More of Europe at high latitudes
Europe is not lagging behind in terms of polar research. It has a prestigious past, and its current expertise is acknowledged worldwide. As we come to the International Polar Year in 2007-2008, Gérard Jugie, Chairman of the European Polar Board (EPB) and Director of the French Paul Emile Victor Polar Institute (IPEV), updates us on the challenges we face today. An interview.
What role does Europe have to play in research in polar regions?
|Gérard Jugie, chairman of the European Polar Board (EPB) and Director of the French Paul Emile Victor Polar Institute (IPEV)|
We have research programmes, logistic resources, and considerable expertise in this field. One of the aims of the EPB is to increase the European countries’ awareness of the pivotal role that Europe can play in terms of polar research. All the intellectual, logistic and technical resources of different Member States devoted to polar research endow Europe with a predominant position in this field. The European network of bases in these regions of the world is testimony to this. That said, I prefer not to refer to "polar research" but to the many areas of scientific excellence being developed in polar regions.
We also benefit from federal approaches, such as the Europolar programme. This provides coordination for national research programmes in the context of the European Union ERA-NET system (European Research Area) and aims to better organise and optimise research efforts in polar regions.
Finally, we should not forget Europe's know-how in these extraordinary environments. For example, we have now mastered methods for navigation in sea ice, icebreaking technology and the logistics required for polar travel on land. These are undeniably important skills.
What are the major scientific research challenges in these regions?
The EPICA programme for drilling in the Antarctic ice cap, which during the last summer season almost arrived at the rock underlying the Dome C coring site, is one of the best examples (see Ice coring: a special selection and New European initiatives). This major European project, with which we were associated from the start, responds to one of the major global challenges, namely climate change. It is a remarkable reminder that polar regions constitute excellent witnesses of the changes which have affected our planet.
Polar regions, i.e. lying south or north of 60 degrees latitude, are of extraordinary interest in terms of their specific fauna and flora. We must retain or even enhance our presence in these environments, through the development of new observatories, particularly to study the atmosphere. We need to devote further study to the characteristics of different atmospheric layers at these high latitudes, including interactions between the atmosphere, the local biosphere and the oceans but also the cryosphere, particularly in the Antarctic.
We also need to better understand the Antarctic Ocean, the circulation of floating ice masses and, more generally, the oceanic and thermohaline circulations.
Are there any emerging fields of research?
|Understanding how icebergs and currents interact in the Southern Ocean is a priority for European research in the Antarctic.|
Absolutely. In astronomy, for example. The Antarctic, and most particularly its plateau, is now of considerable interest to astronomers, with special emphasis being placed on infrared observations. This interest is due to the low levels of humidity and precipitation on the plateau (a maximum of 3.5 cm of water a year), its altitude, the light winds which do not markedly disturb observations, and the lack of light interference. In other words, it is a particularly attractive region and a site here would supplement the major astronomic observatories elsewhere in the world.
Another emerging area, which is of increasing interest to space agencies, is studying isolation of research teams in a very hostile environment. Their psychological and sociological monitoring is the source of much valuable information.
Is research in the Arctic less well endowed than that in the southern hemisphere?
Certainly not. First of all, the Scandinavian countries are particularly active in this area. Secondly, we must not forget the international campaigns that have been ongoing in Greenland for many years. And finally there is Svalbard, with the Ny-Alesund scientific settlement which groups not only Norwegian research stations but also teams from France, the UK, Italy, Korea and Poland. France has another base in that area, which strives to be a model for future research stations. More globally, we must not lose sight of Russian research efforts in the Arctic. No, you cannot say that the Arctic regions have lost their attractiveness for research.
Will the International Polar Year in 2007-2008 revolutionize European research in these extreme regions of our planet?
|Huge rookeries of rockhopper penguins are found on islands around the edges of the Antarctic region.|
Not intrinsically, but it will serve to highlight our activities in polar regions. This will allow us to raise the awareness of decision-makers at all levels, from politicians to the man in the street. The last Polar Year (in fact, more precisely an International Geophysics Year), took place fifty years ago, and made it possible to launch a multitude of new research projects in polar regions.
This new Polar Year will regenerate interest in these regions and emphasise the importance to society as a whole of the work carried out there, and should trigger projects for future generations. It is certainly an event which will leave a legacy, particularly in terms of coordination, cooperation and infrastructure.
Will it provide impetus for a shift towards the greater integration of national efforts within the EU?
At present, some countries in Europe are more dynamic than others. I think that the new International Polar Year may act as a catalyst towards greater integration. But in fact, this integration is inevitable, because Europe is now a living entity. I do not know if we shall have a European Polar Agency in 2007, but I am sure that one day, this goal will become a reality.