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Polar explorers must love surprises, says Viking-styled expert in ocean studies

Researcher at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute Ocean Studies Department Nikita Kusse-Tyuz has participated in 25 Arctic expeditions, including the last North Pole expedition

MOSCOW, August 12. /TASS/. The profession of a polar explorer does not leave room for romantic moods, offering instead the stresses, dangers and endless frosts. Here is a story of a man, who has participated in 25 Arctic expeditions. He took part in the last North Pole expedition. The chain of North Pole expeditions on ice floes began from Ivan Papanin’s North Pole-1 research station. On the other hand, he witnessed and participated in a so-called "polar revolution" - Russia’s permanent comprehensive expedition to the Spitsbergen.

The building of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, AARI, attracts attention from a distance. No other building on the Vasilyevsky Island in St. Petersburg has such a severe look. The exterior resembles a rectangular piece of ice drifting on the ocean surface. On a hot summer day, when we came there to meet polar explorer Nikita Kusse-Tyuz, it looked quite friendly, and inside the building, in a modern and cozy office, we met a scientist who at first glance looked like a Viking warrior — a long beard with a red tint and large blue squinting eyes. However, despite all the similarities with legendary warriors, Nikita is quite modern — he is a researcher at the Ocean Studies Department. He explores the water column of the northern seas not from the deck, but from inside - while participating in Arctic expeditions.

Expert in oceans

Nikita’s childhood was in St. Petersburg. He did not differ from many other school students - sometimes his behavior left much to be desired, nor did he enjoy doing homework. In fact, he said, in the youth he did not think much about a future occupation.

When an undergraduate, Nikita and his friend flicked through a directory of universities. The boy made a list: the Hydrometeorology University, the St. Petersburg Mining University, the Agriculture University. For a final decision, he addressed the family.

"My father is a geodesist, and over the career he has travelled across Russia. At that time he supposed I could have inherited the interest. Thus, from that list he picked the Hydrometeorology University, saying in his office every other hydrologist had graduated from that university. We also discussed which department to pick, and in that aspect father’s role was also big. He said: ‘I have traveled the country, and you will travel the globe. Be an expert in oceans.’" the explorer said.

Like in a summer camp

He spoke warmly about the time at the university, and stressed that on the main building were radars, which at that time used to be only at big airports.

The university taught two main lessons: a team and cooperation in it is the core part of work, and, secondly, any specialist must be able to find solutions and to extract information from whatever sources. He came to value those approaches, when after at the second year at the university he went on an expedition to Primorsk.

Back then, students were given a task to make cubic ice blocks at the Bjerkesund Strait. Interestingly, that routine operation with a saw is a big trick. The task, however, was not the biggest problem. The biggest problem was the living conditions.

"There were about 50 people, both boys and girls. We were accommodated in a house - two rooms, a heap of folding beds, and only one restroom," the scientist said with a smile. "We stayed there for a week. It was fun: a big crowd, playing guitar or snowballs, going to sleep after the ‘lights out’ command - though after that command nobody falls asleep for another three hours - just like in a summer camp."

Bear and ice

Nikita passed a training course and was anxious to take part in high-latitude Arctic expeditions. It was absolutely by chance, he said, that he got into the first expedition on the fourth year, in 2008. One day, the young man was rushing down the university corridor and almost crashed into the head of the Ocean Studies Department, who suggested that he "found two more blockheads" to join the AARI Arctic expedition onboard the Akademik Fyodorov diesel-electric research vessel.

The trip was planned for 40 days, and everyone had to get adjusted to a minute-precise schedule, to living in cabins for two and to work in shifts. This expedition to organize NP-36 ("North Pole") finished a multi-year program, under which polar explorers landed on a huge ice floe and drifted in the open ocean for a year or two, studying the weather, ice and climate processes.

Those severe expeditions to the pole started in the 1930s. Well-known Ivan Papanin was on NP-1, and the expedition, which Nikita joined, was NP-36.

The researcher recalls they were to pick a maximum thick and old strong ice floe, sufficient to hold several buildings 2.5 by 5 meters. Such dwellings were called the Ovchinnikov polar houses: they were accommodation facilities for the researchers, and also housed laboratories and technical rooms — for transport equipment, diesel power plants, food containers, and fuel barrels.

During the NP-36 expedition, Nikita almost never left the ship, helped to collect probes, which the helicopter carried to the ice floe, where it lowered them under the water: the researchers conducted sea water studies at great depths.

Thus, the biggest impressions from that expedition were not related to the sea.

"At some point we were moored to an ice floe, and here came a bear. It got interested in our ship, at first walked along the side, and then stood up, put paws on the side and was staring at us most intently. Everyone, of course, began to take pictures. Many pictures have remained from that moment. Although, as it turned out later, everyone had the same - a bear and ice," Nikita said smiling.

Final North Pole

The severe expeditions near the pole began in the 1930s, and later on the decision was to stop them.

"The reason is the global climate change, because the amount of long-term ice that can survive more than one summer has been decreasing in the Arctic. The change of ice floes normally occurs in September, as it is the most favorable season. But some NP stations were removed ahead of that time, since the ice floes did not fit already in June or August and it was necessary to evacuate people, to organize urgent shipments, to have icebreakers interrupt their voyages, which means a lot of money, and then also to make a voyage to disembark researchers - thus, the costs doubled," he said.

Already in 2012, he took part in the last North Pole (NP-40) expedition — this drifting station worked for only eight months: the ice floe began to crack.

"We were warned about the evacuation a month in advance, so that we could get used to the idea we won’t make it to drift for a complete year. But anyway, we all had the feeling that a piece of cake was carried past the mouth," says Nikita.

The station was removed in early June. It took the icebreaker a week to get to it, and another few days for the upload: while the helicopter, tractors and snowmobiles were transporting property to the ship, the researchers in the ice town continued to work, collecting data almost until the departure. The scientists were the last to be picked by the helicopter.

"And yet, we all were excited: not everyone, even those who have drifted more than once, had experienced living on a cracking ice floe," the scientist concluded.

Longyearbyen Marathons vs Miner's Day in Barentsburg

Later on, also in 2012, Nikita, having grown to become a polar explorer, took the opportunity to go to the Norwegian polar archipelago of Spitsbergen. At that time, Russia was organizing a permanent complex expedition there.

In 2016, Russian scientists received an opportunity to study the Arctic climate on the archipelago more closely and comprehensively.

On the Spitsbergen, Kusse-Tyuz realized: it was also the Arctic, though completely different - the pointed snow mountains, the Greenland Sea and endless snow valleys, where animals live. The contrast between work onboard a ship and on the archipelago was striking. Besides, studies on the Spitsbergen were more local due to the high variability of currents in such waters. The difference was also in the settlements — on the Spitsbergen were mainly settlements of Russian and Norwegian coal miners.

Nikita lived in a hostel in the Russian village of Barentsburg. He studied infrastructures of the village and of its largest Norwegian neighbor, the settlement of Longyearbyen. There were certain logistics difficulties between these territories: while in winter you can come from Barentsburg to Longyearbyen by a snowmobile, in summer - only by boat or helicopter. In good weather the trip could take a couple of hours, and in bad weather the journey could take more than one day. Walking was simply dangerous - the archipelago is a territory of ice and polar bears.

The settlements differed in fauna: for example, in Longyearbyen, deer walk around the city and lie on lawns just like dogs, but Barentsburg does not attract them — there is no water, no mountains, or moss for them.

There are many holidays on the Spitsbergen: in Barentsburg, the main holiday is the Miner’s Day, while the Norwegians prefer holding marathon competitions - they block the downtown area and people compete in speed and endurance. The marathon is a chance to get to the Spitsbergen from abroad.

"In fact, the settlements compete in various sports. You come to the museum and see black-and-white photos: the Longyearbyen football team plays against the Pyramids football team," Nikita said. "Basically, the team consists of Norwegian and Barentsburg miners and seasonal hydrologists who visit each other to compete in football. They have formed teams, because both workers and researchers spend a lot of time on the Spitsbergen, about six months."

Vault for seeds and music

On the Spitsbergen, Kusse-Tyuz could use up-to-date equipment (in the 1990s, Arctic research was practically stopped) and necessary infrastructures - laboratories, hostels, satellite communication centers, transport. Due to the infrastructures, scientists may conduct year-round and comprehensive studies.

On the archipelago, the scientist realized another important feature: the archipelago will become a shelter in the event of global cataclysms. For example, there at the depth of 1,000 feet, by the beginning of 2022 will be commissioned the so-called ‘doomsday vault’ to preserve musical compositions.

"The archipelago already has a seed storage facility - in case certain types of crops disappear, they can be extracted and revegetated. The new storage facility will be for music - to preserve copies of works, which have cultural value. The generation will listen to what we have enjoyed -both global music and music of certain cultures. As for me, I would put all the blues there - sincere music that has influenced lives of many people," he continued.

"The profession of a polar explorer is for someone who loves surprises, and for those ready at some point to be doing nothing for quite a long time," Nikita said. "Right, nor is it necessary to be a romantic; at times it may be even harmful. When you romanticize an expedition before you get into it, then your ideas can break against the harsh reality. People usually are romantic about something imaginary, and may ignore the routine though mandatory actions."

To be a researcher

The pandemic period, Nikita said, has mixed up all plans for scientific work: cancelled expeditions, postponed conferences and the self-isolation. However, the scientist has coped with working remotely: he imagined that he was doing science in his cabin and simply did not go outside.

Presently, he admitted, he was too busy to do any sciences - the summer-autumn expedition season is underway, he is busy doing organizational work.

"I, like any scientist, am most interested in obtaining some hitherto unknown knowledge," Nikita explained, "and our expeditions to the Arctic are just being equipped to reveal those most interesting and relevant topics: what about the penetration of Atlantic waters, which cause changes in the Arctic climate? What about the surface layer properties? How all this has changed and why?"

According to him, in the end, the work of expeditions has been improving, although it has become a little more complicated to organize them. However, nothing has improved in terms of scientific conferences’ "continuous cancellations and format changes to online. It is very difficult for scientists to move a science forward without them."

"I think that being a researcher means pushing the progress," Nikita said in conclusion. "This, in its turn, is the key to improving the life in long term. The thing is: the progress must be used only for the good. For me, this is a way of self-realization — to prove to myself that I have been here not for nothing.".