Off to Siberia in sandals

23.09.2019 | Logbook


On his way to the Samoylov research station in Siberia, SLF botanist Christian Rixen had to overcome a number of obstacles: first, his luggage was lost; then he spent days struggling with forms written in Cyrillic script; finally, he ended up boarding a small ship to take him to the Arctic in sandals.

In the far northeast of the Siberian Arctic lies the Samoylov Island research station, where I was lucky enough to spend two weeks working on a research project on Arctic and alpine plants. The trip was made possible by an EU programme promoting cooperation between Arctic and alpine research stations. I used the time to study vegetation at climate stations.

Getting to this corner of the world is not exactly easy. The first part was simple enough: two long flights took us from Zurich to Yakutsk (already very far to the east) via Moscow. But things started to get tricky when Russian airline Aeroflot managed to send over 1,500 pieces of luggage to the wrong destination, if they were sent at all (the incident even made it on to Russian TV). As a result, four of the six researchers – myself included – hunted in vain for our luggage and expedition equipment when we got to Yakutsk. Nobody speaks English here, so we spent a long time struggling through lots of forms written in Cyrillic script. After searching futilely for information for a few hours, we had to continue our journey to the Arctic without our luggage.

Next stop: Tiksi. In Soviet times, Tiksi had been an important northern outpost as part of the development of the Russian Arctic. However, the city was left behind economically after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The communist-era apartment blocks look like they haven’t had a fresh coat of paint since then.

Wrestling with forms in the military district

We stayed in this dreary settlement for the next few days, spending a lot of time with the border police. Since this part of the Arctic Ocean coast is practically on the border with the USA, we found ourselves in a military district. The AWI has many years’ experience organising research permits but when a new military commander decides to send a signal, the rules change. The earlier group permit was no longer valid, so every single one of us had to go to the border police to complete the formalities. Pages of forms were filled out for each of us, which we had to sign: an acknowledgement that we were in a Russian military district, an acknowledgement that we didn’t speak Russian, an acknowledgement that we needed an interpreter, and so on. After around two hours, we were allowed to go but had to return to the police station the next day. After all, there’s not much else to do there, and people are happy to get visitors.

The next day, we learned that there was a mistake in the records, so they had to be rewritten and signed by us again. We ended up being stuck at the station for hours. On the third day, there was, of course, one last form for us to sign at the police station. In the meantime, the printer ink cartridges were running dangerously low, with a police officer shaking them nervously before each printing run. Finally, after another two and a half hours, we were let go for good.

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A hole is being drilled into the ice and frozen ground so that a small pole with an automatic camera can be inserted, which will simply freeze in place. Photo: Birgit Heim
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Survey of a vegetation plot, where all the plant species and their coverage were recorded. Photo: Birgit Heim
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Arctic terns nest in large numbers on Samoylov. Photo: Christian Rixen, SLF
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You need to watch out for Arctic terns’ sharp beaks. Near their nests, they swoop down and attack trespassers on their territory, aiming for their heads! Photo: Christian Rixen, SLF

A long wait followed by a sudden panic

That evening, we were due to board the ship that would take us to Samoylov Island in the Lena Delta. Unfortunately, we still had no news about our lost luggage. Or rather, we had received a lot of conflicting information. That was perhaps the strangest thing of all about our situation. If we had just known that our luggage wasn’t going to arrive in time, we could have planned around that fact and gone shopping in Tiksi before the next stage of our journey. But we kept getting bits of (mis)information that led us to believe that the luggage situation was (at least to some extent) under control. As it was, five minutes before the ship was due to leave, we still didn’t have our luggage but realised we had to get going or we’d miss the ship. That’s often how it goes, though: a long wait followed by a sudden panicked rush.

The mad dash was followed by a 12-hour overnight journey on a small ship through the Arctic – in sandals, as Aeroflot still had my hiking boots. You could sit down in the cosy cabins but you couldn’t sleep. It wouldn’t be dark again until September anyway. Unsurprisingly, we were exhausted when we finally arrived at Samoylov Island the next morning.

Why is the research station on an island anyway? Is the journey not long enough already? A vast delta the size of Belgium has formed at the mouth of the mighty Lena River, consisting of countless islands, islets and sandbanks. This region has fascinating permafrost patterns that can’t always be found in that form on the mainland. To investigate them, you need to travel by ship as the research stations in the Lena Delta are located on the riverbank and on the islands.

Fancy new station

The Russian-German station started off as a small wooden hut with an outhouse, although naturally it also had a banya (sauna). Expeditions used to involve a very limited number of participants, who could only work there in the summer and some of whom had to camp outside the hut. Then, in 2010, Putin – who was opening a new climate station in Tiksi – visited the Lena Delta and was not at all impressed by the small station. Suddenly, the resources were available to build an extensive, modern research station with large cold rooms, laboratories, a big kitchen, appropriate accommodation, and so on. Today, the station is occupied all year round and is a researcher’s paradise, with excellent equipment, lots of research opportunities and three hot meals a day. Much larger research teams and international guests now work there from April to late September.

My actual research work went smoothly – apart from a few thousand mosquitoes – and was a complete success. It was a continuation of a Swiss National Science Foundation project where we investigated the relationship between vegetation, plant growth and climate (especially snow and temperatures) at more than 100 climate stations. This follow-up project involves additional climate stations in other cold regions in the world. To that end, I carried out vegetation surveys at Samoylov’s climate stations, measured plant properties such as the areas of leaves, and collected data at the soil surface that could be analysed together with drone and satellite data.

My luggage even turned up in the end. Fortunately, I had been able to borrow some wellies and a few other things at the station, so I didn’t have to trudge through the tundra in sandals. On the way home, I was surprised and overjoyed every time I arrived at an airport to find that my luggage had arrived safely.