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  Polar research outside Europe

Even more so than within Europe, polar research outside of the European context can be characterised by the great range in size of the different polar programmes, as well as by the large diversity of science that is conducted through these programmes. Indeed, a rapid glance through the various North American, Asian, Australasian and African polar programmes reveals a veritable kaleidoscope of where and how research is carried out on the world stage.

North America
By far the largest polar research programme in the world, the United States National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs (NSF-OPP), maintains three research stations in the Antarctic: McMurdo in the Ross Sea region, Amundsen-Scott South Pole station, and Palmer station on the Antarctic Peninsula. The NSF-OPP also leases and operates a fleet of two state-of-the-art research vessels, two logistical icebreakers, and a task force of helicopters, Hercules and Twin Otter aircraft for all types of Arctic and Antarctic logistical support.

With an annual budget of 300 million dollars for Antarctic research and 62 million dollars for Arctic research, the NSF-OPP takes over 800 scientists and their support teams to the polar regions every year, facilitating science projects in everything from the demography of penguins, to sub-particles and astrophysics.

Although much smaller in scale and mostly focused on the Arctic, Canada’s polar research programme is divided between several organisations: the Aurora Research Institute conducts research and promotes technological development in the western Canadian Arctic and northern Yukon; the Canadian Polar Commission serves as the national advisory body on Antarctic matters; and the Polar Continental Shelf Project provides Arctic logistical support to scientific groups from more than 40 Canadian and international scientific organisations every year.

South America
Because of the distance that separates them from the Arctic, South American polar research programmes tend to be almost entirely focused on Antarctica. With over twenty bases between them, Chile and Argentina’s logistical infrastructure is amongst the most prominent on the entire continent. Ranging from small summer huts to year-round bases with resident families, schools and chapels, these stations facilitate oceanographic, biological, glaciological, meteorological and geological research whilst also enabling those two, often rival, nations to maintain a strategic territorial presence on the continent.

Much smaller in scale, but nevertheless conducting an important programme of Earth and atmospheric sciences, the Brazilian polar research programme maintains an all-year research station, Ferraz, situated on King George Island, at the most accessible northern end of the Antarctic Peninsula, not far from the Uruguayan station, Artigas, and the Peruvian summer station, Machu Picchu.

The Chinese Great Wall station in the South Shetland Islands can accommodate up to 15 during winter.
The Chinese Great Wall station in the South Shetland Islands can accommodate up to 15 during winter.
With China, Japan, and Korea operating research stations both in the Antarctic and at Ny-Alesund on the islands of Svalbard in the Arctic, Asian nations are among the most active in international polar research.

Indeed, whilst China is in the process of rebuilding its two Antarctic stations - Zongshan station in Eastern Antarctica, and Great Wall station on King George Island, close to Korea’s King Sejong station – Japan’s National Institute of Polar Research (NIPR) spends over 39 million dollars annually supporting a network of stations that includes Dome Fuji - one of only a handful of research facilities on the Antarctic Plateau.

Much smaller in scale, India’s National Centre for Antarctic and Ocean Research (NCAOR) operates a single Antarctic station, Maitri, from where it conducts an interdisciplinary programme of research into subjects ranging from meteorology to human physiology, geology and biology.

Australia’s Mawson station can meet more than half its energy needs through wind turbines.
Australia’s Mawson station can meet more than half its energy needs through wind turbines.
© J. Davis/AAD
With their close proximity to Antarctica, Australia and New Zealand focus almost all of their polar research efforts on the southern polar regions. Serving as gateways from which many other national polar programmes operate their logistical operations to the Antarctic, Australia and New Zealand are also very pro-active in their own right and play a significant role in pure research, whether through national or international projects. With its station, Scott Base, only a few miles from the US McMurdo station, Antarctic New Zealand (ANZ) enjoys a particularly close relationship with the NSF-OPP with which it shares logistics and has, among other things, collaborated on the highly successful ANDRILL deep-sea drilling project in the neighbouring McMurdo sound. Although more isolated geographically, the three Australian stations (Casey, Davis and Mawson) are used by the Australian Antarctic Division to support a whole range of research, with a strong emphasis on climate, marine and environmental issues.

As another southern hemisphere nation and the only African country with a polar research programme, South Africa also concentrates almost entirely on Antarctica and is involved in a number of important international Antarctic projects such as the Southern Hemisphere Auroral Radar Experiment (SHARE). What is more, its South African National Antarctic Programme (SANAP) operates one summer and one all year station in Queen Maud Land, as well as two stations on the Marion and Gough sub-Antarctic islands, facilitating research in the physical, oceanographic, earth and biological sciences.

  Beyond the poles…  
  Aside from pure information, such as the insight into the evolution of climate change provided to us by ice cores, polar research often also produces direct and sometimes unexpected applications for humans. These applications touch on everything from space and material sciences, to medicine and cold enzymes. A quick – and non exhaustive! – tour (see also European technologies for and from polar research [ http://ec.europa.eu/research/rtdinfo/special_pol/05/article_2613_en.html ]):

  • NASA is using Lake Vostok (see Thermophilic bacteria in Lake Vostok [ http://ec.europa.eu/research/rtdinfo/special_pol/03/article_2598_en.html ]), buried under four kilometres of Antarctic ice, as a testing ground for developing a ‘cryobot/hydrobot’ tandem vehicle able to penetrate the liquid realm hidden under the thick icy crust of Europa, one of Jupiter’s satellites.
  • The ESA has been supporting Frenchman Gilles Elkaim in his 12,000 km solo Arctic trek to benefit from his experience of isolation for future manned missions to Mars.
  • Stuart Egginton, from the University of Birmingham's Medical School, studies the physiology of Antarctic cod to better understand the problems faced by the human heart when confronted with hypothermia.
  • Cécile Thouzeau from the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique investigates the bactericides produced in King penguins’ stomachs for biomedical applications, including long-term food storage.
  • The European funded BIOTECH 2 programme is devoted to studying cold enzymes found in Antarctic bacteria and used extensively by industry in applications as diverse as preparing food, formulating detergents and detecting pollutants using biosensors.
  • Christian Hamm from the Alfred Wegener Institut finds inspiration in polar plankton bioceramic shell geometry to improve the performance of stable lightweight constructions.