of the priorities of our country. Despite the fact that there are frequent expeditions in this region, the Arctic remains understudied. There are a lot of new things there, but they are obtained with relatively greater difficulty than the usual conditions of central and south Russia. Therefore, research should always go with luck. The Arctic is a region where it is always possible to find something new. However, it is necessary to understand that you might return empty-handed.
This year, a large block of the Arctic Floating University is the study of human adaptation mechanisms to the conditions of the high-latitude Arctic. Experts from several research institutions will investigate the state of the expedition participants, including the psychological one. It appears that you will be both a researcher of the floating university and a test subject...
This research is of great importance. It is also very consistent. However, the fact that the members of the expedition will live on the ‘Mikhail Somov’ (a research vessel that replaced the R/V ‘Professor Molchanov’ in the Arctic Floating University – 2021 Editor’s note.) will definitely have an impact on the research. And these are still familiar conditions, not extreme. If you are cold, you hide in the cabin. You feel the surrounding environment and feel in it in a completely different way when you get out of your sleeping bag in a cold tent, and there is nothing around but polar bears, icy air and the transparent blue of a light blue sky. And in order to get warm, you first need to reach the shore, collect ‘driftwood’ (pieces of wood which have been washed ashore to the Arctic coasts by currents Editor’s note.), saw wood and light the stove in the tent. Only then will you feel warm... There will therefore be no adaptation as such on the Mikhail Somov. I myself don’t prepare specifically for the expedition, packing up will be typical. We all were only asked to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The expedition starts on 10 June from the city of Arkhangelsk to Cape Zhelaniya, the Novaya Zemlya
Archipelago. Members of the Arctic Floating University are supposed then to visit four islands in the Franz Josef Land Archipelago: Graham Bell Island; Hayes Island; Hooker Island; and Northbrook Island. Which of these locations is topmost to you?
Everything depends on where we debark. All four islands are of interest for me, because these are areas of distribution of Mesozoic deposits, partly of marine (Triassic strata) genesis and partly of continental (Jurassic and Cretaceous strata) genesis. For example, Vitalii Dibner, the foremost researcher of the Franz Josef Land Archipelago, indicated ‘lizard bones’ on Hayes Island. But, firstly, will we find them and, secondly, will we look in the right place? Everything depends on where the ship can make landfall and where the helicopter which makes the drops of working groups ashore can land. Whatever the case, if we find a section, then first its geological description is drawn up and fossil remains of plants and animals are collected. Then all this is taken to the vessel, and then the finds go to St Petersburg. And only from St Petersburg, the specimens are sent to experts engaged in the study of one or another group of fossil organisms. For example, if we find the aforementioned ‘lizard bone’, then first I will hand it over to
Aleksandr Averianov, an expert in Mesozoic reptiles from the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Everything depends on the uniqueness of the find. If the find is really unique, then we will leave it with us – in the Palaeontology Museum of St Petersburg
University. However, if this is a usual material that simply gives information about the discovery of the remains of a certain fossil in a certain area, then it does not even make sense to store it in our palaeontological collection. It would be more logical to store it in the thematic collection of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Collection development should not be large-scale, but it should be selective.
Nowadays much attention is paid to the University museum collections. Active people are engaged in this work. I know that a huge amount of work has been done at the Palaeontology Museum. All specimens are catalogued and registered in a single database. The materials are available for study by external and internal users, which is very important and necessary.
Mr Snigirevsky, please tell us about the programme that you are preparing for the Arctic Floating University – 2021?
My programme will consist of two blocks: the first one consists of lectures (when the vessel is under way); the second one is practical (when we will work on land after debarking). I’m planning to deliver five or six lectures in total. The first lecture will be an introduction to the issue. Most of it will be on the history of Arctic exploration. This also includes geological and palaeobotanical studies. The Arctic is the Arctic. It is difficult to get there. So, any expedition always brings a lot of diverse materials of any kind. The Arctic Floating University will also include ornithological, geobotanical, glaciological, and ichthyological studies. However, I personally will definitely focus on the study of geology and fossil plants. Also, I will deliver lectures on specific cycles: ‘Flora of the Palaeozoic; ‘Flora of the Mesozoic’; and ‘Flora of the Cenozoic’. My final lecture will be on my research in the Arctic region.
There is a hope that during the lectures there will be one or two students who will be interested in these topics and will be able to become my assistants in practical work on land after debarking.