Czech scientists take part in International Polar Year in both polar regions


The North and South Poles are not exactly the world's most popular destinations for tourists, but their rich mineral deposits and unspoiled environments make them a godsend for scientists. A number of Czech researchers will be going to these remote outposts in the coming months as part of the International Polar Year, which is dedicated to coordinated polar research. This project will actually last a full two years starting from March 2007 until March 2009 and many Czech scientists from different fields will be participating in the studies.

A group of Czech researchers are examining glaciers on the Svalbard Archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, studying how they are affected by rising temperatures.

On Boxing Day, another Czech team left for James Ross Island off the southernmost tip of South America, right across the globe. In recent years, Radio Prague regularly reported on progress in the construction of the first Czech permanent polar station on the island. Building work finished a year ago and last week, at last, a team of Czech experts left for Antarctica, to spend two months doing research during the favourable conditions of the Antarctic summer - well, a strange summer by our standards...

"As far as the weather is concerned, it is mostly overcast and windy. As for snow, there is not much of it. Every now and then an Antarctic blizzard comes and keeps you locked in for four, five days and you can't even stick your nose out."

Professor Pavel Prosek from Masaryk University in Brno heads the team of Czech researchers who are now on their way to James Ross Island via Chile, Patagonia and Seymour Island. The university spent six years building the polar station, financed by the Czech Education Ministry. The construction cost 60 million crowns (2.8 million USD) and the operation costs are expected to reach 10 million crowns a year. The station has been named after the 19th-century Augustinian abbot Gregor Johann Mendel, dubbed "the father of genetics", who carried out his research in the city of Brno.

The island is a relic of a 10-million year old volcano and no research has been conducted there so far. The Czech team includes specialists in geology and geography, biology and climate science. One of the team members is geologist Petr Mixa.

"In Antarctica we are very dependent on the weather. We wait for days when there is no snow. If the snow falls, geologists cannot work because we need to see the rocks. You can find fossil sea shells, petrified wood and we believe one of the prime reasons why the sites are so rich is that people have not had time to exhaust them."

Provided the ground is not covered with snow, Antarctica is an ideal place for geologists because there is no vegetation, nothing that would stand in the way, and all the rocks and geological structures are visible.

Another subject the scientists will focus on are the effects of global warming in Antarctica. Geologist Pavel Prosek describes the area in terms of climate.

"It is a part of Antarctica where the climate is more moderate. It is under the influence of the Southern Ocean. There is more precipitation and higher temperatures than in the continental part. The summer temperatures hover around 0 degrees Celsius, winter temperatures fall to lows of minus 30 to minus 35 degrees, which is favourable for us but it is also favourable for living organisms because life in Central Antarctica practically doesn't exist."

On the island, however, some simple life does exist. The Czech team will also study Antarctic vegetation: for example, algae, mosses and lichens which grow in areas where glaciers have receded owing to increasing temperatures.

Botanist Jiri Komarek,  photo: Zdenek Valis
Botanist Jiri Komarek of the Botanical Institute has been to Antarctica before and told Radio Prague that the effects of global warming in the South Polar Region were quite obvious:

"I stayed and worked twice on Poland's base and right behind it there was a glacier which receded over two years: you can directly see the effects of global warming. Regarding James Ross Island, decades ago it was joined by ice to the rest of Antarctica, with ice covering Prince Gustav Channel. But, it has disappeared. Now there is a regular body of water which you can navigate in the summer months."

As far as polar vegetation is concerned, the team will also be looking into how the simple plants are adapting to increased doses of UV radiation, the result of the depletion or "hole" in the ozone layer in the polar regions. And how do the researchers themselves cope with high doses of UV? Pavel Prosek again.

"The ozone hole is quite precisely defined in terms of time. We will be there outside the culmination of the ozone hole which doesn't mean that there cannot be serious doses of UV. We will concentrate on how UV rays are influenced by the atmosphere, the role of the clouds, the types of clouds and so on. We carried out measurements and we have counted how long it takes to get sunburnt. Sometimes 20 minutes in the sun is enough to get badly sunburnt."

Glaciers on both the Earth's poles have been attracting a lot of attention recently in connection with global warming and they are an important area of research for the Czech team on James Ross Island. Pavel Prosek again.

"We work on the glacier and examine whether there are some links between the energy management of the glacier and its mass. That is whether it is receding or, on the contrary, expanding, and how these two factors affect each other."

Hearing the word Antarctica, some of us may think of the early 20th-century explorers who risked their lives and endured hardships during their quests. Pavel Prosek says it is nothing like that these days.

"There is no heroism present in Antarctica, at least not in the area of science. We are not conquering anything, we don't need to get the deepest, the highest or the furthest. We just do our job and thank God our work is not dull."

The Czech expedition finally set off for Antarctica forty-six years after Czechoslovakia first signed the Antarctic Treaty, which prohibits military activities and mineral mining, supports scientific research, and protects the continent's environment.

The Czech permanent base is expected to serve researchers for another 20 to 30 years.