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Into the wild

28.05.2008
An intrepid team of researchers from The University of Nottingham are venturing into one of the most isolated regions on the planet to study the potentially devastating effects of global warming on natural habitats.

Led by ecology lecturer Dr Markus Eichhorn, the team will spend 10 weeks camping in the wilderness of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Far East Russia, an area of outstanding natural beauty that boasts the northern hemisphere's largest active volcano, an unusually large population of grizzly bears and giant herbs that can grow in excess of 10ft high.

The researchers will spend their time carefully mapping the extraordinary abundance of plant and animal life as a starting point to monitoring the effects of climate change on the area, which is one of the fastest warming regions in the world.

Kamchatka is a volcanic peninsula on the pacific 'ring of fire' covering an area of 472,300 km² and boasting 160 volcanoes, 29 of which are still active. It has a population of 402,500 but more than half of its inhabitants live in the region's administrative and industrial centre Petropavlosk-Kamchatsky. After World War II, the region was declared a military zone and was closed to foreigners until 1990.

Among the diverse wildlife found in the region are a large number of grizzly bears — sustained by lakes and rivers teeming with many species of salmon — wolves, arctic foxes, lynx, wolverine, sable, reindeer and moose. Kamchatka is also the breeding ground for Steller's sea eagle, one of the largest eagle species with a wing span up to two metres.

Dr Eichhorn, of the University's School of Biology, said: “It's going to be a fantastic experience from an exploratory perspective. The region is so sparsely populated that for the large part the landscape is completely unspoilt, it really is a wilderness. Being given the chance to study the flora and fauna of somewhere so untouched by man is a huge privilege.”

He will be accompanied on the expedition by four students specialising in zoology, biology, genetics and geography, a botanist from the Russian Academy of Sciences in Vladivostok, a biology professor from Amurskii State University and two Russian undergraduates from Vitus Bering Kamchatka State University.

The team flies out on June 25 and will undertake an orientation week while staying close to Esso village in central Kamchatka, learning general skills for survival and safety including camp protocols, navigation and grizzly bear precautions before establishing more remote fieldwork camps on the western side of the peninsula.

Once in the wilderness, they will spend their time mapping the forests of Bystrinsky Nature Park — a UNESCO World Heritage site — developing botanical collections of specimens and seeds and gaining skills relating to their individual specialties, including conducting bird surveys, trapping small mammals and cataloguing insects.

Dr Eichhorn said: “We really will be in the middle of nowhere. The only interactions we are likely to have with other people are likely to be encounters with indigenous Koryak reindeer herders. As roads are few and far between, you have to use all-terrain vehicles to cover long distances but we expect that we will be trekking cross-country for most of our field trips.

“Once a week we'll receive a food drop from the local village and around every 10 days or so we'll head back into town for some human contact. Team members will keep in touch with folks back home by using e-mail — there is one computer in the town's library that has internet access.

“As we will be so isolated safety provisions have been made. One of the students, Joe Wright, and myself have received specialist medical training and will act as medical officers on the expedition.

“Although there are lots of grizzly bears, they tend to be quite timid when it comes to human contact and you are more likely to be injured falling out of a tree than through a bear attack. However, in case of emergency we will have GPS distress beacons and a rescue helicopter will be scrambled.”

The expedition has been approved and supported by the Royal Geographical Society and British Ecological Society and is a collaboration between The University of Nottingham and Vitus Bering University.

The team is currently in the process of raising funds for the expedition and is interested in hearing from private companies or individuals who can offer sponsorship, either towards the overall cost of the expedition or specific items such as tents. More information about the expedition can be found on the web at www.kamchatka2008.org.uk and anyone interested in supporting the trip can contact Dr Markus Eichhorn on 0115 951 3214.

Emma Thorne | alfa
Further information:
http://www.nottingham.ac.uk

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