National Geographic : 2014 Aug
100 national geographic • August 2014 Ninja Turtles underwear beneath his dry suit. Feodor Romanenko’s perspective is especially important among the others, not just for sci- ence but also for morale, because it combines geology with élan. Romanenko is not so space-age in style as the divers. In his floppy-eared hat, his irides- cent orange vest, and his hip waders, with his shotgun in hand, he looks like an affable duck hunter from a small town in Minnesota. His other key piece of equipment is a garden spade. Katerina Garankina, one of his Ph.D. students from Moscow State University, red haired and field hardy, assists him in the work of draw- ing geomorphological profiles of the islands. Michael Fay, doing the botany, is a natural on their daily outings ashore because, like Ro- manenko, he suffers an unquenchable craving to walk. Fay’s epic survey hike across the forests of central Africa (“Megatransect,” October 2000, and two later stories) was neither the first of his wilderness treks nor the last, and now that he’s 58 years old, dividing his time between a cabin in Alaska and a conservation job with the government of Gabon, he’s no less restless and impatient for foot travel through wild places. Arctic flora are mostly new to Fay, but on our first afternoon ashore in Franz Josef Land, I watched him identify a dozen flowering plants to at least their genera, each plant just a delicate clump of leaves within the pavement of rocks and mosses, its stems topped by tiny yellow or red flowers. Now, nine days later on an island called Pay- er, Fay is down on his hands and knees again, squinting, counting petals and carpels, taking photos. He’s got 12 species in his notebook by the time Romanenko and Garankina have mea- sured the old marine terraces sloping up from the beach. There are old marine terraces on Payer and elsewhere because Franz Josef Land experienced episodes of uplift during the late Pleistocene and recent millennia, totaling, in some parts of the archipelago, more than 300 feet of eleva- tion. The islands, on the far northerly wedge of the Eurasian plate, now ride higher in the wa- ter. Those uplifts have been driven by tectonic forces and to some degree by the disappearance of ice. As a glacier melts away, its mass vanish- ing, its weight dropping, the terrain beneath tends to rebound, like the dent in a sofa cush- ion after you’ve gotten up. So the very shape of the landscape, not to mention the shape of the ecosystem it supports, is determined in part by the presence or absence of ice. Since the beach landing on Payer, I’ve been doting on Fay’s flowers and scribbling notes, until I hear Romanenko call our notice to a polar bear, huge and handsome, silhouetted on a ridgeline to the west. The bear seems oblivious to us, but we know better than to assume. As it walks, its small head surges forward on the rippling muscles of its long neck, suggesting the short-range striking speed of a snake. Our assigned guard, a young man named Denis Mennikov, carries a Saiga-12 automatic shotgun with a banana clip, but the last thing we want is to bring that into action. Disappearing ice is a hardship for the bears too, Our guard carries a Saiga-12 automatic shotgun with a banana clip. The last thing we want is to bring that into action.