A smoother polar passage

A new body aims to help UK researchers navigate the pitfalls encountered when working in the Arctic, writes Zoë Corbyn

May 21, 2009

A new Arctic Office is being set up to support UK scientists working in the region. It aims to improve access to the Arctic research infrastructure and identify funding opportunities and international partners. It could also help to oversee a new programme of Arctic research.

The office will be hosted by the Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey (BAS), which is responsible for the UK's scientific activities in Antarctica. Like the BAS, it will be funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. The project is intended as a legacy of International Polar Year (IPY), a collaborative two-year international effort to focus research in the polar regions, which officially ended in March.

Conducting research in the Arctic is fraught and not just because of the climate and geography. Unlike the Antarctic, there is no international treaty establishing the vast ice-covered ocean and its surrounding permafrost as a haven for scientific investigation. Rather, with the United States, Russia, Norway, Canada and Denmark all claiming various parts, the region is a jurisdictional and political minefield for researchers.

Until now, the UK has never had an overarching strategy for its work there. Researchers have made their own arrangements and gone it alone.

Friends in the north

The idea of the Arctic Office, which initially is being established for three years, is to co-ordinate UK research efforts, explained Cynan Ellis-Evans of the BAS. Having helped run British efforts for IPY, Dr Ellis-Evans will head the Arctic Office, which will also encompass Nerc's Arctic Research Station on Norway's Svalbard archipelago.

"There will be someone on the ground looking after UK-Arctic (scientific) interests, which we have not had before. It is starting relatively small scale, but we see it developing."

He said that although the UK had its Antarctic research "very well organised", the approach to work in the Arctic was more haphazard, with the university departments that receive funding finding their own way.

He sees the Arctic Office as a smaller version of the BAS that will orchestrate the science being done in the Arctic and make research more efficient.

One of its main jobs will be to support researchers in accessing the UK's Arctic infrastructure, including polar research ships and aircraft and the Arctic Research Station.

It will also manage a new polar logistics agreement between the UK and Canada that will allow UK researchers time on Canada's Arctic research ships, aircraft and stations in exchange for Canadian scientists being granted access to the UK's Antarctic facilities.

Thus far, a deal is in place for aircraft and some stations, with ongoing negotiations about ships.

"It will make it a lot easier for us to get access to the Canadian Arctic," Dr Ellis-Evans explained.

The office hopes to establish agreements with other countries such as Norway and Russia to expand researchers' Arctic access.

International agreement

The IPY experience showed that the best way to tackle some polar projects was to work internationally but with national funding, Dr Ellis-Evans said, so "you need bilateral and multilateral agreements".

Another function of the office will be to act as a one-stop shop for those looking for information on funding opportunities or seeking international partners.

Researchers have also been discussing the potential for a new managed Arctic study programme.

They met in Birmingham last week to consider whether a new programme was needed to replace a previous £5 million scheme run as part of IPY. Dr Ellis-Evans outlined four key areas of previous work that could be pursued under the new programme.

One strand focused on ocean currents and how they are affected by fresh water from melting glaciers in the region. Another looked at the potential for the release of methane hydrates locked in Arctic permafrost as the climate warms. The third examined how pollutants from the northern hemisphere were captured and concentrated in the Arctic. The fourth investigated interactions between the land and the atmosphere and the exchange of carbon dioxide.

We need to understand not just climate change, but also what rapid climate change means for the polar regions, Dr Ellis-Evans said. "The Arctic is of critical importance to the planet - the polar regions drive the Earth's systems - so we need to understand what is going on there. For all the effort that we are putting in, we are at a point of ignorance."

He added that researchers needed to consider the consequences of an "ice-free" Arctic because they could be "immense and global" - affecting weather processes, fisheries, communities, ecosystems, influencing carbon-dioxide uptake and releasing enormous amounts of methane.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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