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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - May 2005   

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Title  High latitude real-estate: European polar stations

The jewels in a polar programme’s crown, research stations act as invaluable operational platforms from which to support local and deep-field research expeditions, as well as all types of atmospheric, astronomical, meteorological, biological and medical observations. Rightly or wrongly, stations are also often regarded as the best indication of a nation’s commitment and dedication to polar research.

European nations operate a total of twelve year-round and ten summer-only Antarctic and sub-Antarctic stations, as well as about ten dedicated scientific stations in the Arctic. Above and beyond these, Russia still manages the Soviet Union’s legacy of eight research stations in Antarctica alone,

The Arctic
While Antarctic stations are easy to add up and classify according to nationality and seasonal usage, the complex geographic, human and political dimension of the Arctic (an ocean surrounded by sovereign, inhabited coastlines), can make it difficult to distinguish dedicated scientific research stations from meteorological and other observation posts. These posts are maintained by local inhabitants, the military or other non-scientific agencies.

Certainly the greatest concentration of dedicated European scientific research stations in the Arctic is in Ny-Alesund, on the Svalbard archipelago. There, France and Germany have just merged their stations into a single polar research platform, whilst Norway, Sweden, Italy, Poland and the UK also maintain stations with the support of a logistical network managed and operated by Norway’s Kings Bay AS.

Ny-Alesund in Svalbard, a thriving Arctic research community.
Ny-Alesund in Svalbard, a thriving Arctic research community.
Indeed, with Norway’s support, Ny-Alesund has become a thriving polar research community and one of the leading climate and environmental monitoring posts in the entire Arctic region. It is a logistical hub where, amongst many other things, the depreciating thickness of Arctic sea ice and its effect on salinity and ocean currents is being closely monitored. What is more, Ny-Alusund is also home to the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) where every year up to 250 international post-graduate students come to carry out research in Arctic biology, geology, geophysics and technology.

Away from Svalbard, other notable European research stations include the Sodankyla Geophysical Observatory and the University of Lapland in northern Finland, as well as the Swedish Abisko Scientific Research Station about 200 kilometres north of the Arctic circle. The Danish Polar Centre and other Danish scientific organisations also operate a whole network of observation posts and stations in continental and coastal Greenland. These outposts are examining closely the history, stability and thinning of the Greenland ice cap, as well as its effect on global sea level rise.

The Antarctic
The British Antarctic Survey station Halley V, built on the Brunt Ice Shelf, Coats Land, Antarctica. Lying at the edge of the southern auroral zone, it is ideally situated for geospace research.
The British Antarctic Survey station Halley V, built on the Brunt Ice Shelf, Coats Land, Antarctica. Lying at the edge of the southern auroral zone, it is ideally situated for geospace research.
Of all the European polar research programmes, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the Institut Polaire Français (IPEV) operate the greatest network of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic stations. In the case of the BAS, these range from the relatively accessible King Edward Point on the island of South Georgia, to the remote Halley V on the Brunt Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea region. Lying within the auroral zone, Halley is ideally situated for geospace research and is where the ozone hole was first discovered in 1985.

By far the most isolated European research station in Antarctica is the new, ultra-modern French-Italian Concordia station at Dome C, high up on the Antarctic Plateau. With a summer population of around 55 and winter population of 15, Concordia is supported and re-supplied by a mixture of land-traverse via France’s Dumont D’Urville and air link via Italy’s Zucchelli station on the Antarctic coastline. Originally set up as part of the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA), it was recently rebuilt as a permanent structure to support a whole range of current and future research in glaciology, astronomy, and atmospherics.

Another important European polar research station is Germany’s Neumayer in Dronning Maud Land. Buried under eleven metres of ice and snow accumulation, Neumayer is located on a moving ice shelf and, like the British Halley V, is slowly progressing towards the edge of the shelf where it will eventually carve off as part of an iceberg. For this reason, both Neumayer and Halley have been abandoned and rebuilt upstream on several occasions in the past – usually at ten to twenty year intervals. Indeed, plans are currently being drawn up to replace both existing stations within the next three to five years.

Summer stations
Although smaller in size, summer stations, such as Norway’s Troll Station (currently being upgraded for year-round occupation), Sweden’s Wasa Station, Spain’s Gabriel de Castilla Station and Ukraine’s Vernadsky (formally the British Faraday) station, also play an important role. They provide logistic and other support for the majority of scientists who carry out Antarctic research during the months when 24-hour daylight is the norm and conditions are at their most favourable.

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