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Published: 2021-06-03

An arctic adventure

FEATURE What is hidden in the ocean below the Arctic ices? How can the organisms survive in such a hostile environment? … and how much human impact can this ecosystem withstand? When Johan Wikner and his research group board the icebreaker Oden they begin a long journey that hopefully will result in answers to many questions.

Text: Kristina Viklund

In the midst of summer, when most of us enjoy a longed-for vacation, 39 researchers will board the icebreaker Oden. The route is since long decided, and the expedition is planned in the smallest detail. Warm clothes are packed, and the participants have prepared themselves for many weeks in the grim Arctic environment.

Unknown territory

One of the 39 researchers is Johan Wikner, professor at the Department of Ecology and Environmental Science, Umeå University. He will lead a group that has set its sights on discovering more about the bacteria populations in the Arctic waters. The other group members are Ashish Verma, postdoc at Umeå University, Jarone Pinhassi, professor at Linnaeus University and Dennis Amnebrink, PhD student at Linnaeus University.

- A lot of oceanographic measurements have already been done, but the biology is still relatively unknown. We don´t even surely know which fish populations live in these waters, and even less what the microbial food web looks like. Our group will focus on investigating the bacteria, and how they have adapted to these extreme conditions, Johan tells us.

The measurements Johan’s group will perform require a lot of analysis equipment, which they will deliver to the research vessel beforehand. One week before departure the instruments and equipment will be installed in the laboratories on board. All handling of bacteria samples will have to be done at low temperature to not disturb the bacteria activity. This includes the laboratory itself as well.

-We will be working in about four degrees Celsius, so it will be a challenge to keep warm. Our time plan will be tight, and I´m sure we will be really tired by the end of each day.

Important mapping

The expedition will last for eight weeks, and during this time a large area of the north parts of the Arctic Ocean will be mapped. As a matter of fact, as far north as can be done – one of the sampling stations is placed right on the North Pole. Why is it then so important to investigate the biological life in the Arctic, considering that there are so many other areas that are both easier and less expensive to visit?

-The Arctic is the area on earth that is most affected by climate change. Our carbon dioxide emissions have already led to large changes there, changes that we know very little about. Furthermore, there are natural resources in the Arctic, but to be able to exploit them we need to understand how this will affect the ecosystem, says Johan.

The sampling will be performed both from the research vessel and on the ice. Sampling on ice will be done both close to the vessel and further away by using a helicopter. There will be special safety routines for this work, mainly because of the risk of meeting polar bears.

Safety is alpha and omega

On the whole, the expedition is surrounded by safety regulations. Everyone joining the expedition will spend one week on board Oden before departure, to participate in safety courses and briefings. During the expedition there will be medical staff and equipment on board. So, how will the covid-19 pandemic be handled?

-The expedition was originally planned for 2020, but was postponed a year due to the pandemic. Now that it has been decided to go through with the expedition, a lot of restrictions have been imposed. All participants will spend one week in total quarantine at a hotel. After that we will be allowed to come on board the vessel. The week spent on the vessel before departure will be a form of group quarantine. During this week, we will not be allowed to leave the vessel.

A freezing summer

It is with great excitement that Johan and his group do the last minute packing and preparations. They hope to come home with new insights concerning the Arctic bacteria communities. Johan is also looking forward to making new acquaintances and having interesting discussions during the weeks spent on board.

On July 26 the icebreaker Oden will begin its journey northwards. What the results of the expedition will be is still yet to be seen. However, one thing we can be absolutely sure of: This will be the coldest summer Johan Wikner and his fellow researchers will ever have experienced.

About the expedition

The expedition is the Swedish contribution to “Synoptic Arctic Survey”, a large international mapping of the Arctic Ocean. The expedition will last for 8 weeks. The 39 researchers come from 14 different departments at 6 Swedish universities. The icebreaker Oden has a crew of 22. In addition, an expedition leader, technicians, medical staff, a helicopter pilot and a meteorologist will attend the expedition. Maria Samuelsson from the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat will act as expedition coordinator. Pauline Snoeijs Leijonmalm, Stockholm University will be the chief scientist. The expedition is financed by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat and by the researchers themselves by their research funding. Johan Wikner and his group are mainly financed by the strategic research programme EcoChange and by the Kempe foundation.

More about Arctic synoptic survey

More about the icebreaker Oden