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The Warsaw Voice » Society » March 31, 2015
Institute of Geophysics Polish Academy of Science
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Understanding Planet Earth land, water and air
March 31, 2015   
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Prof. Paweł Rowiński, director of the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geophysics in Warsaw, talks to Andrzej Jonas.

When we think geophysics, we tend to think of a discipline of science that studies the Earth’s crust. But in fact your institute studies the land, water and air...

Your definition is accurate. We examine the Earth’s environment as a whole, which after all is mostly made up of water, not of hard crust. Of course, the atmosphere, the closest layer surrounding the Earth, is also the subject of our research. So we are interested in the atmosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and in human activity in all these environments.

Symbolically, you can say we study our own home and its surroundings, the place where we live as humankind. On the one hand, we deal with the basic sciences, trying to answer some fundamental questions about all the processes of life on our planet. On the other hand, we are working on concrete, everyday, practical issues such as fuel and other natural sources of energy. By examining specific processes, we can determine what can be done to improve them. One example is research into the Earth’s water resources, including the impact of climate change on them. The same applies to research on shale gas deposits and the profitability of their potential extraction. Of course, we are less concerned with issues related to economics, and more concerned with those related to the safety of extracting such deposits. Discussion is in progress today on whether or not [an extraction method known as] hydrocracking causes damage to the environment, and whether it impacts the groundwater and surface water levels, and finally whether contaminated water is dangerous to the environment. Researchers like us conduct research seeking to answer this question.

Above all, we conduct seismic surveys. A large portion of these is commissioned by companies engaged in mining work and those working on issues related to the location of the potential nuclear plants that will be built in Poland. After several years of observation we will be able to decide whether or not the sites selected for the future nuclear power plants are safe seismically.

Can you tell us something about the history of your institute?

It is worth remembering that Poland is where the history of geophysics as a science began. The first department of geophysics was launched at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow in the late 19th century. So our geophysical tradition is on a par with those in countries far more developed than Poland. Our institute was established in 1953 as one of the first research institutions of the Polish Academy of Sciences less than a year after the Academy was set up. Initially, before we were authorized, as required under law, to confer doctoral degrees and acquired a sufficient number of independent research workers, we were a research facility based at three observatories, located in Warsaw, ¦wider [near Warsaw] and [the southern town of] Racibórz. Those were seismic and magnetic observatories.

In the early decades of our activities our own design offices played an important role, in which we designed scientific equipment for use in our own research. But it is necessary to remember that this was a time when, due to an embargo maintained for political reasons, we could not buy similar equipment in the West. So we built it in a sense for our own use and for our colleagues in some other research centers.

Especially important was the 1957-1958 period, when Poland decided to take part in the International Year of Geophysics, which brought our discipline of science a lot of funds from the government. We organized two scientific expeditions in those days. The first was to Vietnam, where we set up another seismic observatory that continues to operate to this day. The second expedition set off to polar regions; a decision was made to build an independent Polish polar research station on Spitsbergen.

Why was the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen chosen?

First, Poland has a polar research tradition dating back to the days when Polish deportees in Russia’s Siberia region, who included many distinguished scholars, were engaged in such expeditions. The first polar expedition in the period after Poland regained its independence took place in the 1920s, which means shortly after Poland reappeared on the map of Europe.

On the other hand, the decision of the communist authorities in Poland at the time to set up our station on Spitsbergen also had a political aspect to it—in the form of establishing a research outpost within the territory of a country that was part of the opposite bloc. Consequently, despite the fact that the early days of the Polish presence on Spitsbergen were difficult amid efforts to create decent living and working conditions for scientists, thanks to the participation of a large group of enthusiasts—some would even call them adventure seekers—the foundations were laid for the future station within a short time. Spitsbergen, much as the entire Arctic region, was an unusually attractive object of study. Many of the sites there were untouched by man. No wonder then that the Polish station quickly became an important center of research in that region.

Today, after many years in the global community of geophysicists, Poland is sometimes referred to as an Arctic country, even though no part of its territory is located within this climatic zone. This is how we are referred to by the Norwegians and Canadians, who are aware of the contribution we have made and continue to make to polar research. Naturally, we are also a member of all major international organizations and associations dealing with such research.

Returning to the activities of your institute, how large is your team, and how are research tasks divided up within it?

We have 200 people and are divided up according to area of interest, without a strict demarcation as to who is engaged in basic research and who deals with applied research. We conduct both research and infrastructure projects focusing on issues such as fuel, water management and pollution. In recent years we’ve been trying to combine the efforts of our individual teams so that they can respond to universal questions, without limiting themselves to the immediate subject of their research.

It should be emphasized that the funds we get, including some of those that come from the government, grants, and the money from those placing orders for our services, are primarily intended for applied research. Inevitably, this affects the focus of our activities, even though we are fully aware of the importance of fundamental sciences.

Geophysics is an expensive discipline. We have to work out in the field, often in very distant and hostile terrain, and deploy our equipment there, which often includes expensive research instruments. Typically, geophysical research also requires an extended period of time, and consequently generates substantial costs.

Recently, we secured a project involving the establishment of a new research center in the area of induced seismicity, which means seismicity caused by man, for example as a result of mining and extraction work, injection of carbon dioxide underground, and so on. The center is being created in Cracow as part of a major European project for seismic observations. We managed to convince our European partners that Poland will be the best location for the center. We’ve received 3.5 million euros for this purpose.

Will the Cracow center provide commercial services—for instance, for mining and extraction companies from Poland and abroad?

The Induced Seismicity Research Infrastructure Center under development will not operate along commercial lines, although undoubtedly it will also provide services to the kind of companies you mentioned. The center’s task is to collect all available data and information useful for research on induced seismicity, and to make this information available in the most convenient form for this kind of work. An important group of users of the center will be industrial users as the providers of infrastructure and recipients of research results. The center will therefore assist in the development of methods and rules to better manage the exploitation of natural deposits. Thanks to the synergy of science and industry, science will gain access to induced seismicity data collected in industrial centers, and industry will gain access to new but well-tested solutions.

What kind of ties does the institute have with industry at present?

We carry out joint projects and various kinds of studies for large companies such as [Polish copper giant] KGHM Polska MiedĽ S.A., [oil and gas company] PGNiG, Kompania Węglowa [coal company], as well as global corporations such as ION and Hutton Energy. As I have already mentioned, most of the projects concern seismic imaging of the Earth’s crust and the environmental impact of a specific enterprise. Our hydrologists examine the functioning of planned hydroelectric power plants from this angle, evaluating for example how far the hot water stream ejected by a power plant will reach and how much it will affect the environment. Our evaluations are later used by designers, ecologists, biologists and chemists examining other risks.

Much is being said about the need to predict the movements of the Earth’s crust and volcanic eruptions. Does the institute conduct research in this area as well?

Absolutely. We are talking about the most complex basic research related to the understanding of plate tectonics and processes taking place throughout the Earth’s crust. We have achievements in this field; we define seismic hazard areas and create risk maps. But no one in the world has so far succeeded in predicting the exact date or time of an earthquake in a given region or an explosion of a specific volcano.

Poland is a seismically safe area; when assessing the location of future nuclear power plants, do you nonetheless analyze the activity of the Earth’s crust?

Of course. In Poland, especially in the Podkarpacie region [in the south of the country] seismic tremors are regularly recorded. They are too weak to be felt by people or to be troublesome. During the construction of a nuclear power plant, assessments are made of how strong the reinforcements of buildings must be to withstand the maximum vibrations of the Earth’s surface that occur there. So it is possible to build such power plants in seismic regions. Even in the case of the Fukushima nuclear disaster the reactor did not explode after all, and the damage was the result of a tsunami, not of the seismic shock itself. That power plant withstood the earthquake, but it had been built too close to the sea, because its designers ignored the danger of a huge wave.

So the studies we conduct in Poland are closely linked to financial issues; the point is to not spend money unnecessarily on excessive reinforcements that do not reflect the potential real level of the regional seismic hazard.

Does the institute work with foreign partners, especially when it comes to practical applied research?

We wouldn’t be able to function without permanent international cooperation. We are recognized around the world as an institute and as a GeoPlanet Earth and Planetary Research Center, comprising five units of the Polish Academy of Sciences. We have also been invited to join GEO8, the European Earth Sciences Research Alliance, which groups eight research centers considered the most important in European research in this field. We are one of the founders of this European group of geophysicists. For now, we are mainly exchanging information, but I hope that eventually we will be able to use joint research infrastructure, borrow equipment, carry out joint experiments, etc. For years, we have been at the forefront internationally when it comes to seismic studies of the lithosphere, though there were times when we had to borrow equipment, for example from our American colleagues. Fortunately, we have such a reputation that scientific collaboration with the institute was an obvious decision for American centers. However, it would certainly be desirable to create a big European structure coordinating joint research.
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