79.78° North, 66.15° East – Foggy, 2.2 °C, wind speed: 6.2 m/s

High Arctic Islands in the Kara and Laptev Sea

The High Arctic Islands in the Kara and Laptev Sea are situated between 72° and 84° north and represent extreme climatic conditions for living organisms. The islands are covered by ice and snow for most of the year. During the short snow-free growing season in July and August only few plants sparsely cover the bare ground in these polar desert areas.

The present high Arctic islands landscapes were shaped by the Eurasian ice sheet and its Late Pleistocene glacier advance and retreat phases. After the Last Glacial Maximum about 20.000 years ago, the Eurasian ice sheet decayed. The ice caps of the high Arctic Islands were formed later after the Early Holocene thermal maximum. Permafrost developed wherever land areas were exposed and soil formation began allowing pioneer vegetation to invade the region.

The Russian Arctic islands are situated mainly in the Arctic climatic zone. Two sectors are currently distinguished, with their border along the western islands of Severnaya Zemlya: the western Atlantic sector is milder, influenced by the warming impact of the Atlantic water masses; the eastern sector is characterised by colder winters and a greater difference between winter and summer temperature.

Terrestrial field work of the Arctic Century expedition will unravel some of the most unexplored aspects of these remote islands. The biodiversity gradient along the islands will be determined from south to north and from west to east by recording plant species and their abundance, and soil microbial diversity and environmental DNA will be analysed. Further ecological work focuses on macroplastic collection at the coast and bird observations. Water and soil samples will be collected to study the exchange of essential elements, such as nutrients, between the terrestrial surface and the atmosphere. An important component of the expedition is to sample ice cores on the ice caps to reconstruct climate change of recent decades. Lake sediments and permafrost profiles will be studied to understand the post-glacial history and ecosystem changes. Geomorphological and geodetic profiles will allow relative sea level variations in the Holocene to be assessed.

Most work will be carried out a long way north, on the archipelagos of Franz-Josef-Land and Severnaya Zemlya. However, the first planned landing site is on Wiese Island (also Vize Island). Its existence was predicted by the Russian oceanographer and Arctic pioneer, Vladimir Wiese. The island is ca. 30 x 10 km in size and has a maximum elevation of ca. 20 m. A hydrometeorological station was established in 1945. Vize Island has not been studied geoscientifically for many years and, except for satellite imagery, there is very sparse information about the geoscientific and ecological background.

Header photograph: Scientific vessel Akademik Tryoshnikov, unknown photographer
Rights: © 2021 Swiss Polar Institute, CC BY 4.0