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The Warsaw Voice » Society » March 31, 2015
Institute of Geophysics Polish Academy of Science
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Key Role for Poles in Polar Research
March 31, 2015   
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The Hornsund Polish Polar Station on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen is the flagship facility of the Department of Polar and Marine Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geophysics.

Scientists working there carry out research into glaciology, hydrology, seismology, changes in the atmosphere, and even space research.

“Our research focuses chiefly on Spitsbergen,” says Prof. Piotr G這wacki, head of the polar and marine research department. “We are starting to expand our research program to incorporate projects in the Antarctic, including a second station that was in operation in the 1970s but has since been closed.”

The department oversees the Stanis豉w Siedlecki Polar Station on Spitsbergen and the Antoni B. Dobrowolski Polar Station in the Antarctic, in the Bunger Oasis. Both were set up in 1957 to mark the international year of geophysics.

The department also works with the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics, which is responsible for the Henryk Arctowski Station, also in the Antarctic. All the polar stations are carrying out a program of geophysical research with a special focus on glaciological research. Scientists are studying hydrological phenomena, glacierized catchments, permafrost and processes occurring at sea in a changing climate.

“One special aspect of our work involves adjusting new geophysical methods to polar conditions,” G這wacki says. “Very often they have to be adapted to extreme conditions and our Hornsund station serves as a testing ground.” Among other things, Polish specialists are taking part in developing a method for interpreting radar images of glaciers and interpreting phenomena occurring inside glaciers. Also garnering growing interest around the world is an acoustic method for assessing the amount of glacier “calving,” or the process of chunks of ice breaking off glaciers.

Whereas the part of a glacier that is above water is easy to monitor, the much bigger underwater part is not; an acoustic method using geophones developed by one of the department’s Ph.D. students enables scientists to assess how much ice is breaking away or dropping into the sea.

There are many areas in which the Department of Polar Research works with the best scientific research centers in Poland and around the world. Examples include NASA’s proposal for the Polish polar station to be used for testing robots that will later be used in space, studying the ice caps of Jupiter’s moon Europa, for example. In all, 28 Polish and 32 foreign scientific institutions are involved in such joint projects.

The department’s specialists have spent many years studying the 56-sq-km Hans glacier on Spitsbergen, one of the world’s benchmark glaciers, meaning that it is continually monitored. This monitoring enables detailed data to be gathered on the dynamics of glacier reaction to climate change—change to which glaciers are very sensitive.

“Over the past 20 years we have focused the attention of leading world glaciology experts on this glacier,” G這wacki says. “You could say that it is the glacier providing the greatest amount of data for interdisciplinary research and analyses.”

The Spitsbergen station is a European Research Platform where international research projects are carried out. It fulfills the highest environmental standards. Every year about 70 scientists pass through the station, around 80 percent of them Poles. Another 50 specialists make use of a Polish expedition ship that sails to Spitsbergen twice in the summer season. In exchange, the department’s young scientists can undertake traineeships at the world’s leading research centers.

In a recently completed European research project called Ice2Sea, scientists calculated the current rate at which the sea is rising as a result of global warming and glacier melting. The European Commission recognized it as one of the three best Earth science projects of the European Union’s 7th Framework Program. The department’s scientists are also involved in building the SIOS monitoring system for the European sector of the Arctic, in the Svalbard archipelago. In addition, seismological observations are conducted all the time—the area near which the Polish station is located is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are drifting apart. The processes occurring there, including those taking place on the sea bottom, are still poorly researched, making them a focus of interest for scientists. Finally, Polish specialists also monitor the spreading of air pollution, sending regular reports to the world’s leading institutions.

The only facility of its kind in the European sector of the Arctic, the Polish station hourly sends out a package of meteorological data that is used by weather forecasters around the world.

The Hornsund Station and the presence of Polish scientists in the Arctic are also useful to other institutions, especially the Polish Foreign Ministry and the Environment Ministry.

According to Prof. G這wacki, predicting changes and human adaptation to new conditions will become a fundamental task for polar researchers in the coming decades. “We are unable to counteract most processes occurring in nature,” he says, “and therefore the ability to adjust quickly to inevitable changes is becoming of key importance.” Symptoms of these changes are most observable in the far North.

One area that is likely to grow in importance is research conducted in the Earth’s ionosphere to monitor the activity of the sun. When solar activity increases, this could pose a threat to space-based technologies, especially satellites, which could be damaged by plasma emitted by the Sun (solar wind).

Another vital research area is the ice “plug” separating the Barents Sea, and its cold current, from the Greenland Sea and its warm current—part of the Gulf Stream. Over the past 110 years this plug has shrunk by 17 kilometers and currently measures just 5 km and is less than 200 meters thick. When it cracks, which scientists say could happen by 2030, local circulation of sea currents could be activated, which in turn could cause serious weather changes in almost all of Europe. Sea currents generate low air pressure systems and consequently cyclones or hurricanes.

“If a new area of low pressure center formation emerges near Spitsbergen, like the one existing near Iceland today, the effects of these changes could be felt not just in Scandinavia but even in Poland,” G這wacki says.

Forecasting “space weather” and its impact on weather and climate change is another completely new research area. This issue is related to the changing behavior of the polar vortices above the Earth’s poles, which sometimes carry very cold masses of air into middle latitudes. The Department of Polar and Marine Research will conduct such research in cooperation with Poland’s Space Research Center.
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