Published online 29 July 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.445

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Into the Swiss abyss

Russian submersible MIR dives into Lake Geneva.

MIR submersible in Lake GenevaA private donation has allowed researchers to use Russian deep-sea MIR submersibles for research in Switzerland.Quirin Schiermeier

"We're at the bottom, gentlemen." The barely 30-minute descent has been child's play for Nikolay Petko, a pilot on the Russian mini-submersibles MIR. During his 20-year career, he has steered the craft in waters many times deeper than Lake Geneva, where the sonar indicates a depth of 150 metres as we approach the lake bed.

The dive is more nerve-racking for the less hard-nosed science reporter wedged on board the MIR-2 — which filmgoers might remember for its appearance in the opening sequence of Titanic (1997). But for Saer Samanipour, a PhD student in environmental chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) who is also on board today, MIR's fleeting visit to Lake Geneva in Switzerland is an unlikely stroke of luck.

MIR-1 and MIR-2 were commissioned by the Soviet Union in the 1980s for use in manned deep-sea exploration, and have remained the pride of Russia's scientific effort. Their presence in land-locked Lake Geneva has little to do with the quest to understand the deep ocean, but rather with a Swedish-born businessman's love for Russia — and for science.

Frederic Paulsen is the owner of Ferring Pharmaceuticals, an international drug company headquartered in Saint-Prex, Switzerland — and an Honorary Consul for Russia in the Swiss canton of Vaud, a post for which he promotes Swiss–Russian relations. He is also the initiator and financier of the EPFL's lake-exploration programme, Elemo, for which the two submersibles were trucked almost 2,000 kilometres from Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea, to Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva, in May.

Paulsen is supporting biological, environmental and geological lake research by teams from Swiss, French, British, Russian and US institutes to the tune of several million US dollars — although the exact figure is his secret. About 100 dives are planned until the end of August.

Unexpected gift

"This is a unique opportunity for us, even though manned exploration has gone a bit out of fashion in our era of autonomous or remotely operated underwater vehicles," says Ulrich Lemmin, a freshwater scientist at the EPFL who designed the Elemo science plan, which comprises 16 projects with the overall goal of tracking the sources and sinks of lake pollutants. "But a camera will never be able to see things the way human eyes can see them. And the MIRs' large payload allows us to install and test a variety of sensors and sampling instruments, some of which we have designed for this very project."

For his own project, Samanipour has developed a prototype instrument to measure the concentration and chemical composition of micropollutants, such as those resulting from the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, which enter the lake from the River Rhone or with local wastewater. The device, which he controls from a panel inside the cockpit, consists of membranes that catch the elusive compounds as lake water is pumped through a filter.

“To keep operating the MIRs, we have basically become dependent on private sponsors.”

Anatoly Sagalevich
P. P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology

The compounds that he is looking for typically contain chloride, fluoride or bromine. They are likely to have some effect on life in the lake, and possibly on human health — Lake Geneva is the main source of drinking water for more than one million people in Switzerland and France — but their exact effect is unknown, and little is known about their distribution and rate of deposition in lake sediments.

The MIR dives will help Samanipour to learn more, he hopes. But systematically sampling the large lake at different depths requires many dives along carefully designed trajectories. Today, we follow a zigzag course in the central part of the lake, while gently oscillating between depths of 40 and 140 metres. At pre-selected positions, Samanipour orders water samples to be taken by the nesting bottles attached to the front of the capsule.

As we slowly drift to and fro, and up and down, the floodlights illuminate just a small patch of the darkness outside. No fish cross our path, but an amazing quantity of whitish particles snow continuously down the water column. This mineral and organic precipitate accumulates on the lake bed; Samanipour and his colleagues are keen to research its abundance and composition. They hope that it will help them to better understand transport mechanisms in the lake, and determine sources and levels of pollution.

"It has never been on anybody's radar here that we might be able to use the MIRs to study the lake ecosystem," says Lemmin, who was called out of retirement to oversee this research opportunity. He is now discussing with the EPFL how to secure more long-term funding for follow-up studies, perhaps using unmanned vehicles, on the basis of this summer's achievements.

"This opportunity has fallen into our lap," he says. "It would be a pity if we were not able to keep up the momentum when the MIR circus has left town."

Private support

Meanwhile, the well-travelled MIR crew is getting used to changing their ideas of what is feasible in terms of exploration.

"Neither the Russian government nor the Russian Academy of Sciences is seriously supporting manned deep-sea exploration activities any more," says Anatoly Sagalevich, head of the Deep Manned Submersibles Laboratory at the Russian Academy of Science's P. P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in Moscow. "So to keep operating the MIRs, we have basically become dependent on private sponsors."

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Besides filming the wreck of the Titanic in 1995, the MIRs were used in 2008 and 2009 to explore the depths of Lake Baikal in Siberia. Russia's adventurous Prime Minister Vladimir Putin joined a 1,400-metre dive to the bottom in August 2009 — but for all the national pride surrounding the Baikal dives, they would not have happened had it not been for financial support from Russian billionaire Mikhail Slipenchuk.

And a trip to the North Pole in August 2007, when MIR-1 planted a Russian flag on the sea bed — often read as a symbolic act highlighting Russia's territorial claims in the Arctic — was sponsored by Paulsen.

But Russia's loss may be science's gain. Lemmin and his teams are determined to get some serious research done during the MIRs' stopover at Lake Geneva. 

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