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Thursday, December 7, 2023

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Upon reaching safety on board the zodiac, Steven Quistad, left, and Forest Rohwer breathe a sigh of relief after a close call while diving in Franz Josef Land, Russia. Photo by Andrew Mann/NatGeo Upon reaching safety on board the zodiac, Steven Quistad, left, and Forest Rohwer breathe a sigh of relief after a close call while diving in Franz Josef Land, Russia. Photo by Andrew Mann/NatGeo

Back from the Arctic

Back from a National Geographic Pristine Seas Expedition in the Arctic, SDSU researchers talk about what they discovered.
By Natalia Van Stralen

San Diego State University biology professor Forest Rohwer and graduate student Steven Quistad are back after 40 days at sea visiting remote Russian archipelago islands — some of the closest lands to the North Pole.

The duo joined an international team of scientists and filmmakers on an exploratory adventure to Franz Josef Land as part of a National Geographic Pristine Seas Expedition.

Travelling aboard the Russian ship MS Polaris, the team had access to an arctic ocean-land ecosystem that has become exposed because of glacial retreat over the last decade. They hope their data will result in proper management and conservation of this near-pristine environment known as the “Russian Arctic jewel.”

I sat down with Rohwer and Quistad to talk about what they experienced on this once-in-a-lifetime trip.

Describe some of your scientific experiments and sampling and explain how your expectations compared with what you actually found?

Rohwer:  We didn’t really have many expectations. This trip was mostly exploratory with the goal of establishing an ecological baseline for future expeditions. Due to this area’s environmental and historical isolation, even the geographic information we had wasn’t accurate at times: a chart could indicate that the ocean depth in one place was more than 200 feet, but in actuality, it was only 30 feet.

On the microbial side, there have been no studies on this area, so the only comparable studies are from the Canadian arctic. The microbial food web in the ocean looked as we expected. Even in water that was about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, the microbial counts, or the numbers of microbes per milliliter of water, were what we see in other marine environments.

Quistad: In addition to ocean water, we also collected soil, water and glacial samples from the newly exposed land mass as well as fecal samples from walruses and fecal, blood and feather samples from little auks, which are arctic birds. We plan to examine the microbial make-up of these areas, perhaps finding new organisms and relationships between organisms to better understand how these ecological communities handle toxin exposure from human activity and climate change.

What did the sea and wild life look like?

Rohwer: The ocean ecosystem is dominated by invertebrates, mostly amphipods which are shrimp-like animals. A simplified food chain generally consists of amphipods and copepods that eat the algae; little auks — which one explorer described as birds working to become penguins — eat the amphipods and copepods; and polar bears eat the birds.

We got as close as 30 feet away from a polar bear at one point and saw dozens at a distance. From far away they appear to be giant, lazy dogs but they are some of the deadliest creatures on earth.

We also saw “blood snow” which is red algae on glaciers that makes the snow look red. On the algae we found a very diverse microbial community. As global temperatures change, we could envision a positive feedback system associated with these algae. The blood snow absorbs sunlight making the environment around it warmer which then melts the glacial ice allowing more algae to grow. This enlarged mass of algae absorbs more sunlight leading to more ice melt and further algae growth ... and so on.

Quistad: In addition to shrimp, jellyfish and other invertebrates like anemones, we saw many pteropods which look like little angels swimming through the water. We went diving through some beautiful kelp forests. The kelp is not very tall compared to those that grow in California, but the fronds were huge — some the size of a sofa, making them the densest kelp forests I have ever experienced.

The day we spent collecting fecal samples from the walrus rookery was amazing. When we got close to a pack of about 60 walruses, various groups would approach to check us out. First came the large males, positioning their heads to display their tusks. After these guys got tired of us, the younger walruses approached under the watchful eyes of the adults. They are very much the dogs of the Arctic Ocean: excited upon your arrival, curious while you are there and seemingly sad when you leave.

After about 20 minutes of watching the group, we stood up to collect the fecal samples. Our sudden movement spooked the walruses and as a pack, they ran and plunged into the icy bay. We scored five warm fecal samples which we will examine for microbial content as well as markers of human contamination like mercury.

What are some things that surprised you, things you may not have known before?

Rohwer: We did some sample collecting along glacial transects, which began at the interface of ice and land. We collected samples at the interface zone and then at various locations up to 100 meters onto and off the glacier. We expected the newly exposed soil near the glaciers to be full of microbes beginning the work of fixing nitrogen in the soil to allow plant life and other organisms to survive there. But we found that the soil near the glacial ice and up to 20 meters away to be devoid of microbial life. It was totally unexpected. The soil was a rich black and looked like it would be teeming with life, but nothing. And yet the soil just feet away on the glacier was full of microbes.  

However, in that sterile soil, some arctic plants were able to grow even without the presence of microbes. These plants are just so incredible. There is no energy provided by microbes and the only water available is frozen, yet we’d find a tiny poppy. Everything else is black and white with these patches of green and orange. It was completely surprising to find plants in a place where microbes haven’t already appeared.

: We saw a lot of things that didn’t make sense. We would sample pools of water, some would be murky and others would be perfectly clear. We thought we’d find microbes in the murky water, but in actuality, the murky water had little microbial life, while the clear water was full of microbes.

We also encountered quicksand in the Arctic! When looking for a walrus rookery, we walked across a sand flat between two islands with glaciers pouring into the center of the sand flat. Under seemingly firm sand were pockets of water that would come out of nowhere. You would be walking from one solid step into knee-deep quicksand.

But one of the biggest surprises was the complete lack of fish in arctic waters. With more than 140 dives between the entire team, we saw fewer than 20 fish total. This count is unprecedented compared to other sites the people in the group have visited — and that includes basically every type of marine ecosystem in the world that is accessible by diving. We wonder if the fish are in deeper water or if they are following the pack ice to the North Pole as it melts.

What do you hope to do with the knowledge you gained from this trip?

Rohwer: There is direct evidence of climate change in this region. We have historical data about the glaciers and sea ice that we can compare to today. The glaciers are retreating and the sea ice in this area is completely gone. We want to study how various environments respond to climate change.

On an ecological level, we see changes in the sea animals which affect the land animals as well. For example, the copepods in the arctic are larger than those you find in more temperate waters. But it seems that as the temperatures in the arctic rise, the arctic copepods are getting smaller. The little auks use copepods as their primary energy source. They dive into the icy water in search of these tiny animals. With climate change, we worry that the little auks will have to work harder and dive more often to get the same amount of energy. This seemingly small change in the dynamics of the ecosystem can be the difference between a stable population of little auks and one that crashes because they don’t have enough food.

Ultimately, this trip was exploratory; we are establishing a baseline of data. There isn’t any information about the waters and wildlife in Franz Josef Land out there. It will take us a year or two to look through the data we recovered. We also want to make comparisons to the trips we have made to other pristine waters such as the Southern Line Islands in the central Pacific Ocean.

More information

To see photos from the expedition and for more on the National Geographic team, check out the Franz Josef Land Expedition blog.

Related links

Update from the Arctic

Little Mysteries, Big Discoveries