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Federal Research Center 
"Krasnoyarsk Science Center of the Siberian
Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences"

 Федеральный исследовательский центр «Красноярский научный центр Сибирского отделения Российской академии наук»

Federal Research Center 
"Krasnoyarsk Science Center of the Siberian
Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences"

Scientists of KSC SB RAS will study methane emissions in the Arctic and Antarctic

24 May 2021 г.

Ученые КНЦ СО РАН изучат выбросы метана в Арктике и Антарктике
The study of the response of northern ecosystems to global climate change is one of the priorities for scientists of the Federal Research Center "Krasnoyarsk Science Center of SB RAS". A new grant from the Russian Science Foundation will support fundamental scientific research to be performed by a research team of Krasnoyarsk scientists; the scientists will investigate the "Response of methane emissions from tundra landscapes to increased precipitation: bipolar field research in the Arctic and Antarctic". This summer, researchers will travel to Dixon Island to continue their research on global climate change.

The project supervisor, candidate of biological sciences, senior researcher at the V.N. Sukachev Institute of Forest, Svetlana Evgrafova tells about the peculiarities of working in extreme conditions, aims and objectives of the project.

Is it hard to do science in the Far North?

The project implies that in summer we will conduct experiments in the Arctic and Antarctic. In July - early September, we will begin experiments on Dixon Island. There is a research station where scientists can live. This is a tundra ecosystem, which is one of the key points of our project. During the experiments, we will study methane emissions in response to an increase in precipitation. And next year, in January-March, we will go to the Russian Antarctic station Bellingshausen, which is located on King George Island (English King George Island, aka Waterloo), the largest island in the South Shetland Islands. This is not Antarctica, not the mainland, but an island nearby, with a climate similar to Dixon Island. The population of the island is the staff of stations belonging to Russia, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, China, South Korea, etc. King George Island is one of the warmest places in Antarctica. The temperature there is usually around +5, + 8 ° C in summer, and about -20 ° C in winter. The Russian Antarctic Expedition (RAE) at the Institute of the Arctic and Antarctic in St. Petersburg helps us to organize a trip there. The preliminary agreement on the participation in the 65th season of the Russian-Antarctic expedition has already been reached.

What about COVID-19, how will you cross the borders?

Yes, things are not easy now, but let's hope that by the end of the year the situation with the coronavirus will stabilize. Concerning the problem with visas, we can fly to Antarctica without visas. For example, via Dubai to Brazil, and then to Chile. Russians do not need visas to travel to these countries. It is possible to fly to Chile from Santiago, namely to Punta Arenas, which is the southernmost point of Chile before going to Antarctica; and from Punta Arenas a private company can bring you to King George Island. In general, the flights are very long. From Dubai to Santiago, it takes about a day; after that six-hour flights seem to be nothing. While waiting for a private flight to Punta Arenas, one can go on an excursion to Patagonia to find out its fantastic beauty.

If to talk about the project team, it includes Russian researchers and our colleague from Switzerland, a prominent scientist Martin Heimann, who deals with greenhouse gas emissions.

Working in Antarctica is very difficult for people to imagine. How does it look like?

We will live at Bellingshausen station for 1,5-2 months. This will depend on the setting and experimentation. It is necessary to collect data and only then we will be able to fly away. We will arrive at the so-called "season" of the Antarctic expedition. “Season” is the name given to people who come for a short period of time rather than for a year as other members of the expedition. These are mainly scientific workers: biologists, hydrologists, hydrobiologists and others. We live in houses where there is room for the "season". We all eat together, being on duty in the dining room. Cooks prepare food but they need help with dishes, cleaning and so on. The atmosphere is very friendly. I was in Antarctica for 1.5 months last year, and in our North I participated in a Russian-German scientific expedition during eleven summer field seasons in the Lena River estuary. I went there in August.

In the estuary of the Lena river, we first lived in a small station, a very cozy house with a living room. But there was not enough space for everyone, so tents were also used. They were mainly occupied by team members from Germany, because they found a sort of romance in it. In summer, the temperature in the estuary is +8 + 10 ºС, but it can rise up to +18 ºС. Previously, in winter, during the period of severe frosts, research was not carried out there. But in the summer of 2010, V.V. Putin met with the members of the expedition. 3 years later, a new station was built for scientists, and it became possible to conduct research all year round.

How did you explain to the Prime Minister the need to build a year-round station?

We just explained what we are doing. He said that the research was good and interesting, but scientists lived in terrible conditions and thus, the station was built in no time. Putin was in Yakutia on a working trip, and visited the station by accident. Now, we can say we were lucky.

Why is research at different poles of the planet important?

It is no secret that now there are global climate changes, the Arctic is "warming" while the Antarctic is "getting colder". It is necessary to understand how quickly this will happen and whether it will be so critical for ecosystems, as experts suggest. And in order to do this, scientists need to explore a lot of areas with similar climatic characteristics, for example, the same landscapes, tundra etc. Now climate research is at a stage where it is necessary to identify common mechanisms and exclude local peculiarities so that the results could be extrapolated to any territory. But to do this, one needs to have as many study areas as possible in different parts of the planet with similar conditions so that the sample should be representative.

Is it easier for a scientist from Siberia to live in the tundra than for other participants?

Temperature is no problem. The main problem in the north in summer is a huge number of mosquitoes. As soon as it gets warmer, they fly out and there is nowhere to hide from them; moreover, in the polar day mosquitoes do not sleep, and they are everywhere all the time. For an urban person, this is perhaps the greatest difficulty. One can even get used to the constant wind, using special clothes. But what is great in such places is the air, which is very clean. It’s incomparable with our city.

We usually work in ecologically clean areas, because we need to minimize the anthropogenic and technogenic factor. It is very important to study natural processes without human influence. Although people have already reached almost all corners of the world. Even in Antarctica, on the seashore, we can find skeletons of birds that died because they ate microplastics.

Where do birds get their plastic? After all, there is no civilization nearby.

In the sea water. One of the stories well illustrating how currents in the world's ocean are interconnected. The media told about a container with rubber ducklings which fell from a cargo ship. And these ducklings were found later all over the world. It is very important for us to realize what a strong effect we have on the planet. Now more and more measures and campaigns are being organized to collect plastic along the shores of the seas and oceans. I also collected garbage while I was in Antarctica. We try not to leave there anything behind. People are coming to this necessity; they understand that it is very important. In particular, there are garbage incinerators at the stations in Antarctica. There, garbage is obligatorily sorted out and burned completely to carbon dioxide.

By the way, what about the increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, isn’t it one of the greenhouse gases?

In our project, carbon dioxide emissions are to be studied along with methane emissions, which are the main part of the research. Microorganisms both produce methane and absorb it. In turn, microbes which absorb methane produce carbon dioxide. The problem is that a molecule of methane contributes more to global warming than a molecule of carbon dioxide, so it is considered more dangerous. The greenhouse effect is affected both by people and the planet itself, for example, volcanoes and the ocean. There are many hypotheses on the causes of global climate change, including the fact that these are natural earth cycles. If we take the geological time period, which is millions of years, then the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not the highest at present, but within the time frame of human existence, the increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is a confirmed fact. Methane emissions are due to industry, livestock and agriculture (rice fields, for example). Methane is also emitted by swamps, which are natural ecosystems. In general, we are talking about a set of complex processes which need to be investigated.

Our research aims at complementing the view of global climate change, to contribute to the understanding of what awaits us in the future. The warming of the Arctic can lead to the melting of the permafrost, release of carbon stored in it, as well as microorganisms, among which there may be pathogenic ones. "Thawed" microorganisms can become food for the living creatures, or they can survive and bring new problems to our world. There are a lot of similar global questions regarding climate change, so each of our expeditions would allow us to get closer to the answers to some of them.