The International Siberian Shelf Study (ISSS) Program is a Russian-Swedish led international collaboration that spans back about 15 years. The overarching aim of the ISSS Program is to investigate cryosphere-climate-carbon couplings on the extensive East Siberian Arctic Ocean Shelf.

The central focus of the ISSS-2020 expedition is one of the biggest open challenges in climate change science; understanding subsea and coastal permafrost thawing, hydrate collapse and the processes that result in releases of potent greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. The expedition will be on board the largest Russian research vessel, the R/V Akademik Keldysh. The ISSS-2020 expedition builds on our expeditions and research over the past two decades to contribute fundamental knowledge of this vast, and vulnerable system so that we may move towards predicting how associated climate-carbon couplings and greenhouse gases releases may develop this century.

The expedition will run from 26 Sept – 4 Nov 2020 and will depart from and return to the White Sea port of Archangelsk, the cruise track stretching across the entire Arctic rim of the Eurasian margin.



ISSS-2020 cruise participants test core recovery. using our newly constructed multi-corer on test cruise Electra 1


The ISSS-2020 effort aims to continue and deepen our investigations into many aspects related to one of the grand challenges in earth and climate change science; subsea and coastal permafrost thawing, hydrate collapse and resultant releases of potent greenhouse gases. While much work has been reported on the terrestrial permafrost carbon-climate link, there is much less understood surrounding the coastal and subsea permafrost systems. These systems are potentially more vulnerable as they have been exposed to an additional 10°C warming following the Holocene (approximately 5-14 thousand years ago) when the shelf on which they lie was inundated with relatively “warm” seawater. One of our earlier studies demonstrates that the subsea permafrost system has not only reached the point of thaw, but is thawing at a rate much faster than terrestrial permafrost (Nature Communications, 2017).

The East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) is the prioritized study region. It is thought to host 80% of the global subsea permafrost and shallow methane hydrates (solid water crystals in which methane gas molecules are caged). This system overlies what is thought to be a massive reservoir of thermogenic natural gas, dissipating through the fractured sedimentary layers of this tectonically active system. It is fringed by extensive coastal ice complex deposits (ICD, Yedoma), particularly vulnerable to climate warming and erosion, and fed by many large Arctic rivers such as Lena, Khatanga, Indigirka and Kolyma, which deliver significant quantities of organic matter.

Illustration of key system compartments and processes that are central to the ISSS Program studies

The ISSS-2020 Expedition will contribute to further progress and build on our research and findings to date of:

  • massive methane release from the sediments over extensive scales
  • thermal condition of subsea permafrost and new techniques to probe the subsea permafrost table
  • importance of both coastal erosion and rivers in delivering terrestrial organic matter from different land compartments, including different permafrost regimes
  • the transport and degradation of terrestrial organic matter (carbon and nitrogen cycling), as well as mercury and organic contaminants, across the shelf seas
  • the severity of ocean acidification on the ESAS
  • the history of massive carbon remobilization during earlier periods of warming and sea-level rise

in addition to many other research topics (our Scope of Work document detailing specific areas of scientific interest can be made available on request).


The 40-day ISSS-2020 expedition will be carried out on the legendary 122m R/V Akademik Keldysh (the largest and one of the most active research vessels of the Russian Federation owned by the Russian Ministry of Science and Education and operated in collaboration with the PP Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, Russian Academy of Sciences). The 14 non-Russian scientific participants are co-ordinated by Stockholm University, expedition leader Örjan Gustafsson. This includes also participants from Gothenburg University, (Sweden) Istituto di Scienze Polari CNR-ISP (Italy) and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Netherlands). In addition to ship-board participants, there are many scientists who perform important roles in the program in the year(s) leading up to departure or who will contribute in the post-processing of samples, data and subsequent publication. The ship crew includes a medical doctor, a nurse and the ship has dedicated permanent ship-board medical facilities. The ship is well equipped for multi-faceted research in the World Ocean (having recently returned from 3 months offshore Antarctica), including sampling and monitoring of sediments, water column and the atmosphere, and providing 12 permanent ship-board laboratories.

The R/V Akademik Keldysh

Work on board ship is structured into 12 different focus areas or “work packages”, each with a well-defined study objective, centred around the expedition’s core scientific aim. Finalized work packages for ISSS-2020 include; Sediment and water column geophysics, Seismics, Electromagnetic survey, Sediments, Physical oceanography, Hydrochemistry, Water column organic matter, Floc layer, Methane, N2O and nitrogen, Mercury and other metals, Air measurements, Microplastics, Microbial Ecology, Remote sensing, Electromagnetic survey and sampling and Microbiology.

The ISSS-2020 planned cruise track and delineated sampling polygons.


Project Scoping

Preparations for ISSS-2020 have been ongoing for over 18 months including meeting with our Russian collaborators at the Russain Academy of Sciences (RAS) headquarters in November 2018 and December 2019. These highly-productive sessions were vital for scoping of scientific objectives.

Part of the ISSS-2020 Expedition team. Russian and non-Russian collaborators meet outside the RAS headquarters in Moscow (December 2019).

Electra 1 and 2 Baltic Test Cruises

In March and April, over 2, 4-day long expeditions, researchers from Stockholm University boarded the R/V Electra to test methods and new equipment in the Baltic, sailing from Nynäshamn, Sweden. This included sediment sampling using our newly constructed multicorer and sampling of organic matter and dissolved gasses, such as N2O and CH4 in the water column. Read more about Electra 2020 here.    

Work package Water Organic Chemistry works on deck with water filtration equipment on test cruise Electra 2.

Work packages Methane and Nitrous Oxide sample water from Niskin flasks for analysis of dissolved gasses on test cruise Electra 1.

Deployment of one of two 60L Go-Flo bottles for sampling large volumes of seawater for measurement of radiogenic isotope 14C in methane

Equipment Mobilization

On 13th August 2 shipping containers with containing 249 boxes totaling 12599kg, started their journey  to Arkhangelsk in Russia. These contain specialist equipment needed for each work package, from our new multi-corer to a 60L Go-Flo for sampling large volumes of seawater that has been with us since the first modern expedition to the high Arctic Ocean, and much more.

One of two shipping containers packed with specialist equipment for transport to Arkhangelsk, Russia.


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The ISSS collaboration has contributed scientific progress of significant impact in many areas. Output includes > 60 co-authored international journal articles (about ten in high-impact journals such as in PNAS, Science and Nature journals), co-convened sessions at AGU and EGU, several special co-edited issues of Copernicus journals, and catalysis of major research funding (e.g., from EU, ERC, Russian mega-grants, and many grants from national research councils of 5-6 countries). The research planned around ISS-2020 is funded by major grants from Russian Ministries and Research Councils, ERC Advanced Grant, three EU H2020 projects and many individual grants from national research councils in Russia, Sweden, Italy and the Netherlands.


Contact information

Visiting addresses:

Geovetenskapens Hus,
Svante Arrhenius väg 8, Stockholm

Arrheniuslaboratoriet, Svante Arrhenius väg 16, Stockholm (Unit for Toxicological Chemistry)

Mailing address:
Department of Environmental Science
Stockholm University
106 91 Stockholm

Press enquiries should be directed to:

Stella Papadopoulou
Science Communicator
Phone +46 (0)8 674 70 11

Project Info

Project start: 2018