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The Warsaw Voice » Society » January 9, 2008
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Polish Polar Station Turns 50
January 9, 2008   
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The Arctic and the Antarctic at the opposite side of the globe are usually associated with long polar nights, freezing temperatures, lots of snow and dangerous expeditions. Anyone who sets foot here can expect both beauty and adventure. This region is usually lit up solely by the moon and stars during the polar night and only then if the weather permits. But the northern lights occasionally illuminate the landscape which can make for a spectacular sight.

Spitsbergen is the largest island of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Sea. Most Poles here are scientists, technicians or temporary construction workers who have come here to conduct research and exploration, although the occasional tourist can be found.

The Hornsund Polish Polar Station is a research center located in southern Spitsbergen and run by the Institute of Geophysics at the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN). This home away from home for polar explorers, scientists and adventure travelers is now celebrating its 50th birthday. Norway administers the Svalbard archipelago under the Spitsbergen Treaty signed in Paris by nine nations in 1920. Poland became a signatory in 1931.

Poles have been exploring both polar regions since the 19th century. Poland, along with 43 other countries, took part in joint scientific research during the International Polar Year (IPY) of 1932-33. The State Meteorological Institute carried out an expedition, financed by the Polish government together with several Polish and Western European sponsors, to Bear Island, some 220 km south of Spitsbergen. The purpose of the expedition was to collect meteorological, ionospheric, geomagnetic and seismologic data. These are still the main subjects of scientific research conducted in the Arctic, along with geomorphology, hydrology, glaciology, seismology, and biological fieldwork.

Three staff members spent the entire winter of 1932-33 on Bear Island so that research could continue unabated throughout the polar night. These were Czesław Centkiewicz, Władysław Łysakowski and Stanisław Siedlecki. Siedlecki later became a distinguished scientist in Poland and Norway. The Spitsbergen station was named after him to honor his role in establishing a permanent research base there. Centkiewicz also became a researcher and an adventurer whose accounts of the excitement and the hardships of life in the Arctic and Antarctica caught the public imagination.

Stanisław Bernadzikiewicz led subsequent expeditions in 1934, 1936 and 1938. The 1936 expedition crossed Spitsbergen from south to north, covering 850 km. The Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) joined the third International Geophysical Year which was held in lieu of the IPY in 1956. A reconnaissance team surveyed Spitsbergen in August and selected the future site for the station at Polar Bear Bay (Isbjørhamna) in Hornsund fjord. The Founding Group, comprising construction workers, dozens of scientists from various Polish research institutions and a group that was to spend the winter at the station, set out in two ships in July 1957.

You need to be adaptable if you are going to live in the Arctic. Everyone, even university presidents and PAN members, helped build the research facility. Construction was supervised by architect Jerzy Piotrowski and carpenter Tadeusz Paj±k. This time, there was a winter crew of 10 that included expedition leader Stanisław Siedlecki, Stanisław Baranowski and Maciej Zalewski. Zalewski later headed the Department of Polar and Marine Research at the Institute of Geophysics.

There were only three summer expeditions over the following 12 years, and Hornsund was used by a Norwegian trapper between 1961 and 1971. Summer expeditions resumed in 1970. The station was rebuilt and extended in 1978 and has been operating continuously ever since. The Henryk Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station had already been set up at on the South Shetland island of King George in February 1977.

A new expedition sets out for Hornsund every year. This year’s expedition is the 30th and there are nine men in the winter crew. The station works with various research expeditions from Polish universities. Members usually sleep in huts on southern Spitsbergen, but the station can also serve as a shelter. The PAN Institute of Oceanology is one of the institutions that works with the station. Their expeditions set sail for Hornsund in a modern research vessel named Oceania and can only dock when the weather and ice floes let them. The ongoing fourth IPY of 2007-08 has required a further extension and upgrade so as to accommodate the large number of researchers.

Exploring the polar regions has always been fraught with danger, and new ways to survive the harsh environment are constantly being devised. Conditions for the first people who stayed here were Spartan in the extreme. Nowadays Hornsund has modern telecommunications facilities and even the internet. Coastal summers are bearable with average temperatures of around 6ºC. Inland, though, it’s a different story with steep hills, rough stones, mountain glaciers and the muddy, gravely moraines they have left behind. People are taller than the local shrubbery so there are no trees to climb or hide behind whenever polar bears come foraging. These magnificent creatures are a protected species so while they do not balk at attacking humans, killing one of them will invariably result in an official inquiry. Nature here is fragile, and for this reason the international community will not allow the Arctic to be colonized.

The Arctic is a wonderful place, despite all the hardships and a need for constant vigilance that requires being armed at all times. Everyone who comes to this fascinating but unforgiving environment is left with a lifelong yearning for its wide open spaces and the enchanting nature that makes it so different from those lands inhabited by humans. Even the hardships, and the individual and collective struggles for survival are missed. Every polar expeditionist becomes part of the history of this wild and untamable land.

Krzysztof Teisseyre Institute of Geophysics, Polish Academy of Sciences
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