Russia’s Arctic Floating University has possibly discovered a new branch of the Gulf Stream in the Barents Sea during its inaugural trip this summer, program managers said on Tuesday.
“This may be no Higgs boson, but this is important, too,” Federal Meteorological Service head Alexander Frolov said at a press conference in Moscow. “But let’s wait until we’ve analyzed the data better.”
Preliminary results indicate the Gulf Stream branch, either newly emerged or previously undiscovered, may be active by Russia's Novaya Zemlya archipelago, Frolov said.
The discovery, along with other research, has importance beyond academia because the Arctic region governs Russian winter temperatures, which in turn have a serious impact on the economy, Frolov said.
“A warm Arctic means cold winters,” he said paradoxically, adding that such research helps develop long-term forecasts for the heating industry.
The Arctic Floating University, a unique program which may open its doors to foreigners next year, saw 25 Russian master’s and postgraduate students take a 40-day tour of the Barents Sea.
The UNESCO-endorsed training-through-research program dates back to Soviet times, but fizzled out nationwide after 1991 due to the lack of funding, Frolov said.
The program was resurrected with a bang thanks to a state grant last year, said Leonid Vasilyev of the Russian Geographic Society.
The total bill for the expedition stood at 35 million rubles (just over $1 million), he said.
The program actually exceeds its Soviet analogs, first, because no Soviet students worked on Arctic research vessels and second, because most participants this time were girls, who used to be banned from such research as “the weaker sex,” program managers said.
The “Arctic floating university,” also known as the Professor Molchanov, crisscrossed ice fields in the Barents Sea, taking some 8,500 samples of water and seabed along the way between June 1 and July 10, said the expedition’s research director Konstantin Bogolitsyn.
The planet’s northernmost region has been shifting into the public and diplomatic spotlight in recent years due to the “Arctic race,” the northern nations’ drive to mine for resources, especially lucrative oil and gas deposits on the floor of the Arctic Ocean.
Nobody mentioned at the conference the quietly simmering standoff, which already saw Russia, Denmark and Norway file claims for large swathes of the continental shelf in the Arctic, and Russian MIR submersibles diving to the North Pole in 2007 to plant a Russian flag there, to the frustration of Canadian and U.S. diplomats who criticized it as a PR stunt.
Nobody mentioned as well environmentalists’ concerns that mining in the Arctic’s severe conditions runs a risk of industrial incidents capable of destroying fragile local ecosystems.
The Professor Molchanov will set sail on a new expedition on August 1, taking environmental officials and WWF experts on a tour of the northern Yamalo-Nenets autonomous region to check the ecological impact of the local thriving oil industry, Vasilyev said, before being hushed by colleagues who promised more details at an upcoming press conference.
In any case, the Arctic Floating University is already attracting applicants from all over the North, including Canada, the United States and Scandinavian countries, said Yelena Kudryashova, rector of the Northern Federal University in Arkhangelsk.
“We decided the first voyage would be 100 percent Russian,” Kudryashova said. “But we’ll see the next year.”
No more than seven students who traveled on the Professor Molchanov are expected to take up a career in marine sciences, Vasilyev said. Speaking on the sidelines of the conference, the students agreed that the job is not very well paid, which is a turn-off for many, though no exact figures were voiced.
Some, however, are hooked. “You get back with the feeling you can do anything,” said glaciologist Lidia Yefremenko.
“I want to go there again, so it means I’ll have to continue my studies,” she said.