Today, Austria’s interest in the polar regions is based on the great relevance of the polar regions for the Earth’s climate and the global responsibility of all nations to understand and limit climate change. Historically, this interest is also closely linked to the scientific recording and measurement of snow and ice in the Alps against the background of the changing climate, for which researchers such as Friedrich Simony or Julius Hann have set milestones of exploration.
Despite its location in the heart of Central Europe, Austria has more than one hundred and fifty years of polar research history. Important were Count Wilczek, who was the main sponsor of polar expeditions, and Karl Koldewey, a German captain and polar explorer who took Austrians on the “Second German North Pole Expedition 1869/70”. hrough the participation of Julius Payer, a lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, it was possible for the first time to record the northeast coast of Greenland topographically and to name many elements of the landscape that were important for Austria: Kejser Franz Josef Fjord, Tyrolerfjord and Pasterze are some examples. Austria’s most striking contribution to polar exploration is undoubtedly the discovery of Franz Josef Land in the Russian Arctic by Julius Payer and Carl von Weyprecht (1872-1874). During the participation in the First International Polar Year 1882-1883, initiated by Carl von Weyprecht, internationally coordinated meteorological and geomagnetic measurements could be carried out in the Arctic for the first time. Austria’s contribution was measurements on the Arctic volcanic island of Jan Mayen at a polar station financed by Count Wilczek.
The value of a polar station
The value of a country’s own polar station for its research is manifold. On the one hand, it offers the possibility of setting international research accents and achieve continuity in research. On the other hand, the training of young scientists can be made more practical and a national identification for research can be created. In Austria there have been several attempts in the past to establish a polar station and to anchor polar research. But only private sponsorship and the initiative of APRI director Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schöner (University of Graz, Institute of Geography and Spatial Research) made it possible to implement this milestone of an own polar research station now in East Greenland and to raise Austrian polar research to a new level of international permanent polar research. The efforts to gain a comprehensive understanding of the changes in the Arctic cryosphere and their interrelationship with the climate are a decisive motivation for the research at the new station.
The funding of the research station follows old Austrian patterns: In 2016, Christian Palmers approached Wolfgang Schöner with the idea and interest of supporting Austrian polar research and funding infrastructure for polar research. With these opportunities, completely new perspectives opened up and evaluations of suitable locations and cooperation partners began. Based on the experiences from the International Polar Year 2007/08, a focus on Greenland quickly emerged. The region around Qaanaaq (Thule, NW Greenland) was eliminated due to the logistical challenges of year-round accessibility and associated high costs. In 2017, scientific contacts with the University of Copenhagen led to the idea of renovating and expanding the research station located by the University of Copenhagen on the island of Ammassalik in East Greenland, which had already been in operation for over 50 years, and use it jointly. Everything is available there for research on Arctic climate change and its consequences: Mountains with vegetation typically adapted to the environmental conditions, rivers fed mainly by snow and glaciers, calving glaciers in the forefield of the ice sheet, the large Sermilikfjord with a connection to the open Atlantic Ocean and much more. But there are also local communities living nearby who are affected by the changes and will therefore be involved in the research.
The decision for this location was made with the assurance of financing of 1.25 million euros by Palmers Immobilien, which was contractually signed on November 3, 2021 . The ownership structure is such that the new station buildings are owned by UNI Graz, while the existing buildings remain the property of UNI Copenhagen, with equal rights of use between the universities of Copenhagen and Graz. The new station is scheduled to open in autumn 2022 and will accommodate 20 scientists and corresponding laboratory facilities.
In the spirit of international polar research, it will be very interdisciplinary at the station. Climate change is certainly a central focus, investigating interactions within the cryosphere and effects on hydrology and ecology. But research with and for the local population is also a goal. Due to the proximity to the sea, ecological studies in the sea will be important as well. The small glaciers at the edge of the ice sheet are ideal for studying reactions to climate changes, as they are much more sensitive than the huge ice sheet. The weather of East Greenland is known for the cold downdrafts – pitteraqs – caused by the temperature difference between the high altitude cold ice sheet and the warmer sea water. Low-pressure areas over the Atlantic can give the downdrafts additional impetus and cause enormous wind speeds, estimated up to 320 km/h. This requires appropriate planning and design of the station buildings.
“The location of the Sermilik station is ideal for holistic polar research: glaciers in the forefield of the inland ice, the large Sermilik fjord with a connection to the open Atlantic and many years of measurement series of glaciers that can be used by Austrian researchers for continuation, serve cryospheric research plus that the local Greenlandic population can be involved in all research tasks.”Univ.-Prof. Dr.rer.nat. Wolfgang Schöner, Director APRI
The new building will be built in traditional timber construction. Construction is currently underway and is expected to be completed by the end of summer 2022. The costs of the new building and reconstruction of existing buildings amounts to approx. 1.25 million euros. This already takes into account the Covid-related price increases of about 25% for wood and other materials. In the spirit of modern research, the local population should not only be involved in research projects but also in the construction and maintenance of the station. Although the main research will take place in summer, year-round operation will be possible, opening up new research opportunities such as studies on changes in the snow cover and related energy exchange with the atmosphere. The scientific equipment will also enable simple hydrological and geomorphological laboratory work in the wet laboratory – with water connection – as well as in the dry laboratory directly on site. The energy supply is designed according to the highest ecological criteria. Solar panels will make the station self-sufficient in electrical energy, especially in the summer months. In winter and during periods of overcast, a 60 kW generator including backup unit will be available, which will be supplied with CO2-neutral fuels.
In the separate workshop building, repair facilities for equipment as well as snowscooters and boats will be created. In a further expansion phase, it is planned to acquire a research vessel of its own to better enable studies in the field of marine biology. This will open up extensive research activities for already two of the three disciplines of the APRI – cryosphere and ecology – and will also give students from Austria access to research trips. By involving the local population, the third research focus on social and cultural systems can also contribute to polar research.
The Author: Dr. Christoph Ruhsam is a passionate landscape photographer who has specialized in the Arctic and the cryosphere for decades. In addition to his responsibilities in an IT company, he serves as the Austrian Polar Research Institute APRI media officer.