Not far from the famous Teriberka, the RGS, together with the Ministry of Defense and the Northern Fleet, continues to clean up the Arctic zone from man-made pollution as part of a special expedition.
The ecological expedition to clean up the Arctic zone of Russia is a new stage of a great task to solve the global issue of restoring the Arctic ecosystem. In the summer of 2022, the main expedition work and accompanying environmental studies are being conducted on Kildin Island in the Barents Sea and on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean.
The Arctic is polluted in different ways, so the cleaning scenario is being adjusted for each location. For example, on Wrangel Island, the main objects of potential harm to nature are barrels of fuel left at the former airfield near the village of Zvezdny on the south coast.
Kildin is much smaller than Wrangel Island; there are few barrels here – fuel and lubricants were delivered here by tankers. Until the mid-1990s, about 15,000 people lived on the island, mostly military personnel and their families. After the disbandment of military units in the 1990s and the departure from the island, rusty cars, barrels, pipes, wire, and airfield pierced steel planking remained on Kildin. All this "historical heritage" is concentrated around former military facilities and the once lively villages of Upper, Lower, and Eastern Kildin.
This year, it is planned to collect and remove at least 300 tons of scrap metal from Kildin Island, located at the outlet of Kola Bay near the Murmansk coast.
The first stage of the cleaning is carried out by the military personnel of the environmental platoon of the Ministry of Defense.
“We are collecting metal structures all over the island. The small objects are manually loaded onto a car and sent to the coast, the large ones are lifted with a crane," says Pavel Smirnov, commander of the environmental troops of the Kola All-Arms Flotilla.
After the metal is concentrated on the coast of Mogilnaya Bay, the RGS specialists take care of a technologically difficult part of work – the cutting of large-sized metal structures with the help of modern equipment.
“I use a plasma metal cutting machine, which is being used on the island for the first time thanks to the RGS,” explains a volunteer from the Society, a specialist in metal cutting Alexander Ananevich. “I have a lot of experience. When you make a comparison it is especially noticeable: the plasma cutter considerably speeds up the process. For example, to cut a large rusty tractor, it will take me about half a day. With conventional technology, this could take several days. But on Kildin, every hour counts. The weather changes often. Even now, heavy rain and wind can come suddenly, and it becomes difficult to work. And in general, the season on Kildin is short – the Arctic summer lasts only a couple of months, and during this time you need to do as much as possible.”
Next, the cut structures prepared for the rapid and compact removal of scrap metal to the mainland are picked up by one of the ships of the Kola Flotilla and taken to the Murmansk coast. From there, the cargo is taken for disposal in accordance with all environmental regulations.
“We have been cleaning up Kildin since 2017,” says Andrey Velichko, deputy commander for logistical support of the Kola All-Arms Flotilla of the of the Northern Fleet. “More than 350 tons of scrap metal have already been taken to the mainland for recycling. Based on the results of the joint expedition in 2022, with the support of the Russian Geographical Society, we plan to double this figure.”
Kildin is just one of the cleaning locations and part of a comprehensive long-term work. The need to rid the Arctic of the "historical heritage" accumulated throughout the 20th century was first identified by the RGS more than ten years ago. Since the issue was raised in 2010, for several years, scientists have been assessing the volume and investigating the nature of pollution in the Arctic zone of Russia. The geoecological survey determined the total amount of pollution in the zone of Arctic archipelagos and islands – 90,000 tons. The RGS specialists managed not only to assess the scale of the negative impact, but also to develop a plan for clearing the territories of the Arctic archipelagos: Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya, the Novosibirsk Islands, as well as Kildin and Wrangel Islands.
When the scope, complexity, and duration of the "spring cleaning" became clear, it was time to provide resources for this work. By order of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, separate environmental platoons of the Ministry of Defense were formed. Since 2015, they have been annually eliminating accumulated damage in several regions of the Russian Arctic simultaneously. In 2015-2019, 3,600 tons of scrap metal – mainly fuel barrels – on Kotelny Island alone(Novosibirsk Islands) were compacted by a hydraulic press, taken to the mainland, and disposed of.
During the expedition "Arctic: Spring Cleaning", in addition to processing and removal of man-made garbage, environmental surveying of the cleaned locations is also carried out. The RGS volunteer scientists assess the ecological state of the flora and fauna of the territories. For the first time in many years, the territory's biodiversity is being monitored on Kildin Island.
“The comprehensive approach of the RGS to cleaning up the Arctic lies in the fact that in addition to processing and removal of man-made garbage, we are assessing the ecological state of flora and fauna during the expedition,” says Natalia Belyakova, director of the Department of Expeditionary Activities and Tourism Development of the RGS, Candidate of Historical Sciences. “The ‘golden root’ – rhodiola rosea – grows on Kildin; the Far Eastern iris feels great there. More than 40 species of birds have been recorded, including red-book ones. The endorheic lake Mogilnoye with salt and fresh water is a world-class phenomenon. The first expedition season of ‘spring cleaning’ is not only saving Kildin from scrap metal – it significantly expands our knowledge about the nature of the island. After cleaning, the island has every reason to become a unique national park – a zone of responsible ecological tourism. The natural beauty, waterfalls, and the green carpet of the tundra are complemented by artifacts – from the active lighthouse in the north of the island, which is constantly featured in photographs, to the mysterious ‘golden kilometer’, and other locations.”
Kildin is an extremely promising location for scientific observations and environmental monitoring: its descriptions throughout the years have been preserved, so it is possible to trace the dynamics of its state. The RGS specialists conducted a comprehensive survey of the island's nature: places of concentration of animals, habitats of vulnerable species, as well as natural objects of aesthetic value.
A map of landscapes and vegetation complexes was drawn up. Vertebrates were registered – this allows to obtain an exhaustive profile of the territory in terms of its biodiversity in a short time. As a rule, vertebrates are relatively large, they need a lot of space. For example, if a bear lives on the territory, several square kilometers of relatively productive territory are guaranteed around it, where insects also live, etc.
A family of brown bears lives on Kildin. Most likely, they swam to the island from the mainland and found an ideal habitat: without natural enemies and with good food sources. Flounder, halibut, Atlantic salmon, and pink salmon – the diet of sea and river fish is complemented by an abundance of mushrooms and northern berries, which comes to the tundra at the end of summer.
The study of sources containing information about the island indicates that there were once more animals on land and in the surrounding waters – there are mentions of arctic foxes, otters, walruses. They had been wiped out before active military development. In addition, marine animals are suffering due to the steady decline in the volume of fish. Currently, there are conditions for restoring the number of species, because access to the island is limited due to the special measures. Today, seals and dolphins are found in the waters of the Kildin Strait and the Barents Sea.
“We examined Mogilnoye Lake, which is home to a unique population of cod. We did a literal head count using an echo sounder. Several thousand specimens allow us to say that the species is not disappearing. The lake is not polluted, there are no nets. The fish are concentrated at a depth of five meters from the surface of the water; we have yet to study this phenomenon,” says ecologist, senior researcher at St. Petersburg State University, Candidate of Biological Sciences Igor Popov. “Another surprise presented by the island was the discovery of the Siberian dwarf pine. This Siberian plant, strictly speaking, should not grow on the island at all. A subject for a separate study!”
During the expedition, the RGS specialists also managed to study a little-known bird colony. Black-legged kittiwakes nest there, of which there are very few left due to the decline in the number of fish in the sea. Previously, eiderdown and eggs were harvested almost on an industrial scale, today it is impossible. Of the other rare species that live and have been recorded on Kildin, there are the long-tailed duck, the gyrfalcon, and the white-tailed eagle that have built nests here.
Following the results of the 2022 expedition season, it is planned to create an up-to-date electronic environmental map of the Arctic, which will be updated with new data on this strategic zone for Russia. Kildin will take a special place on it. The cleaning and exploration of Kildin continues.