Arctic in winter does not sleep | Polarjournal
The first rays of light illuminate the mountains behind King’s Bay. Photo: Jacopo Pasotti 2022

The wind whistles through the base’s window frames. Outside there is the pink sunset-like light that will last all day. The air temperature is -20°C, but the temperature perceived by our bodies, due to the wind, is a chilling -44°C. A warning sign is on display in the main building run by King’s Bay, the Norwegian company that manages the international base complex at Ny-Alesund in Europe’s northernmost archipelago, Svalbard.

Winter at the Arctic base of the Centro Nazionale delle Ricerche’s (CNR) Dirigibile Italia is dominated by the darkness of the long Arctic night, or by the faint light of the sun lingering under the horizon, when it starts to rise again with the return of spring around mid-March.

It is easy to think that winter freezes everything, water, earth, life in nearly all terrestrial ecosystems. It is a common idea that everything remains suspended in total hibernation, waiting for the short Arctic summer.

But the few scientists around the base in the winter season will tell you that this is not the case. The CNR’s Institute of Polar Sciences (https://www.isp.cnr.it/index.php/en/) keeps the base active (you can sense it from the smell of coffee emanating from the building’s small kitchen) and various environmental monitoring instruments.

Microbiologist Francesco Montemagno (Giovannelli Lab – University Federico II, Naples) overseeing the snow pit where soil samples with microbes are being collected. Photo: Jacopo Pasotti 2022

“Our main task is to make sure that our own instruments and those of some countries we collaborate with continue to operate, at the Gruvebadet laboratory and the Amundsen-Nobile Climate Tower,” explains Riccardo Cerrato (CNR), base leader in the winter of 2021-2022.

The Gruvebadet is a building not far from the base. It can be reached by snowmobile or sometimes even by ski. Here, there are a multitude of environmental monitoring instruments, where air samples are collected, day and night, throughout the year. 

Such devices have shown that Europeans are able to contaminate ice and snow as far as the North Pole. Instruments are complex, expensive, delicate, and fundamental for understanding how our planet works. They show that the polar regions do not go into total hibernation in winter.

Microbiologist Martina Cascone (Giovannelli Lab – University Federico II, Naples) showing soil samples collected a few kilometers from the Italian base. Photo: Jacopo Pasotti 2022

This year marks the 25th year since the foundation of the Italian base in the northern outpost of polar research. This time, the first winter campaign took place to understand how active the soil is, in particular its bacterial community, during the long polar winter.

Understanding microbes’ activity in winter is more than a mere scientific curiosity. “As the permafrost, the frozen portion of the soil that is melting due to global warming, melts, the so-called active layer, the surface part of the soil that annually freezes in winter and thaws in summer, is becoming thicker,” explains Donato Giovannelli, a microbiologist at the Federico II University in Naples. Giovannelli’s team  (https://www.coevolve.eu/) is joined by geochemist Carlo Cardellini, University of Perugia. 

Between digging in the snow and taking a break from the portable drill with which he extracts soil cores, Giovannelli says: “We want to undermine the old assumption that there is no bacterial activity in winter. Today we know that there is life adapted to what for us are extreme environments. This microbial activity contributes to the production of greenhouse gases, but its level of activity is little known and not included in global emissions models.” In short, like a vicious circle, microbial activity produces greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide and methane) that favours permafrost melting. Which promotes microbial activity. And so on, in one of those self-sustaining processes that exacerbate global warming.

Donato Giovannelli, Martina Cascone, Francesco Montemagno and Carlo Cardellini (University of Perugia) having hard times in trying to recover a sample from a frozen iron sampler that was drilled into the ground.

“The question is no longer whether these processes are happening, but how and to what extent they are happening, and whether we can slow them down,” Giovannelli explains.

It is becoming increasingly clear, therefore, that microbial activity does not stop in winter, quite the opposite. “The climate change taking place in the Arctic has its most obvious effects in winter. Over the last 25 years, the winter temperature at Ny-Alesund has risen by about 3°C per decade, while the temperature has risen globally by just over one degree over the last century and a half, a trend also confirmed by our Climate Tower, which has been active since 2010,” concludes Mauro Mazzola (CNR-ISP), manager of the station. Like a watchtower in the polar region, the work of the international base at Ny-Alesund is keeping the spotlight active on what is changing in the far north.

Jacopo Pasotti, PolarJournal

http://www.jacopopasotti.com/

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