Heat waves and droughts bring Portugal to the poles | Polarjournal
Maria Teresa Cabrita, Executive Director of the Portuguese Polar Programme is not only in charge of practicalities but also teaches a course on science communication at the University of Lisbon. Photo: Ole Ellekrog
Maria Teresa Cabrita, Executive Director of the Portuguese Polar Program is not only in charge of practicalities but also teaches a course on science communication at the University of Lisbon. Photo: Ole Ellekrog

People in Portugal do not always understand why the country needs a Polar program. But when they hear that it is a key to understanding the changes around them, they are quick to support it.

On the streets of Lisbon, it is impossible to miss that Portugal is a nation of explorers. Everywhere you go, you see tributes to Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, and many of the other navigators who helped map our world. Even in the Portuguese flag, an armillary sphere, bears witness to the country’s great history of exploration. 

Most of these explorers, though, never ventured far enough north nor far enough south to explore the world’s polar regions.

But these days, as a corner office in the University of Lisbon’s geographical department reveals, things are different. Here, since 2007, the Portuguese Polar Program (PPP) has been coordinating a rich array of research activities – to the surprise, even, of the people in the city of Lisbon around it.

“Many people here in Portugal ask why we have a Polar program when we are so far from the Polar regions,” Maria Teresa Cabrita, Executive Director of the PPP told Polar Journal.

“But nowadays we really need to understand all the changes in the Polar regions because we know that these changes in the Polar regions will affect Portugal. The predictions are that in 50 years, the changes that the Arctic is experiencing now will happen here too. So we need this knowledge so we can prepare ourselves,” she said. 

Vulnerable to climate change

This explanation for the existence of the program rolls off the tongue of Maria Teresa Cabrita easily; it is clear that it is one she has given often. And she has. Because wherever she goes people ask about the program; more out of curiosity than skepticism.

And no matter who she explains it to, the explanation is straight forward.

“Portugal is one of the countries in Europe most vulnerable to climate change. So when people ask, I talk about sea level rise as we are a very coastal country. I talk about erosion which will also be an issue in the future,” she said.

“We have also been experiencing lots of extreme events in recent years; droughts, unusually high temperatures, and longer periods with heat waves,” Maria Teresa Cabrita said.

These events have been so extreme that recently the definition of a heat wave in Portugal has been changed from three days to five days of temperatures above 38 degrees celsius in the coastal areas and even higher in the interior, she explains. In recent years, temperatures have soared to record highs, approaching 50 degrees.

All this makes climate change a hot topic in Portugal, so when Maria Teresa Cabrita explains that Polar science is related to this, the public is quick to listen in.

“The Arctic and the Antarctic regulate the transfer of energy that is absorbed by the planet, so they have an important role in distributing the radiation globally. The changes that have been happening in those areas and that are linked to human activities are now changing and are causing extreme events here in Portugal,” she explained.

“When I give them this explanation, most people understand the importance of polar science. Most of them didn’t imagine that there is such a close link between the Polar regions and weather events here in Portugal,” she said.

An entirely blue globe is at display at IGOT; perhaps displaying an unmapped Earth, or perhaps an Earth with its landmass flooded. Photo: Ole Ellekrog
An entirely blue globe is at display at IGOT; perhaps displaying an unmapped Earth, or perhaps an Earth with its landmass flooded. Photo: Ole Ellekrog

Started in 2007

The arguments used with the general public are similar to the ones used when the Portuguese Polar Program was founded in 2007. Back then, Gonçalo Vieira, who had been working with polar science through other countries’ programs and who is still Head of Program today, managed to convince the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology that a Polar program was worth investing in.

In 2010, Portugal was also accepted in the Antarctic Treaty System, and since then Portugal has been a Polar country.

“Gonçalo really gathered a ‘dream team’ around this great objective of having a Portuguese Polar program, and from then on we have had an annual funding so we can ensure access to the poles for Portuguese researchers,” Maria Teresa Cabrita, who joined the program in 2015, said.

In a lab at IGOT, Gonçalo Vieira, Head of the Portuguese Polar Programme is working with a couple on of PhD-students. Photo: Ole Ellekrog
In a lab at IGOT, Gonçalo Vieira, Head of the Portuguese Polar Programme was working with a couple on of PhD-students. Photo: Ole Ellekrog

A bi-polar program

Although it is located on the premises of the University of Lisbon, the Portuguese Polar Program is not associated with any specific university. Instead, it is open to applications from researchers from all universities in Portugal.

The applications go through an independent assessment process, and are not chosen directly by the PPP. But once projects have been chosen, the PPP helps provide access to the polar regions, both northern and southern ones.

“We are a bi-polar program,” Maria Teresa Cabrita said, laughing.

“We have an annual call with a budget, and we accept applications to both Polar regions and from all scientific disciplines,” she said. 

Instituto de Geografia e Ordenamento do Território (IGOT) is located in the norhtern part of Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Ole Ellekrog
Instituto de Geografia e Ordenamento do Território (IGOT) is located in the northern part of Lisbon, Portugal. Photo: Ole Ellekrog

Cephalopods and contaminated sediment

And the projects they take on are broad, indeed.

Some of them are continuous and long-term, like the permafrost research conducted by the Head of Program, Gonçalo Vieira. Another research project on octopuses and other cephalopods in Antarctica has also been going on for years and produced many research papers.

Other projects are shorter in length. Recently, for instance, one project measured the contamination by tourism and other human activities on Deception Island, a volcanic island off the Antarctic Peninsula.

Another project measured the contamination of sediment on the much more frequently visited King George Island, also off the Antarctica Peninsula.

“This project produced a paper that was presented in an Antarctic Treaty meeting to help them create guidelines for human activities in the area. We always have small projects like this with original ideas that we imagine will go on field campaigns only once or twice,” Maria Teresa Cabrita said.  

During Polar Journal's visit in late March, Maria Teresa Cabrita's students were on Easter holidays so her classroom was empty. Photo: Ole Ellekrog
During Polar Journal’s visit in late March, Maria Teresa Cabrita’s students were on Easter holidays. Thus her classroom was empty. Photo: Ole Ellekrog

Start with the young

Like a lot of Portuguese history, these scientific explorations take place far from the shores of the Iberian Peninsula. But, like Maria Teresa Cabrita explained, this does not mean that it will not influence the future of Portugal.

Instead, it makes it all the more important to have someone at home to disseminate their existence and to explain their implications to the general public. And this work is something the PPP makes a virtue out of. Because, as part of its charter, it is responsible for increasing awareness in the general public of the Polar regions and its ecosystems.

To do this, the PPP arranges workshops and school visits aimed at a number of different age groups, and, at the University of Lisbon, where the program is located, Maria Teresa Cabrita herself teaches a class on science communication.

“When I teach students, I show them how easy and effective it is to communicate their science using visuals. By the end, they are always surprised that they can do it,” she said.

“And for really young children we do a lot of hands-on activities, showing clothes and equipment. Sometimes we try to explain permafrost in very simple terms with many examples,” she said.

“This is all really important because if we want to change things, we believe we need to start with the young generations,” she said. 

Ole Ellekrog, Polar Journal

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