Hurricane-force wind was more of a problem than the cold when biogeochemist Greg Skrzypek spent six weeks in the Arctic Circle recently on climate change research.
But even the wind paled into insignificance when polar bears started patrolling the area around the Hornsund Polish Research Station on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.
While Assistant Professor Skrzypek was at the station, a polar bear attacked and killed a British schoolboy on another part of the island.
"The first thing we learnt to do when we arrived at the station was to fire a rifle," he said. "And we always had to carry a loaded rifle with us wherever we went.
"One day we saw a bear playing in the water near the station, then he jumped onto our boat and kept jumping up and down. We had to go out and stop him because his enormous weight would have smashed the boat. So we fired blanks and frightened him off. But he stayed in the scrub 200 metres away for two days, watching us. We had to keep an eye out for him, and keep our rifles handy."
Professor Skrzypek is one of the chief investigators on an international project in collaboration with the University of Wroclaw in Poland (his alma mater) looking at the influence of nitrogen sources on tundra vegetation and, ultimately, on the global carbon balance.
"Arctic and sub-arctic regions play a key role in that balance," he said. "Put simply, if there is insufficient nitrogen for the Arctic lichens and mosses to grow, they will not be absorbing carbon, so the global balance will change."
He said big colonies of small seabirds called ‘little auk' are likely to be moving further north following shrinking sea ice, because the major component of their diet is associated with the ice front.
"The little auks have a significant impact on the ecosystem. There are tens of millions in the Arctic region, mainly on Svalbard and Greenland, and they live for up to 16 years. Their droppings have provided nitrogen for the growth of plants but if the little auk leaves the area or it is driven to extinction, availability of nitrogen will become a significant limiting factor for tundra plant growth.
"Ecosystems in warmer climatic zones have more significant carbon cycling but not necessarily storage capacity due to quick turn over. In contrast, decomposition is very slow in the Arctic region, therefore even the accretion of biomass is slow. The Arctic is an important global carbon sink.
"Our aim is to work out the influence of various nitrogen sources, including rain and nitrogen-fixing algae, so our study can contribute to the improvement of global climate models. Carbon storage in the Arctic can be depleted in the future and we hope these models will help us to understand what is happening in the global system."
Working with Professor Skrzypek are a botanist Professor Wojtun from Poland who has a long-standing collaboration with UWA , and a climatologist, a soil scientist, an algolologist (specialist in algae and bacteria) and a chemist.
The station, 1,500 kilometres from the North Pole (77°N) is run by the Polish Academy of Science and is one of the most northerly bases operating all year around, apart from a Norwegian one on the other side of the island.
It has a permanent crew of about 10 people, to maintain instruments, run a weather station and take part in global seismic and magnetic global monitoring networks. The team swells to 25-30 in summer.
"A supply ship comes twice a year, so there is not much fresh food," Professor Skrzypek said. "A ship came about two weeks into our stay and we all stopped work to spend 24 hours unloading the supplies."
He and other members of the expedition took samples of the vegetation and did some processing in a small laboratory at the station but Professor Skrzypek has brought hundreds of samples back to UWA to be analysed in the stable isotope laboratory, West Australian Biogeochemistry Centre at the School of Plant Biology.
"Sometimes we went out on overnight treks and would stay in a small hut," he said. "One day we arrived at the hut to find the inside completely destroyed by a rampaging bear. Somebody had neglected to bar the door properly and a bear had obviously come inside and overturned and smashed everything, giving us a good example of its strength and power."
Professor Skrzypek said floating ice packs presented another problem.
"It was summer, and the fjords were clear of ice so we chartered a boat to get around the island on our way back home. It was a 30-hour trip to the north of the island where the little airport was. On our way there, we found huge chunks of ice in the fjord, barring our way to the airport, which is exceptional for August. It took us several hours to find a way and sneak through, then get close enough to the shore to launch an inflatable raft to take us to land. We only just made it to the airport in time to come home."
Published in UWA News, 19 September 2011