Brussels, 03 Mar 2003
Europe is providing insights into climate history and is at the cutting edge of polar research. This was the consensus as the European Commission showcased EU polar projects on 28 February in Bremerhaven, Germany.
The presentation of the EU polar research projects coincided with the departing of scientists from these projects for another research expedition, aboard Polarstern, a double-hulled icebreaker research vessel.
'Europe is at the forefront of international efforts in polar research. The North and South Poles are unique indicators of climate change processes and therefore polar research is a key element in our overall research effort on global climate change, ' said EU Research Commissioner, Philippe Busquin.
An example of European prominence in this area is the project for ice coring in Antarctica (EPICA), which has recovered ice near bedrock from a depth of over 3,000 metres. This ice is approximately 800,000 years old. It is believed that information about how our climate worked in the past is locked in the ice.
EPICA involves 13 partners from eight EU countries as well as Norway and Switzerland, and has a total budget of 7.06 million euro. It is coordinated by the European science foundation (ESF) and funded by the EU under the Fifth Framework programme's Energy, environment and sustainable development programme (EESD).
While other ice coring research initiatives have taken place around the world EPICA provides the oldest ice ever retrieved in Antarctica.
Such a retrieval is a 'milestone' for scientific research in this area and is expected to enhance scientists understanding of current global climate change and predict future changes, Heinz Miller, coordinator of EPICA, told CORDIS News.
Mr Miller said that the final outcome of the discovery is expected to help shape environmental policy in Europe.
The EPICA team also works closely with other polar research projects, such as the EU Arctic ice cover simulation experiment (AICSEX) project, which uses a century scale perspective to assess the changes in the arctic climate system. Also funded under FP5's EESD programme, AICSEX involves seven partners from the EU and Norway and has a total budget of 2.42 million euro.
AICSEX scientists have recently analysed the ice cover in the Arctic Ocean and suggested that significant changes have occurred in the latter part of the last century. These changes have resulted in the average thickness of ice decreasing by 8 per cent, which is a comparable to the surface area of France.
However, while previous cooling periods in the Arctic were caused by natural fluctuations in the climate system, 'we believe there are strong indications that the warming trend and decrease in the ice extent in the last 20 years cannot be explained by natural processes alone,' said Mr Ola Johannessen, coordinator of AICSEX.
Speaking to CORDIS News, Mr Johannessen added that it was essential to assess all available ice thickness observations from the Arctic Ocean during the last century as 'extrapolating the ice thickness decrease [...] indicates that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free 50 years from now, causing a dramatic change in the albedo, with significant effects on the global climate system. '
The project findings suggest that such developments could have both a positive and negative impact on the climate. For instance, replacing ice cover with cold water, which has high capacity for carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption, could create a new sink for atmospheric CO2. This could help decrease global warming.
Similarly, decreasing ice cover would benefit marine transportation and provide easier and safer logistics for offshore oil activities in the Arctic region. Increased fisheries in new previously ice-covered regions would contribute positively to the global food supplies.
However, melting ice would also result in less plankton and thus have a negative effect on the marine biodiversity in the area. Furthermore, drastically decreasing ice would affect the transport of heat by the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic current, which, it is believed, would have significant consequences on the climate in Europe.