Words By David Quammen

Feodor Romanenko raises his arms. “Dear colleagues,” he says, with his usual puckish smile, and then launches into his Russian-accented French. “Dear colleagues” aren’t quite the only words of English he knows, but they’re clearly his favorites, useful for summoning attention from a motley international group such as ours. Dear colleagues, I propose that we now climb up there, he says, indicating a precipitous, unstable, ugly hillside of scree. Dear colleagues, lunchtime! Let us enjoy it here atop the butte before high winds and the next snowstorm arrive. Dear colleagues, he brags cheerily to our evening assembly, today my group made five wondrous discoveries, including two kinds of basalt! and some Mesozoic sediments! and evidence of recent deglaciation! Romanenko is a geomorphologist based at Moscow State University, and after 28 seasons on the shores and the islands of the Arctic Ocean, his enthusiasm for his work is still boyish. Trudging across a severe northern landscape, he exudes contagious joy in the doing of field science—of making close observations, seeing patterns, compiling data that may help answer, among other mysteries, the question of ice.

We have come north with Romanenko into the high Russian Arctic, to an archipelago known as Franz Josef Land, and although it’s not our primary purpose, that question underlies much of what we’re here to learn. It’s really three questions: Why is the perennial ice melting? How far will that melting go? And with what ecological consequences? When you make a biological expedition into the high polar regions, Arctic or Antarctic, in this era of climate change, the question of ice is always important, whether you address it directly or indirectly.

Our approach is indirect. We have come north out of Murmansk across the Barents Sea, almost 40 of us, members of the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition to Franz Josef Land, to view this remote archipelago through a variety of lenses—botany, microbiology, ichthyology, ornithology, and more. Franz Josef Land comprises 192 islands, most of them built of Mesozoic sediments covered with a capping of columnar basalt, and so flat across the top that, viewed without ice (as they increasingly are), they look like mesas or buttes in Arizona. Throughout earlier times they supported no permanent human habitation—until the Soviets established research stations and military bases on a few of the islands. That presence diminished to a tiny remnant during the 1990s, but now increased thawing, new sea routes, and economic considerations are bringing renewed attention to this area by the Russian government.

Read the entire story for National Geographic Magazine