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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special issue - May 2005   

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Title  Polar armada: Europe’s polar research vessels

Polar research vessels owned or operated by European countries range from Germany’s icebreaker, Polarstern, currently the most sophisticated polar research vessel in the world, to the Polish Academy of Science’s three-mast, ice-strengthened S/Y Oceania. Together these vessels form a veritable ‘polar armada’ capable of providing tailored platforms for all kinds of research and logistical operations, from the most ambitious oceanographic research to the most specific and localised coastal operations.

The Polarstern (Germany) has completed 32 expeditions to the Arctic and the Antarctic since 1982.
The Polarstern (Germany) has completed 32 expeditions to the Arctic and the Antarctic since 1982.
Of the 20 or so European polar research vessels, three are icebreakers and the remainder are classified as ice-strengthened. Aside from hull strength and a ship’s ability to sail through various depths of pack ice, perhaps the single most important quality required from a polar research vessel is the flexibility to support a whole range of scientific disciplines and to operate in capacities ranging from research platform to supply ship, to passenger carrier. Indeed, from this perspective, the unique strength of the European ‘armada’ rests not only on the flexibility of specific research vessels, but also on the flexibility of the fleet as a whole.

With her 118 metres in length, a displacement of 17 300 tons, her two helicopters and a double hull that enables her to withstand temperatures of –50˚C and to over-winter in the sea ice of the polar seas, Polarstern is the most important tool in Germany’s polar research programme. Operated by the Alfred Wegener Institut (AWI) and operational nearly 320 days a year, since its launch in 1982, the Polarstern has completed 32 expeditions to the Arctic and the Antarctic, carrying up to 55 scientists at a time and supporting a whole panoply of campaigns in fields ranging from biology to geology, geophysics, glaciology, chemistry, oceanography and meteorology.

Aside from the Polarstern, the other two European polar research vessels classified as icebreakers are: the 118 metre, 9,500 tonne, Oden, operated by the Swedish Maritime Administration and leased by the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat; and the 141 metre, 16,500 tonne, Akademic Federov operated by the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Institute (AARI). Whilst the Oden is sometimes leased for commercial icebreaking operations, both vessels serve as polyvalent research and logistical platforms, with Federov regularly re-supplying AARI stations in Antarctica.

At 10 000 tons the Marion Dufresne (France) is one of the largest European ice-strengthened vessels operating in the polar regions.
At 10 000 tons the Marion Dufresne (France) is one of the largest European ice-strengthened vessels operating in the polar regions.
Ice-strengthened vessels
Among the largest European ice-strengthened vessels operating in the polar regions is the French 120 metre, 10,000 tonne Marion Dufresne . It serves as an oceanographic research platform and also provides logistical support and passenger transport for the French sub-Antarctic islands of Kerguelen, Crozet and Amsterdam. Slightly longer, at 130 metres for 5,000 tonne, the Italian Italica also serves for marine science, but mostly as a tanker and logistics vessel for the support of the Italian Antarctic Zucchelli station at Terra Nova Bay. Two European polar research ice strengthened vessels are the British RRS James Clark Ross , 90 metres for 5,700 tonnes, serving for marine science, oceanography, logistics and passenger transport and the 80 metre, 5,400 tonne, RRS Ernest Shackleton, both operated by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Finally, there is the Russian Akademik Karpinskii at 105 metres for 5,750 tonnes, which is mostly used for marine science.

Medium-sized, polyvalent ice-strengthened European polar research vessels include: the Spanish, 82 metre, R/V Hesperides used for bi-polar research and the re-supply of the Antarctic Gabriel de Castilla and Juan Carlos I stations; the French, 65 metre Astrolabe used for marine science and to re-supply the French Dumont d’Urville Antarctic station; the Norwegian, 60 metre, R/V Lance used mainly for Arctic research and to re-supply Norwegian stations on Svalbard; the Finnish, 60 metre, R/V Aranda used for research in both polar regions; and the Danish 58 metre Paamiut operated by the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources and used as a logistics and marine research platform in and around Greenland.

Smaller vessels
Smaller in size, but equally useful in supporting shallow coastal work and other very localised polar research is the beautiful three-mast, 49 metre, Polish S/Y Oceania, as well as a whole fleet of 15 to 50 metre vessels operated by the above-mentioned nations and polar programmes.

Russia: a promising partner for the EU

A member of the European Polar Board, Russia brings a full range of ships, stations and skills to its EU partners.

Established in 1920, the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) still manages a vast infrastructure inherited from the time of the Soviet Union. Today, the institute is part of the Russian Federal Service on Hydrometeorology and Environmental Monitoring and, at its headquarters in St Petersburg, houses 17 scientific departments, an Arctic and Antarctic museum, a centre for Ice and Hydrometeorological studies, and the Russian Antarctic Expedition (RAE), which manages all the institute’s Antarctic stations and activities. What’s more, the AARI is the keeper of a vast data collection spanning back to its origin and touching on everything from ice, to ocean and atmospheric, geophysical and other processes.

Thanks to its ships and many research stations, the institute continues to perform complex investigations in fields ranging from oceanography to ice dynamics, meteorology, ocean/air interaction, geophysics, hydrochemistry, ecology and polar engineering. More recently, and regrettably often overshadowing its other activities, the AARI has received a lot of publicity for its ice core drilling project at its Vostok Station on the Antarctic Plateau (the world’s most remote research station) and its discovery of a lake that has been buried beneath the ice sheet for some 2 million years.

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  • COMNAP (Council Of Managers Of National Antarctic Programs)
  • FARO (Forum of Arctic Research Operators)