2015 Kara Winter: The biggest Arctic expedition in 20 years

2015 Kara Winter: The biggest Arctic expedition in 20 years

17 June 2015

The 2015 Kara Winter, the latest in a series of Rosneft-sponsored expeditions to study the Russian Arctic, has concluded. In terms of the scale of research and the number of people involved, the 2015 Kara Winter expedition was the world's largest Arctic expedition of the last 20 years.


Last summer, polar bears were added to the long list of the expedition research subjects. The polar bear inhabits the Arctic region. It has been included in Red Data Book of the Russian Federation, and Russian law prohibits any economic activity within its habitat that can harm these animals. Current data for all key biological and environmental indicators are therefore essential to minimise the impact of human activity on polar bears. Scientists know little about the polar bear, especially the populations inhabiting areas of the Russian Arctic far from the mainland, while up-to-date data is scarce and fragmentary.


Another reason to expand the research to include polar bears was to better protect scientists researching Arctic ice. The polar bear threat often disrupts field work, as scientists have to return to their vessel for safety. This year, there were experts to step in and deal with the problem. Approaching polar bears were shot with a tranquiliser gun from a helicopter, allowing researchers to take measurements and biological samples and attach tracking devices. After coming to, the polar bear would go about its business.  


As a result, polar bears did not present any danger to humans on ice stations, and every encounter led to a meaningful contribution to science. This year, as in 2014, the regional public organisation, the Marine Mammals Council, oversaw the project to study polar bears in the region of potential oil and gas development on the Arctic shelf. Members of the council as well as leading Russian polar bear experts Stanislav Belikov and Andrei Boltunov took part in the expedition.


“The opportunity we have received to study the greater part of the polar bear's habitat in Russia is simply unique,” Stanislav Belikov said. “Our findings are complemented by round-the-clock observations carried out by experts on sea mammals and birds. As a result, we have collected data that is unprecedented in terms of volume and quality on the prevalence of polar bears from Novaya Zemlya in the west to the De Long islands in the east. Importantly, we also studied their main food source, seals, and their main habitat, sea ice.”


“The data we have collected – biological samples, satellite data on their movements, and their prevalence in different areas with varying ice conditions – will be thoroughly analysed,” Andrei Boltunov said. “A toxicology test will allow us to determine the background pollution levels from man-made pollutants found in male and female polar bears of different ages inhabiting different areas. Immunology and microbiology tests will also be made. A molecular and genetic analysis and satellite data will shed light on the current distribution of polar bears and contribute to our understanding of other related studies.”


“We hope that this data will lay the foundation for the continued monitoring of polar bears in the potential oil and gas extraction area,” said Kristina Kochi, a member of the expedition from Rosneft and an expert with the environmental technology department at the Arctic Research and Design Centre.