My work day is never the same, says Czech polar ecologist Marie Šabacká

Marie Šabacká, photo: archive of Marie Šabacká

The young Czech scientist Marie Šabacká has spent a considerable part of her working life in the Arctic, Antarctic and other remote areas, studying ecology of polar microorganisms and the impact of climate change on local ecosystems. This year, she received a prestigious grant from the Neuron foundation to explore tropical glaciers in Africa.

Marie Šabacká,  photo: archive of Marie Šabacká
I met up with Marie Šabacká just two months before she embarked on her journey to Africa to discuss her work and the expedition. I started by asking what first attracted her to polar ecology.

“When I went to České Budějovice, where I studied, I met two professors, who did some projects in the Arctic and Antarctic. At that time, the Czech Republic didn’t have any station, while today we have one both in the Arctic and Antarctic.

“I have always read a lot about the polar explorers, like Shackleton and Scott. I also watched David Attenborough’s documentaries. So I have always felt it was something I really wanted to do. I thought that maybe once in my life I would see Antarctica, but I never thought that I could make a career of it.”

So how did you get involved in glacier ecology?

“When I started studying M.A., I was working with one of these professors. At a conference one day, we happened to meet with some Czech speleologists. They worked in underground systems in the Czech Republic and as a hobby they would go to Svalbard every year to study caves. They had this amazing presentation about it.

“So we got together and we figured out we would be really interested in what kind of life was there underneath the glaciers. So we got a small grant and went with them and it was really half science and half a big adventure.

“I went on three expeditions with them and then I moved to the U.S to study with a professor who worked in Antarctica and after that it kind of stayed with me.”

So what exactly does your research involve?

“I look at a glacier as an ecosystem, as if it was a desert, a lake or the ocean. So I am interested in any kind of interactions and processes that are happening there.

“The thing I love my job is that I never have an ordinary day. It’s never the same.”

“Until fairly recently we though that of we found something living on glaciers and in snow and ice, it was mostly stuff that just happened to fall there and survive.

“But recently we discovered that there was a whole ecosystem. There is a lot of life on the glaciers and underneath them. So this is what I am studying. I am studying life at its limits.

“From our perspective it is a very extreme environment but from the perspective of the organisms that live there, it is a normal thing.

“So I am interested in all the organisms that live there. Where do they get their energy from? What is the carbon budget of the glacier? What is the nitrogen cycle? And then, what happens when the glacier melts and the ice melts into the ocean and the surrounding soils? What happens and how it affects the downstream ecosystem?”

So do you also study the impact of global warming on glaciers?

“Indeed. To a degree I do study the effect of the climate change. I study the organisms in the present more than looking way in the past. But obviously the Planet is warming and the glaciers are receding.

“I do a lot of my research on Svalbard, which is a European Norwegian Arctic. It’s an archipelago halfway between north of Norway and North Pole and it is really warming very fast. Over the past 100 years the Earth has warmed roughly by one degree Celsius, but Svalbard has warmed by up to four degrees in certain places.

“So the retreat of the glaciers is very visible there. You can actually see it in the summer. Sometimes you come back a few weeks later and you notice that the glacier has moved. You can actually see that with your own eyes.

Marie Šabacká,  photo: archive of Neuron foundation
“Obviously the glaciers are very dynamic and they also grow back in winter. Just because you see the glacier retreating one year doesn’t mean it is actually disappearing. But on Svalbard almost all of the glaciers have a negative balance, which means that they are losing their mass.”

How much time of the year do you spend on Svalbard?

“It varies, but roughly it would be around three months. I mostly go in the summer. I do some teaching there as well as research and quite often I go in the spring as well. So most years, it is about two to three months.”

What does your ordinary day on Svalbard look like?

“The thing I love my job is that I never have an ordinary day. It’s never the same. But we do have some long-term measurements, and in a day like that, in the summer, I would be staying in our field station, which is further away from civilisation.

“I would get up, have breakfast with the rest of the scientists and students at the station and then I would go with one or two other colleagues by boat across a fjord to another glacier.

“The first thing I have is to check if there are any polar bears. Even before that I have to check the weather and if I can actually cross the sea. Sometimes there happen to be like five or six of polar bears. In that case we have to turn back.

“If we are lucky and the polar bears are not there we disembark, leave the boat there and go on the glaciers. I go several kilometres inland on the glacier and then I start collecting samples and do some measurements. And then we return to the station and do some laboratory experiments in the evening.”

As you said, it’s never an ordinary day on Svalbard. How can you actually prepare for that type of work?

“The tropical glaciers are one of the rarest, most endangered and also vastly unexplored ecosystems on the planet.”

“You prepare by experience, for sure. If you walk on a glacier, you have to know what you are doing. Most of the glaciers on Svalbard are snow-free in the summer, so there are a lot of crevasses. Some of them go all the way down to the bottom and can be hundred metres deep. Sometimes they are full of water, so if you fall in, you might die almost instantly.

“So you do have to know what you are doing and you have to be with someone experienced. But as long as you are not on snow, it is reasonably safe. If you walk on snow, you could step on a crevasse without knowing.

“I have been on glaciers for quite a while. I do have tremendous respect for it. I understand how much it can move and I have also been in a situation when I have fallen into a crevasse. So I am mindful of that. It’s very important to be aware of the dangers and be aware of your limits.

“The dangers are obviously many but you can eliminate them. Also I am essentially never alone. Also what really helps me is to understand my limits. I know that I am not a professional snowmobile or boat driver, so I try to be as careful as I can be.”

What about the weather conditions? You said that you mostly go in the summer. What’s the weather like there at the time? And do you somehow train to handle the cold better before you go?

“So the weather in the summer would be roughly like November in Europe. It means that it could be quite wet. It could be around five degrees Celsius. But usually in July we tend to get a few days or a week of really nice weather when it’s sunny, with temperatures reaching up to 15 or 17 degrees Celsius, which is quite warm.

“But the Arctic is essentially getting wetter every year, so we get much more rain, which is very unpleasant. In the cold environment, when you get wet, you get much colder really quickly.

Svalbard,  photo: Ilinskaya Alisa,  CC BY 4.0
“In the spring it is freezing and it could be minus twenty or thirty, which of course poses new challenges to our work.”

Can you still carry out your research in a temperature below minus twenty?

“You can, but it is more difficult. We were doing for example research of the sea ice. We have been drilling through the sea ice, collecting samples and once you get the sample up, it immediately freezes and a lot of instruments start to freeze as well. So you have to adjust to the situation. It’s a bit harder but you can still do science.”

What kind of info does it reveal about the Arctic and about the planet in general? And how can this knowledge be used in practice?

“It is not the job of the scientists to apply this knowledge. This is more like the engineering and technology. So I do the primary science. But there are things that I think could be applicable. We are studying organisms that have to adapt to a very extreme environment and they sometimes produce certain substances that help them to accommodate.

“Sometimes these substances could be used for industry or agriculture, and so on. If we look for life outside of our planet, then the few places that we can look for life in our solar system are very cold, much colder than the Earth. It would be Mars and some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

“We know for example that on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn there is liquid water. And everywhere on the planet Earth where we found liquid water, we found life, even if it is really tiny layers. So the sort of organisms that are living for example underneath the Antarctic ice shield, which is four kilometres thick, could be similar to the life outside of our planet.”

Last year you received a prestigious grant from the Neuron foundation to explore glaciers this time tropical glaciers in Africa? What is the purpose of this research?

Marie Šabacká,  photo: archive of Marie Šabacká
“The tropical glaciers, it sounds a bit like oxymoron, doesn’t it? They are located very close to the equator. And they are one of the rarest, most endangered and also vastly unexplored ecosystems on the planet.

“They are very high up in the mountains, nearly 5,000 metres, and they are disappearing really very quickly. All the African glaciers are going to be gone within the next decade, maybe even earlier.

“We believe that they are quite different from all the other glaciers, the Alpine and the polar ones. They have been isolated from the glacier community for a long time. The second reason is that the temperatures there are essentially the same all year round and in the night it freezes.

“So what is happening is that there is liquid water and the glaciers are melting all year round essentially non-stop. The opposite is true for the Polar and Alpine glaciers, because there is liquid water only for a short period of time during the summer. In Antarctica it is a week or two and in the Alps it might be two months.

“And the life can really exist, evolve and thrive only when there is liquid water. So from a biological perspective, this is what makes the tropical glaciers completely different and unique.”

So how many people are going to take part in this expedition and when do you actually embark on your journey to Africa?

“We will be embarking at the very end of January. It is the best time to go, because it is the dry season. We will be three scientists and hopefully also two film-makers.”

Will you also be working with some local people?

“We are working in a national park and we will be cooperating with the people who live underneath beyond the mountains. They are from the Bakonzo tribe and they are essentially the guardians of the national park and the glaciers. They will help us to carry the equipment and with the science as well.

“We have to walk to the glaciers first, because you can’t drive your car in the National Park. So it is going to take us four or five days to reach the last hut, which is at 4,500 metre. And from there, we will be walking to the glacier. So yes, it is physically demanding, but as I said, we will get help, especially with the equipment.”

So how much time are you planning to spend there?

“In the very mountains, we will be spending around 17 or 18 days. We are mostly limited financially, because we have to pay fees for every person, so it adds up a lot.”

Rwenzori Mountains,  Uganda,  photo: Albert Backer,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Finally, what do you love about your job? Is it the fact that, as you said, it is different every day?

“Yes, I love the variability. I get really bored doing the same thing over and over again. And I think what I really love the most is that I had the tremendous opportunity and pleasure to visit some amazing people but mostly to meet some amazing people.

“And I don’t mean just other scientists. Since you spend time in boats and helicopters, you meet people who live completely different life and come from completely different countries, so it really enriches you.”