To Antarctica! Czech scientists to study climate change, animals and stress

Mendel Polar Station

Scientists from Masaryk University in Brno regularly head off to Antarctica at year’s end to conduct long-term research on climate change. This time around, they also will study the influence of polar conditions on animals – and themselves .

After undergoing extensive medical examinations, 16 Czech researchers last week flew from Vienna to Chile – where they had to spend the Christmas holiday in quarantine to rule out Covid infection.

If all goes well, on Tuesday the scientists will arrive on King George Island, 120 kilometres off the coast of Antarctica, and then travel by ship to the university’s [Gregor] Mendel Polar Station – named after Brno’s most famous scientist, the father of genetics.

Photo: Masaryk University Brno

This is the 15th Czech Antarctic expedition. The team, which includes geographers, a microbiologist, a plant physiologist and other experts, plan to stay on the icy continent for about three months.

As part of their long-running climate change research, the team will study the state of glaciers, river and lake systems, and stretches of permafrost.

This time around, expedition leader Filip Hrbáček says, they will also study birds and mammals living on the Earth’s southernmost continent, including Arctic terns, penguins and elephant seals.

“The extent of the research will depend on how many animals we find in our area. Because it can happen that we encounter only a single penguin during the whole season. Sometimes, we see even hundreds of them.”

The Mendel Polar Station itself was built on a spot that some 20,000 years ago was covered by a thick layer of ice. As the glacier receded and the landscape evolved, new life-forms arrived.

Photo: Masaryk University Brno

Apart from continuing to trace that evolution, and the impact of climate change, a novelty of this year’s Masaryk University expedition is a project that will allow scientists to better understand changes taking place below the surface, Filip Hrbáček says.

“We want to create a network for measuring soil moisture in the Antarctic Peninsula, together with colleagues from Portugal and Spain. Soil moisture is a key factor that affects both the physical processes of the local environment and the spread of vegetation.”

Last but not least, the researchers also want to study themselves – that is, a representative sample of human beings. It is important to evaluate the impact stress has on people’s health in polar regions, Filip Hrbáček says.

“A stay in Antarctica can also simulate how the human body may react to conditions in space. These data can be used, for example, in planning long flights to Mars.”

Among other things, the researchers will have their pulse measured regularly as well as the number of steps they take each day. In this respect, the Czech team is working together with the European Space Agency.

Authors: Brian Kenety , Gabriela Gálová
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