World Federation of Science Journalists

Amundsen voyage took Russian editor to Arctic insights

January 26, 2009

Tatiana Pichugina, science editor of the monthly magazine Vokrug Sveta, was aboard the icebreaker Amundsen last June on its research mission near Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic. A month later, her attitudes about climate change had changed profoundly, and she was on the shores of the Black Sea at the largest children’s summer camp in Russia, telling young people about it.

“I was on assignment in a children’s camp called Orlienok (meaning “Eaglet”),” she says. “This camp is the biggest one in Russia, every month working with an intake of 2,000 children from around the country.”

Vokrug Sveta, the oldest popular-science magazine in Russia, had launched a two-week program at the camp to promote geography, travel, science and culture generally. “The idea was that editors should make presentations for children, answer their questions, and participate in games and quizzes,” Pichugina says. “I made eight presentations about the Amundsen trip to about 500 children eight to 16 years old.”
Far from the Arctic, children on a Black Sea beach make a "zoo in the sand." They brought wild misperceptions about global warming to Tatiana Pichugina's stories of life aboard the Amundsen.

Pichugina was one of 15 journalists sponsored by WFSJ to rotate aboard the research ship in the summer of 2008. The job at hand was the Circumpolar Flaw Lead study, looking at a perennial characteristic of Arctic sea ice – where a “flaw lead” opens up between floating sea ice and ice locked to the shoreline.

Because the water in the flaw lead is dark, while the surroundings are white, the water absorbs heat from even the wane sun of the Arctic fall and spring, which is when such leads develop. That heat makes all the biological and chemical processes that were stalled in the ice spring into fast motion. So changes that take place in days in a flaw lead are a model of what climate change might do on a larger scale to the Arctic.

The trip had a big impact on Pichugina. As she wrote in her final blog after leaving the ship, “As a science reporter I’ve covered [climate change] many times and followed the news in this field of science and policy. But all this was bookish knowledge … I can write about biological experiments in space or an underwater oil platform although I have never seen any. The same was true with the climate change problem before this expedition. But after I spent a week in the Arctic ice it became something real for me.”

Pichugina worked on the ice alongside scientists, drilling and cleaning ice and taking measurements. She came away impressed by the rigour of the proofs scientists had about the effects of rising temperatures. And she observed their “efforts to combine scientific data and with the observations made by the Inuit.”

The editorial team of Vokrug Sveta gets ready to challenge summer camp children in a game of Encyclopedia. Tatiana Pichugina is on the left.

The Russian children were something else.

“I was surprised that they were familiar with the problem and knew basic things about CO2 emissions, the greenhouse effect, even the fact that the Arctic is warming faster than other parts of the world,” she says.

But on the other hand, “Most of them had heard the argument that global warming would be good for Russia – the permafrost would melt and we’d have a nice tropical climate. I explained that we should not be happy with such a change, but should consider the ecological and economic harm that would come at the same time” – among other things, that people from other countries would flee to Russia because their homelands were “frozen or fried.”

On the Black Sea shore, Pichugina says, she was not the journalist she had been before boarding the Amundsen. Her old self reflected Russian society, “which has never paid much attention to climate change. It is not the kind of a problem that worries us,” she says.

“For me as a journalist, newsmakers in this area are foreign researchers, mediated by foreign organizations like Nature, Scientific American, the American Geophysical Union, science blogs, etc.

“Before the trip I privately thought “climate change” concerns were a kind of imperialist conspiracy to use science to promote the world market, but the Amundsen changed my attitude … I saw the effort and money invested in the CFL system study by the Canadian government. I thought, if Canada created such a big project and supported media relations about it all over the world, then it really believes there’s danger facing the planet and anthropogenic reasons for global warming.”

Pichugina’s Amundsen experience prompted her to attend World Wildlife Fund seminars in Russia about the connections between climate change and ecology.

“If not for the Amundsen trip, I would never have attended. When I heard the announcement, I said myself, ‘this is exactly what I was waiting for.’”

As a reporter, Pichugina wrote, “How to see Global Warming,” for Troitskiy Variant” (“The Troitsk-town Version”). This biweekly newspaper paper is run by scientists in Troitsk, one of several research centres affiliated with the Russian Academy of Science, with a cluster of institutions focusing on earth magnetism, high-pressure physics, and nuclear physics.

As an editor, she has started selecting climate change story ideas. The February issue of Vokrug Sveta has a story on glaciers as climate change indicators written by a young Russian glaciologist working in Japan, Eugenij Podolskij. Pichugina herself wrote a short piece in the same issue’s Q&A section about what might happen “When the Gulf Stream stops.”