Brussels, 22 Oct 2004
Europe must remain at the forefront of polar research and confront the challenge of being the first to conquer the Arctic Ocean, says the European Polar Board. The organisation has just put forward a proposal for the construction of a European Arctic flagship, the AURORA BOREALIS.
In spite of the Arctic Ocean's critical role in climate change evolution in the northern hemisphere, it remains a mystery as no ship in the world has ever been able to go to the centre of this sub-basin.
This lack of data represents one of the largest gaps of information in modern earth science, says the European Polar Board, which would like to see the construction of a dedicated state of the art European icebreaker with a deep drilling capability.
The AURORA BOREALIS would be the first true research vessel in this field. It would enable data collection and the probing of the environment at times when the Arctic region has never been visited (mainly during late autumn, winter and early spring), and would allow European nations to maintain their leading position in arctic research.
'European nations have a particular interest in understanding the arctic environment with its inherent sensitivity to change,' says Professor Dr Jörn Thiede, Chairman of the AURORA BOREALIS' international science planning committee. 'Highly industrialised countries extend into high northern latitudes, and Europe is under the steady influence of and in exchange with the arctic environment.'
Two teams of German and Finnish experts have come up with a design for a vessel that would revolutionise the way research is carried out in the Arctic. With its all-season capability it would provide the most advanced research platform to date and be able to tackle major scientific challenges by enabling long, international and interdisciplinary expeditions into the centre of the Arctic Ocean.
'The critical role of the Arctic in regulating and driving the global climate system is one that requires elucidation in all its complexities,' states the European Polar Board. 'This is necessary to predict future environmental changes and determine strategies that must be adopted by nations to protect the functioning of the earth system.'
According to Professor Thiede, drilling in and examining samples from the Arctic basin will be one of the major scientific and technological challenges of this decade, and one in which Europe must, and will, play a key role.
To venture into the deep, permanently ice-covered Arctic Ocean, Europe requires a new research facility, which should be planned as a joint European infrastructure unit, states the European Polar Board. At a cost of 250 million euro, the AURORA BOREALIS project needs to be supported by a core group of European countries with relevant research interests. Indeed, no single country has a scientific community big enough to use the vessel efficiently. Thus, an effective use of the icebreaker requires the formation of a consortium of European countries and their polar research institutes to ensure a high quality of science and efficient employment of the research vessel during all seasons of the year.
Besides basic research, the AURORA BOREALIS would provide the opportunity for fossil hydrocarbon exploration.
'It would also give European nations an advantage in the planning, construction and deployment of large icebreakers in the Arctic, which seems to be developing into one of the most important regions in the northern hemisphere, said Professor Thiede.
Furthermore, if indications pointing to a 'blue' Arctic Ocean in 50 years time are true, adds the professor, 'this could potentially lead to an opening of sea passages to the north of North America and Eurasia. This project would therefore open up access to new areas of the Arctic and provide a substantial commercial interest.'
Although it has not made any financial commitment to date, the German government has already assessed this as an important project. The European Polar Board hopes to attract a core group of five to eight nations and the European Commission to finance the project.
Non-European countries with an interest in the region, like the US, Canada and the Russian Federation are also interested in some sort of partnership or involvement.