European technologies for and from polar research
The progress of science in polar regions, as in others, relies heavily on continuous improvements in technology. Over recent decades, European polar researchers have developed a number of high-tech methods and equipment. Although some of these are specific to extreme latitudes, such as certain building technologies, others are applicable to other environments, with a few examples given below. Indeed, a particularly noteworthy synergy exists between polar and non-polar marine biologists and oceanographers.
|Low Power Magnetometers run all year on solar energy stored during the summer.|
Mervyn Freeman, Mike Rose and colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have developed a new technology that allows magnetometers to use very little power and to survive the winter on solar power stored during the summer months. This allows the magnetometers to operate unmanned throughout the year and works by having them switch on for only the minimum amount of time needed to take a measurement (around 150 milliseconds anywhere from once a second to once a minute). A network of 11 such Low Power Magnetometers has been deployed across the Antarctic continent in order to measure and understand ‘magnetic weather’ (useful, for example, for telecommunications and the aerospace industries to better protect spacecraft).
Heinz Ahammer from the Alfred Wegener Institut (AWI), Germany, has produced a system for the production of vaulted rooves constructed solely from snow. Snow is compacted over an inflatable and reusable device which is then deflated and removed to give way to a hollow, vaulted space. Similarly, removable air cushions have been developed to protect buildings from the accumulation of drifting snow: the cushions create hollow spaces which decrease the weight of the snow layer covering buildings.
Weather above and under the sea ice
For more then 20 years, drifting buoys (or “drifters”) have been used for the study of the sea ice interface in both polar regions. These buoys are equipped with an automatic weather station, a GPS positioning system, an Argos transmitter, and sometimes, an ice-thickness gauge. More recently, increasingly efficient autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs (already used worldwide to record water currents and temperatures), have been fitted to work under the ice. Some are used by the team of Michael Klages (AWI) deep under the Arctic sea ice and others by Keith Nicholls (BAS) and his colleagues from the Southampton Oceanography Centre, UK, under the Ronne-Filchner ice shelf in Antarctica.
However, a joint team of scientists from the Norwegian Polar Institute and the University of St Andrews, Scotland, has probably found the cheapest deployment platform for oceanographic measurements, with their CTD (conductivity, temperature & depth) loggers, fitted on seals and white whales living in the wild. This innovative application allows measures to be taken under the Arctic ice at depths of up to 250 m. Similar programmes are also in the process of being launched in Antarctica, this time using crab-eater and elephant seals which can dive down to depths of up to 1 km!
|Autonomous underwater vehicles, such as this one operated by the Alfred Wegener Institut, are now able to work under ice.|