Czech researchers studying global climate change on James Ross Island

Johann Gregor Mendel station, photo: Kamil Láska / Masaryk University

Czech scientists from Brno’s Masaryk University have been involved in polar research since the 1980s and since 2006 they have their own polar station in Antarctica –the Johann Gregor Mendel station. For the duration of the polar summer a team of scientists from Masaryk University works at the station doing glacier research and collecting data relating to the impact of global warming on micro-organisms. The sixteen-member- team is just back from its 2014 expedition and this week I talked to the head of the team Pavel Kapler about its work.

Pavel Kapler,  photo: Czech Television
“Well, climate change is the main area of research at the Czech base on James Ross Island, named after Johan Gregor Mendel, and we focus especially on the climate change impact on glaciers as well as its impact on living eco-systems. This means plant physiology especially, there are a lot of mosses and lichens so our plant physiologists are studying the impact of climate change on their living conditions and there are plenty of other areas of study because although the Czech base is small Czech scientists are trying to encompass as much as possible.”

If I understand correctly, you are studying micro-organisms able to adapt to climate change. What are your findings and how can they be put to use? In other words what are you hoping to find there?

“Well, microbiology is another of our very promising areas of study and right now we are at the primary stage of microbiology research. Right now we are trying to collect as many samples as possible and trying to find some new species that could be used for some unique protein analysis and new enzyme discoveries. “

You yourself have been to the station four times now – do you actually see any signs of climate change on the glaciers for instance?

“Absolutely, absolutely. I have to say the seasons are quite different on James Ross Island which means that the landscape on this and nearby islands changes quite a lot throughout the year, but even so we can see a very clear impact of climate change and global warming there. The mass of the glaciers is decreasing and we can see it very clearly.”

The base accommodates 16 people – what are the different areas of study they cover and do you chose those areas yourselves or is this down within the framework of international cooperation, because global warming is a hot topic right now?

Johann Gregor Mendel station,  photo: Kamil Láska / Masaryk University
“It is indeed. The capacity of the station is up to 20 persons, but of course we need support staff so 16 scientists is pretty much the ceiling for us. We already mentioned some areas of research, there are a lot of geo-scientists, paleontology, geomorphology, volcanology, sedimentology and of course some biological fields like limnology, botany, plant physiology, ichthyology, parasitology, microbiology and many others. Climate change is the most significant area of research and we try to link up all the related fields of study in view of getting the most data and most accurate picture of the problem as we can. Of course, we are open to cooperation, we have some very good contacts with the British Antarctic Survey and many others naturally.”

In what way are you hoping to contribute to the problem of climate change?

“Our aim is to get as much data, as much accurate data as possible in order to contribute to the present knowledge of the problem, because only the joint effort of many Polar stations can clarify what is wrong with the climate now and what can be expected in the future.”

So you are hoping to contribute to a prediction of how fast the changes will proceed?

“Absolutely, that’s right. Part of our research focusses on the past. By drilling in the lake sediments of very old lakes we try to determine the paleo-climatological ranges or limits that occurred in the past, so it might be easier for us to forecast what could be expected.”

And are the changes more radical in recent years than they were in the past?

“That is the assumption and we need to confirm it definitely.”

As a climatologist are you concerned by what you see there?

Photo: archive of Masaryk University
“Well, something is clearly happening. We need to have much more in-depth monitoring and more extensive research in this field. We still do not have enough information to pin-point the possible sources of this, much less can we propose a solution. That is still far ahead of us. So I myself believe that something really wrong is happening to the climate and it is our duty to provide as much information as possible to clarify this.”

You are always there in the months of the Polar summer –from January to March – but does monitoring take place when you are not there?

“Of course. Most of the meteorological and some of the plant physiology instruments are fully automated, they collect data without assistance from the base personnel. The Czech station is only a summer station so it is only manned though the three months of the polar summer and after the long “winter” break when there is no human presence researchers collect the data from the automated loggers and can start analyzing it.”

How is it that Czech researchers have a polar station of their won there?

“That is an interesting story - a story of courage and big dreams of one brave scientist – prof. Pavel Prošek. He was so dedicated to the idea that he persuaded a lot of state bodies and a lot of scientists to make it possible and it is thanks to him that the Czech Republic has its own scientific station down there –in Antarctica.”

You have been there four times now –do you find yourself looking forward to going back again?

“Well, this place is absolutely amazing and there are a lot of reasons to go back. Every summer season when I am there the prevailing feeling is “why can’t I stay longer” and then “when will the time come for me to go back there” – so there are many things drawing me back there. “

What made the biggest impression on you when you went first?

Photo: Czech Television
“Well, my first impression was really not so good, I must admit. Things did not look very bright at the outset. In the coastal oasis of Antarctica there is less ice than in the continental Antarctica (in the archipelago of James Ross Island there is a one percent de-glaciated, ice-free area of the whole of Antarctica concentrated in one spot) so at first glance it is like a dessert, or a wasteland – very unfriendly. But after the first several days light snow started falling and suddenly we faced this marvelous landscape, full of very strange shapes and objects and I saw that it was definitely not a wasteland or a desert but a garden of some sort.”