Poles of excellence: Europe's leading institutes and organisations
With its 25 EU nations and 20 non-members, Europe is as rich in leading polar organisations as it is in polar history. Ranging from dedicated polar research institutes to universities and specialised libraries, today’s European polar organisations form an intricate and fertile network active in large areas of the polar regions and in most disciplines of polar research. This network encourages excellence through healthy doses of both cooperation and competition between European nations.
Built on a rich tradition of polar exploration going back to the 18th century and the often heroic expeditions of the early pioneers, leading European organisations draw on an illustrious past to strive to identify and address today’s most pressing polar issues and questions: questions relating to the role of the polar regions in the Earth system, to the environmental history of the polar regions, and to the present and future effects of global climate change.
Because of their remoteness and the harshness of their environment, however, the Arctic and Antarctic are some of the most expensive regions of the world in which to carry out scientific research. Indeed, depending on the exact location and nature of the project, some research expeditions and programmes must spend as much as 80% of their budgets on logistics alone. This level of expenditure means that deep pockets are necessary to finance polar research activities and that such research inevitably tends to be the prerogative of larger nations and of Nordic countries with territories and dependencies north of the Arctic Circle.
Polar Institutes Germany
Certainly one of the leading polar institutes in Europe today is Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). Founded in 1980, ninety percent financed by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, and with headquarters in Bremerhaven, the institute was named after the German scientist Alfred Wegener, one of the pioneers of the theory of continental drift, who was a geophysicist, meteorologist and climatologist and carried out the majority of his research work in Greenland, where he died in 1930.
In its short history, the Alfred Wegener Institute has risen to prominence through its integrated programme of research in four main areas: geosystems, climate systems, pelagic ecosystems and benthic ecosystems. It is also a well-equipped polar research institute, with a network of polar research stations, ships and aircraft adapted for polar operations. Its flagship, Polarstern, currently one of the most sophisticated polar research icebreakers in the world, has enabled the institute to carry out many important studies relating to, amongst other things, the ocean-ice-atmosphere system and its importance for the world climate. Furthermore, the AWI is also active in polar logistics cooperation, as can be seen with its Dallmann Laboratory housed at the Argentine Jubany Station on King George Island in the South Shetland Islands and the merging of the Institut Polaire Français and the Alfred Wegener Institute stations at Ny-Alesund in Svalbard.
Almost as well funded, and operating a greater network of aircraft and stations than the AWI, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) grew out of a wartime expedition “Operation Tabarin” in 1943. It was then established in 1945 as the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS); an organisation which ran as many as 13 stations during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. Renamed British Antarctic Survey in 1962 when the UK became one of the original 12 signatories to the Antarctic Treaty and put aside its Antarctic territory claims, the BAS is perhaps most famous as the organisation which discovered the ozone hole in 1985.
Financed by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and with headquarters in Cambridge, the BAS is currently launching a new suite of science programmes for 2005 to 2010 entitled ‘Global Science in the Antarctic Context’. This programme will involve a whole range of research: global and regional signs of climate change; biodiversity and evolution in the Antarctic ecosystem; Southern Ocean science and Earth system integration. One of the most topical aspects of the new program deals with glacial retreat in Antarctica and the deglaciation of the Earth system. This includes research on the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS): a vast reserve of fresh water which would increase global sea levels by up to 6 metres if it were to collapse as a result of climate change.
The French Polar Institut Paul Emile Victor (IPEV) is a public body composed of nine public organisations, amongst which the most important are the French Ministry of Research which provides most of the funding to the IPEV and the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), which provides two-thirds of the 50 permanent staff at the IPEV headquarters in Brest, Brittany. Previously the Institut Français pour la Recherche et la Technologie Polaires (IFRTP), the IPEV was created in 1992 by the merging of the scientific mission of the Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises (TAAF), which managed the French sub-Antarctic islands of Kerguelen, Crozet and Amsterdam, and the Expéditions Polaires Francaises. It is named after Paul Emile Victor, the leading figure of modern French bi-polar research and exploration who died in 1995.
Recently extended to 2014, the IPEV will make use of its three research vessels as well as its stations in the Arctic, sub-Antarctic and Antarctic to continue its programme of research in fields ranging from oceanography to biology, climatology, atmospherics and glaciology. In 2005, in collaboration with the Italian Antarctic Program, the IPEV also operates its first winter campaign at the newly opened, second-generation, Concordia station at Dome C on the Antarctic Plateau. Dome C was originally erected as a summer camp to support the highly successful European Project of Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA – see New European initiatives) Amongst many other projects, the institute now hopes to take advantage of the exceptional atmospheric conditions at Dome C to launch an international astronomy programme for which initial site testing is currently taking place.
Italy’s polar research activities are divided into the National Programme of Antarctic Research (PNRA) and the Arctic Project.
The PNRA was first established in 1985. In 2002 a consortium of four agencies was put in charge of its implementation: the National Research Council (CNR), the Agency for new Technologies, Energy and the Environment (ENEA), the National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), and the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics (OGS). The programme is promoted by the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research (MIUR) and opened its high-tech Mario Zucchelli Terra Nova Bay summer station in the Ross Sea region in 1986.
The PNRA’s research activities include its collaboration with the IPEV on the construction and management of the newly constructed Concordia Station on the Antarctic Plateau, as well as a particularly active programme of cooperation on international projects such as EPICA, the International TransAntarctic Scientific Expedition (ITASE), the Balloon Observation of Millimetric Extragalactic Radiation and Geophysics (BOOMERANG), and the Antarctic Geological Drilling Consortium (ANDRILL).
The Italian Arctic Project started in 1996 when the CNR opened the Dirigibile Italia research station at Ny-Alesund in Svalbard. This was followed by the establishment of the Arctic Strategic Project in June 1997 and its launch of a multidisciplinary programme of research which includes Climatology, the NICE (Nitrogen Cycle and Effects) project, biological adaptation, biomedecine, hydrology, radionuclides, permafrost and human science. The Arctic Strategic Project is managed by the recently created CNR/POLARNET which coordinates polar research activities in both the Arctic and the Antarctic.
Within Europe, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway all stand out as countries with territories and dependencies north of the Arctic Circle, and as some of the oldest and most prolific contributors to European polar research in both the natural and the social sciences. Together these four Nordic countries study everything from the effect of global warming on the Greenland Ice Cap and Arctic Ocean, to the cultural, historical and social processes that shape the sustainability of circumpolar indigenous peoples — especially the Saami of Northern Scandinavia and the Inuits of Greenland.
The Danish Polar Centre supports and synchronises a vast network of stations and observation posts throughout Greenland and, through its logistics network, actively supports United States and other international research in the region. The Finnish Institute of Marine Research, the Norwegian Polar Institute and the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat together operate a small fleet of research vessels, as well as a whole panoply of stations and observation posts from Northern Scandinavia to Svalbard, and to Antarctica, where Norway is currently upgrading its Troll station for year-round occupancy.
Universities and Other Organisations Although it would be almost impossible to identify all the European universities carrying out research in the polar regions, it is nevertheless possible to mention a few that stand out for their excellence and dedication to these regions.
Notable amongst these is Cambridge University, which maintains a close relationship with the British Antarctic Survey and is home to the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) founded in 1920 as a memorial to Captain Scott and his four companions who died on their return journey from the South Pole. The Institute is the oldest international centre for polar research within a university and since the war has been involved in a whole variety of research relating to polar history, the natural sciences and the social sciences.
Housing its own polar museum, as well as the world’s most comprehensive polar library and archive, with books, publications, diaries, unpublished material, artefacts and images relating to all aspects of polar research and history, the SPRI serves as an invaluable source of information for international scholars and scientists alike. Furthermore, the SPRI offers a sought-after Masters and PhD programme covering subjects relating to both the natural and the social sciences, and is home to various external organisations such as the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) and the International Glaciology Society (IGS).
Another important university for polar research is the uniquely located University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) where every year up to 250 international post-graduate students come to study and carry out research in Arctic sciences, including biology, geology, geophysics and technology. Intended to contribute to the development of Svalbard as an international research platform, the UNIS programmes rely heavily on the natural properties of Svalbard as a high-latitude research laboratory and on the extensive research infrastructure in and around Ny-Alesund. In the future, UNIS will form the core of the Svalbard Science Centre (SSC), an international Arctic centre of expertise in research and education, which will also incorporate other professional and scientific institutions on the islands.
Among other European universities and other organisations which contribute significantly to polar research, one should also mention: the University of Grenoble, whose glaciology laboratory is actively involved in the study of ice cores; the University of Groningen, home to the Dutch Arctic Centre; the University of Lapland, home to the Finnish Arctic Centre; the Norwegian Institute of Technology, home to the SINTEF Polar Technology unit; the University of Copenhagen, home to specialist glaciology and geophysical groups; the Belgian Science Policy and its Antarctic programme; the University of Tromsø; the University of Siena; the University of Dresden; and the University of Stockholm.
Working Together Whilst all funded and working independently to uphold their own programmes and reputations, together the above-mentioned institutes and universities display the vibrancy of the European polar research community, as well as its common desire to better understand how the polar regions function and evolve both internally and as part of the Earth system as a whole. Indeed, this shared enthusiasm and sense of urgency in the face of global warming is leading to an increasing number of European collaborative programs and to a more coordinated approach to European polar research as a whole.
Unfrozen assets: budgets and staff of European polar research organisations
Although European polar research is very well funded, there exist big discrepancies between individual nations. What is more, whilst some polar research programmes are very centralised, operating under large, integrated organisations and budgets, others only operate as logistical providers or have separate ...
Unfrozen assets: budgets and staff of European polar research organisations
Although European polar research is very well funded, there exist big discrepancies between individual nations. What is more, whilst some polar research programmes are very centralised, operating under large, integrated organisations and budgets, others only operate as logistical providers or have separate structures for different scientific disciplines and/or regions.
The best-funded polar research programmes in Europe are without doubt those run by Germany and the UK. Centralised around the German Alfred Wegener Institut (AWI) which has an annual operating budget of 60 million euro and over 450 employees, and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) which has it own annual budget of 43 million euro and just over 400 full-time staff, both national programmes also comprise universities and other separately funded polar organisations such as the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) in Cambridge.
Slightly smaller in size, the French and Italian polar research programmes also have their own central polar research institutions such as the Institut Paul Emile Victor (IPEV), but generally operate in a more open structure with greater financial participation from universities and other organisations. The annual budget of the French IPEV is approximatively 20 million euro, whilst about 27 million euro is spent by the Italian polar research programme as a whole.
Medium-sized European polar research programmes include Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Spain, with the Norwegian Polar Institute operating a staff of around 120 people, most of them dedicated to the Arctic.
Among the smaller countries for which figures are available, the Netherlands and Belgium each spend between one and two million euro annually on both national and international projects. They do not currently operate stations (Belgium is planning one), but instead have arrangements with other national programmes whom they pay for logistical support on specific projects.