The Growing Popularity of Polar Science

The number of scientists devoted to polar research has more than doubled, and they're painting a sobering picture.

An iceberg in the middle of the Antarctic.
In Antarctica, virtually every organism is at risk. 66 North/Unsplash

As we move into the thick of Antarctic winter, one would anticipate the ocean around the southernmost continent to be clad in its typical veil of thick sea ice. Yet, in 2023, the familiar scene is starkly different. Areas of eastern Antarctica, in an unprecedented deviation, bear closer resemblance to summer, with drastically reduced sea ice levels[1]. The rapid climate shift, however, is not the only alarming transformation afoot.

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Despite being some of the most isolated ecosystems on the planet, the Antarctic seas are showing signs of human contamination. Microplastics, omnipresent in today’s world, have infiltrated this distant landscape, tainting the bodies of its native penguins[2]. They’ve even permeated the life cycle of the Antarctic krill, the bedrock of the Antarctic food chain[3]. This means anything that relies on krill for sustenance—which, in Antarctica, is virtually every organism—is at risk. A similar narrative of degradation unfolds in the Arctic, where plastic pollution adorns the beaches of Svalbard, having traveled from as distant a source as Brazil. The stomachs of many local seabirds are now over 80 percent plastic. The change in polar landscapes is unprecedented, and human impact lies at the heart of it.

Antarctic penguins. James Eades/Unsplash

Double the scientists, triple the funding

“Our responsibility is twofold: to study these unexplored regions while ensuring they remain preserved for the generations to come,” Antony Jinman, a renowned polar explorer, explains. With a recent scientific expedition to the Antarctic to commemorate Shackleton’s last voyage, Jinman has taken up a new cause: the fight against plastic pollution in these pristine environments. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, he presses the need for collective action: “It is high time we rallied behind this mission.”

Polar research paints a sobering picture of the fragility and interdependence of our planet. From studying microscopic plankton to tracking tectonic plate movements, researchers have expanded our understanding of these regions, highlighting the urgent need for their preservation.

The number of polar scientists and the funding dedicated to polar research have seen a significant uptick over the last two decades. In 2003, there were approximately 2,000 active polar researchers worldwide, a figure that has grown to an estimated 4,500 by 2023, according to the International Arctic Science Committee and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research[6].

This marked increase in research manpower is mirrored by a surge in funding. For instance, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States, one of the largest funders of polar research, reported a budget allocation of $300 million to polar research in 2003. By 2023, this number had nearly tripled, reaching close to $880 million[7].

The sources of funding for polar research are diverse, ranging from governmental bodies, such as the NSF in the U.S. and the Natural Environment Research Council in the UK, to non-profit organizations like the Pew Charitable Trusts and various university grants[8]. These funds are primarily dedicated to a wide spectrum of research endeavors, from understanding the impacts of climate change and human activities on polar ecosystems to improving our knowledge about polar geology, ice dynamics, and polar biodiversity.

Yet despite these growing resources towards overarching polar science, the opportunities and funding for early-career scientists, those who will undertake, and more importantly continue the science and research onwards into a most critical period of time, is limited.

A team explores Antarctic waters. Long Ma/Unsplash

Fieldwork training required

A 2022 survey by the UK Polar Network (UKPN), a part of the Association for Polar Early Career Scientists, revealed a disconcerting trend. An alarming 81 percent of their members voiced concern over their lack of basic field skills, casting a shadow over their ability to conduct effective research in polar environments[4]. Imagine attempting to set up camp in freezing conditions, or dealing with personal hygiene issues, all while underprepared and overexposed. How do you change a tampon in freezing temperatures? Trivial to us at home, but with potentially dangerous implications for health in a fieldwork setting.

Historically, the UKPN provided early-career researchers (ECRs) with foundational fieldwork training, often in collaboration with their Russian counterpart, APECS Russia. The recent Russian-Ukrainian conflict, however, forced this program into hiatus[5]. Regrettably, alternative polar-focused training opportunities in the UK are few and far between, particularly for early career levels.

A glimmer of hope emerges in the form of a 2023 collaboration between the Clean Planet Foundation, Jinman, and the UK Polar Network. Their joint project, Clean Planet Peninsula, aims to equip the next generation of polar researchers with the critical fieldwork skills they need, creating a sustainable future for UK polar research.

In 2022, Jinman witnessed one of the devastating effects of climate change on these unique ecosystems. Observing how increased snowfall affected the breeding cycles of Antarctic penguins, he noted:

“Due to the snow lingering, an alarming delay of egg reduces the window for eggs to hatch, chicks to molt, and fledglings to leave the nest before the onslaught of the merciless Antarctic winter; this dramatic reduction in population count threatens their survival.”

Jinman’s tryst with the Polar regions began with his historic expeditions to the North and South Poles, where he skied solo, becoming one of the few Britons to accomplish this feat. It was these daunting journeys that drew Jinman’s attention to the dire reality of climate change and plastic pollution in these pristine environments. Deeply moved by the disturbing truth, he decided to transform his role from an observer to a conservator, dedicating his efforts towards the preservation of these remote landscapes.

One of Jinman’s notable encounters that underscored the severity of the situation occurred during an expedition to Antarctica in 2022. While setting up camp near an emperor penguin colony, Jinman noticed something unusual. A few curious penguins had picked up a piece of colourful plastic debris, mistaking it for food. This unsettling scene offered a stark reminder of the far-reaching impacts of human activities. It served as a pivotal moment for Jinman, propelling his dedication toward the fight against plastic pollution.

Moreover, Jinman’s efforts transcend his individual explorations and research. As a dedicated mentor, he’s been instrumental in shaping the next generation of polar researchers. His conviction that research should also encompass preservation and sustainability has inspired countless early career researchers, fostering a forward-thinking and responsible approach toward polar exploration.

The future of polar research

As we approach the future of polar research, early career researchers must seize the opportunity to drive a more inclusive, sustainable approach to their work. It’s time to integrate diverse disciplines, recognize the value of indigenous knowledge[9], and foster a truly collaborative ethos in polar research. By setting new standards in collaborative research and rallying behind innovative initiatives like the Clean Planet Peninsula project, we can ensure a future in which the Polar regions continue to thrive.

Let us answer the call to action, not as passive observers, but as active participants in preserving the world’s most extraordinary landscapes. It’s our shared responsibility to rewrite the narrative of plastic pollution in the Polar regions and create a legacy for generations to come.

We invite you to join us on this extraordinary journey. A journey that transcends borders and disciplines, that unites us in a common purpose to protect these majestic regions from the scourge of plastic pollution and ensure the beauty and integrity of our planet for future generations.

This article was authored by Chloe Nunn, Dr. Katerina Garyfalou and Ellie Honan. Chloe and Ellie are co-presidents of the UK Polar Network. Katerina is VP of Global Partnerships at the Clean Planet Foundation and VP of New Ventures at Clean Planet Energy.

References

  • [1] Park, J. W., et al. “Recent unprecedented rapid decrease of sea ice near the Antarctic Peninsula.” Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 48, no. 11, 2021.
  • [2] Provencher, J. F., et al. “Ingestion of plastic marine debris by long-tailed duck in the eastern Canadian Arctic.” Marine Pollution Bulletin, vol. 78, no. 1-2, 2014, pp. 144-150.
  • [3] Dawson, A. L., et al. “Turning microplastics into nanoplastics through digestive fragmentation by Antarctic krill.” Nature Communications, vol. 9, no. 1, 2018, p. 1001.
  • [4] UK Polar Network. “UK Polar Network Skills Survey Results 2022”. UKPN, 2022.
  • [5] O’Brien, C., et al. “The Impact of the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict on Scientific Collaboration.” Science, Technology and Human Values, vol. 44, no. 6, 2019, pp. 1029-1053.
  • [6] International Arctic Science Committee & Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. “Polar Researchers Count 2003-2023”. IASC & SCAR, 2023.
  • [7] National Science Foundation. “Budget allocation to Polar Research 2003-2023”. NSF, 2023.
  • [8] Pearce, T.D., et al. “Funding for Polar Research: The Role of Government and Non-profit Organizations”. Polar Science, vol. 13, no. 1, 2019, pp. 15-24.
  • [9] Huntington, H. P. “Using traditional ecological knowledge in science: methods and applications.” Ecological Applications, vol. 10, no. 5, 2000, pp. 1270-1274.

The Growing Popularity of Polar Science