The Polar Retrospective – Small problems, big problems in polar regions | Polarjournal
Big problem, simple solution in the Antarctic: Since there is hardly any information on the size of the emperor penguin colonies, BAS relies on aerial photographs to count the animals in order to train an AI to evaluate satellite images later. Photo: Michael Wenger

The POlar Retrospective looks at stories of the past week that are related to the Arctic and Antarctic and focuses on one or more aspects.

This issue shows that logistics for Arctic and Antarctic-related projects are a source of problems large and small, and solutions are sometimes simple, sometimes difficult.

Projects in the Arctic and Antarctic are always faced with logistical challenges, whether they are of a political, economic or scientific nature. And it is not always possible to solve these challenges easily, quickly and/or cost-effectively. This was evident last week in the UK, Canada and the USA. The topics affected are as diverse as the polar regions themselves: From a lack of penguin data to a lack of icebreakers to a lack of remediation work in the event of pollution, the problems ranged from minor to major.

Penguin data from above thanks to citizen science

One logistical challenge is the collection of data on the colony sizes of penguins in the Antarctic, especially emperor penguins. Although the locations of the 66 colonies are known, little is known about the number of animals and the ratio of adults to chicks. This has strong implications, as the iconic birds appear to be heavily affected by the climatic changes in the region according to the latest findings. To overcome this gap, the evaluation of aerial photographs from lower altitudes has been used for some time in order to be able to evaluate satellite images using artificial intelligence, thus saving the logistical effort of flights and not disturbing the animals. An elegant solution, but one that still needs some work to do.

The British Antarctic Survey is working on such a solution and relies on the cooperation of volunteers, so-called “citizen scientists”, to evaluate the aerial photographs. Last week, BAS had launched the “Polar Observatory”, a website with 341 images of the emperor penguin colony on Snow Hill Island. Volunteers were able to mark and count adult and chicks in a guided manner. Thus, the researchers quickly obtain the necessary data for an overview of the colony. Further colonies should follow. However, a small problem for “Citizen Scientists”: One had to react quickly to such calls, as the 341 recordings were completely analyzed within a few hours and further assistance was no longer possible.

It seems that the US icebreaker “Healy” will have to remain on duty in Arctic and Antarctic waters for quite some time. The new vessel, which are to replace the almost 30-year-old largest US icebreaker, are becoming increasingly expensive and are massively delayed. Image: NASA / Kathryn Hansen, Wikicommons Public Domain

Ever later, ever more expensive the US Coast Guard icebreaker program

The US Coast Guard (USCG) is struggling with a completely different, much bigger logistical problem. Their icebreaker program will be even more expensive and the ships will be delivered even later than previously thought. Originally, a contract concluded in 2019 with VT Halter Marine for three new “Polar Security Cutters” and a possible fourth would have provided for the delivery of the first ship this year. However, a new report, which will now be presented to the US Congress, shows that delivery is unlikely before 2027 or 2028. The report also shows that the costs, which were still estimated at 1.9 billion US dollars in the 2019 contract, are now 2.5 times higher and will exceed the 5 billion mark. The first ship, which is likely to start construction in 2025, is already more than twice as expensive as stated in 2019 and already costs 1.9 billion US dollars.

As a temporary solution for the missing ships, extensive restoration work is now underway on the two existing icebreakers Healy and the Polar Star. However, this also creates new problems, because the latter is so old that spare parts are only available for her sister ship Polar Sea, and spare parts for the Healy are also becoming scarce. The purchase of another ship as a further emergency solution is already underway. However, it is difficult to predict how Congress, which has been in a kind of limbo for months due to the dispute between Republicans and Democrats, will react to the report.

The open-cast mining of minerals in the Arctic region of Canada not only leaves visible scars on the landscape, but also results in the contamination of the soil. The Canadian government is responsible for the remediation of these pollutants, yet in many cases, this process is occurring at a slow or incomplete pace, as shown by a recent report. Image: Axel Space Corporation

Big slap for Canadian government on Arctic environmental protection

The USA’s northern neighbor, Canada, also faces a problem in its Arctic north. However, it is even more serious than the lack of icebreakers. A report by the Canadian Auditor General’s Office rates the government in Ottawa very poorly when it comes to managing the country’s polluted areas. More than 400 sites in the Nunavik, Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon regions are considered safe or suspected to be highly contaminated and in urgent need of remediation. This task would fall to the federal government in cooperation with the regional administrations. But so far, too little has been done by the relevant authorities to protect nature and the local inhabitants from damage and to ensure the restoration of the sites. The Court of Audit also criticizes the authorities’ communication with the people affected and in reports to the government. The report mentions a lack of reports, figures and information. A lack of cooperation with indigenous organizations and authorities is also listed.

However, the report not only criticizes the authorities, but also provides a total of 19 proposals for solutions, calling for improved transparency in administration and remediation measures, better reporting to the population, better involvement of the indigenous population in remediation measures and an independent expert.

Dr. Michael Wenger, Polar Journal AG

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