The Barents Sea


5 July 2013

Sampling stations continue in the Barents Sea to explore the depths between the Norwegian and Russian coasts, the Svalbard, and the archipelagos of Franz Joseph and Novaya Zemlya. In this shallow region of the ocean, the continental shelf is situated about 230 meters below the surface. Tara scientists are doing a series of samplings to better understand the organisms that live where Atlantic and Arctic water masses mix. A thorough investigation is necessary in this sea favored by explorers and investors.

“The Barents Sea is one of the best-studied seas in the world! Between 1801 and 2001, Russia, Norway and other countries have done a total of over 220,000 scientific stations in this area,” says Sergey Pisarev, Russian scientist aboard. Since the 1870s, Russian military ships and Norwegian fishing boats have been carrying out regular observations in the Barents Sea.

Then, in 1899 the Russian government launched a research program aboard the icebreaker Yermak. As part of the first “International Polar Year” (1882-83), weather stations were set up around the Barents Sea, including Malie Karmakuli on the island of Novaya Zemlya. More than a century later, their data provide a basis for studying climate change in the Arctic. “We must not forget that 130 years is not a very long time on the scale of natural climate variations,” says Sergey during his presentation for the Tara crew.

But to understand the history of the Barents Sea, we must go back 3 centuries more. In 1594, the Dutch navigator and explorer Willem Barentsz departed from Amsterdam with 2 ships in search of a north passage to reach eastern Asia. He eventually turned back at the northern tip of Novaya Zemlya, the island that now belongs to Russia. Willem Barents tried again twice in the following years to cross the Northeast Passage – in vain. He died during his third mission, leaving his name to this sea in the Arctic Circle.

Besides its position on the northern sea route, and the free access it provides throughout the year to the southern edge of the icepack, the Barents Sea is also coveted for its natural resources. The area has long been known as an immense reserve of fish, and since the 1970s, as an area rich in gas and oil. Tara scientists are studying the plankton and the physical and chemical properties of these waters to complete their data base about the world’s oceans.

But other research missions in the Barents Sea aim to define fishing zones, or identify potential sites for the extraction of oil or gas. Because of these economic interests, the Barents Sea was the center of a recent political dispute between Norway and Russia. Each country wanted to get exclusive rights in the economic ‘gray zone’, the maritime areas where ownership was not clearly defined. Finally, an agreement was signed by the 2 countries,  dividing the territory equally – 50% for Norway, 50% for Russia.

Without doubt the future of the Barents Sea will be agitated – by researchers seeking knowledge,  especially a better understanding of global warming in the Arctic; by others obliged to clean up nuclear waste; and by all those dreams of exploiting natural resources.

Anna Deniaud Garcia