Scientists continue analyzing materials obtained during the second season of the joint expedition of the Russian Geographical Society and the Russian Ministry of Defense "Eastern Bastion – the Kuril Ridge". It began in 2019 and continued this year. Until 2025, a comprehensive study of the islands and water area around is to be carried out. One of the results may be the creation of a new specially protected natural area on the Kuril Islands.
Based on the results of the first season of the expedition, it was concluded that the Kuril Islands, which are of strategic importance for the national security of Russia, remain poorly studied. There is no archival data on these lands during the period when they were under the control of the Japanese Empire from 1875 to 1945. And in Soviet times, cartographic and hydrographic surveys were carried out in the 1980s and since then have largely lost their reliability. Meanwhile, the dynamics of landscape transformations on the surface of the islands changed their geographic characteristics. The data on anchorage sites and coastal areas suitable for disembarking have ceased to be relevant. Even a scientific expedition, assisted by military sailors, turns into a very difficult adventure in such conditions.
There were very few complex scientific expeditions in this region. The first scientific voyages took place immediately after the end of the Second World War. A series of flights were organized in the 1950s – 1960s. The main goal then was the analysis of the geological structure and volcanic activity in the region. The Kuril expedition carried out in the 1990s played a significant role in revealing the specifics of the region. It was implemented with the active participation of the institutes of the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and foreign scientists. At the beginning of the 21st century, a three-year Kuril biocomplex project was implemented. Within its framework a series of scientific flights to the Middle and Northern Kuril Islands were made. At the same time, a series of scientific expeditions was carried out aimed at studying individual natural and economic aspects.
"‘Eastern Bastion – the Kuril Ridge’ is actually the first expedition in the region, which provides the study of the islands from a variety of positions,” says the lead scientist of the expedition, director of the Pacific Institute of Geography of the Far Eastern Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences Kirill Ganzei. “Due to the large meridional extent, the study of all the islands and adjacent water areas based on unified approaches is of key importance. This is the most important feature of the expedition.”
Today, reliable knowledge about the state of the Kurils is also needed because industrial reserves of non-ferrous metal ores, mercury, natural gas and oil have been explored on the islands and in the coastal zone. Currently, there is almost no mining.
But the territory of the islands has great potential for the development of tourism. There are varied and very picturesque landscapes, hot mineral springs, and healing mud. The water area adjacent to the islands is rich in various aquatic organisms. Consequently, the area is promising for the development of mariculture – breeding and raising fish, molluscs, crustaceans, algae, and other aquatic organisms. Finally, there is an acute issue of justifying the creation of a specially protected natural area for the preservation of unique species, including marine communities.
The purpose of the first season of the expedition, which took place in the summer of 2019, was to explore the largest island in the Iturup Ridge and Urup Island. However, bad weather prevented the completion of work on the latter, and in 2020 a pandemic of the then little-known coronavirus began. It was decided not to risk it, but to continue research in 2021. In addition to Urup, the researchers were interested in the Chyornye Bratya Islands, more precisely, the largest of them – Chirpoy; as well as the adjacent water area.
“The expedition had to carry out comprehensive research and gather extensive collections,” says Anton Yurmanov, deputy head of the expedition for science, director of the Youth Work Department of the Executive Directorate of the RGS. “If the work on the side of Urup Island facing the Sea of Okhotsk was the end of the first season, then the Chyornye Bratya became a new territory for the expedition.”
14 scientific organizations took part in the current expedition. In total, nine specialized teams were formed: ecologists (they were represented by the Faculty of Biology of SPbU and the Faculty of Geography of MSU); botanists (the Botanical Institute of RAS, the MSU Botanical Garden, the Main Botanical Garden of RAS); biogeographers (the Faculty of Geography of MSU, the Menzbier Russian Society for the Study and Conservation of Birds); zoologists (the Zoological Museum of Moscow State University and the Faculty of Biology of Tver State University); hydrobiologists (the Zoological Museum of Moscow State University and the Koltzov Institute of Developmental Biology of RAS); volcanologists (the Institute of Marine Geology and Geophysics of the Far Eastern Branch of RAS); geologists (the Institute of Geology of the Karelian Research Center of RAS and the Institute of Physics of the Earth of RAS); archaeologists (the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography). The contribution to the research work of the expedition was made by the fourth-year cadets of the Peter the Great Naval Corps as part of their hydrographic practical training. Ten future officers were engaged in hydrographic and topographic work.
Hydrobiology became a new direction for the expedition. Experts have conducted invertebrate studies with a focus on the types of molluscs and echinoderms, using modern harvesting techniques and methods. Thanks to their work, the fauna "catalog" of the Russian seas will be replenished with new species.
The specialists of the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography focused on the study of the culture and history of the indigenous population of Urup – the Ainu – and the settlements of Russian settlers, as well as gathering an ethnographic collection.
Geologists this year focused on the study of neotectonic fracturing of the magmatic complexes of the islands.
The task that united all the scientists of the expedition was to consider the nature conservation potential of Urup Island and the adjacent water area. By the way, a nature reserve existed on the island from 1958 to 2003.
“During the first season, a comprehensive survey of the island showed that it meets almost all the indicators that are used as the basis for the creation of a specially protected natural area: great biodiversity, the presence of seasonal concentrations of animals, uniqueness, scientific value, value for environmental awareness and education, aesthetic value, cultural and historical value, the presence of rare species of fauna and flora,” reminds Anton Yurmanov. “One of the most notable rare and vulnerable species of the island – the sea otter – needs protection due to the instances of poaching confirmed by us.”
Perhaps the most spectacular episode of the expedition was the evacuation to the funds of the Zoological Museum of Moscow State University of a large sperm whale skull discovered in 2019 in the south of Urup. Nevertheless, scientists are convinced that it is systems research that is of much greater importance for science.
“It will be possible to talk about discoveries after the processing and analysis of the collected materials is completed, but already now it can be argued that we have achieved many of the set goals,” says Anton Yurmanov. “So, for example, indirect evidence of a paleotsunami at a number of points on the coastline was noted. The hydrobiological team revealed a significant biota richness and a large percentage of endemism. The main parameters of the fauna structure and population of birds in the previously unsurveyed points of Urup Island were noted. Information has been collected about the Red Data Book animals found on Urup and in the adjacent water area – sea otters, sea lions, and island seals."
The data obtained will be used to reveal the fundamental regularities in the formation of the island faunas of the Great Kuril Ridge. This is all the more important in the context of climate change and unstable tectonics of this region.
Already, scientists are unanimous in the opinion that the biota of the islands of Urup and Chirpoy needs detailed study and preservation. All this forms the basis for justifying the creation of a specially protected natural area. In addition, the extensive gathered scientific collections will form the basis for further research.
What are the plans for 2022?
“The results of this year's work lead us to the need to complete the work on Urup Island in the third season of the expedition, having explored its Pacific side,” sums up Kirill Ganzei. “The main attention will be focused on the large island of Simushir. In addition, the adjacent small islands will be explored. Over the next years, similar work will be carried out on all the Middle and Northern Kuril Islands.