POLAR2018 Conference: What does the future hold for the poles?

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A view of Davos and the lake from the mountains

“I believe in clean air. Immaculate air. But I don’t believe in climate change.” stated the leader of the free-world, President Donald Trump.

We live in an era in which our planet is undergoing dramatic environmental changes, providing massive challenges for present and future generations. The extent to which, I’m sure, we cannot yet fathom. Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. Data has shown that ozone depletion has shielded most of the Antarctic from global warming delaying the infamous “Greenhouse Effect”. Doesn’t sound too bad right? As a consequence, westerly winds in this region have intensified affecting global overturning and rainfall patterns. Recent data presented at the POLAR2018 conference has linked intensified westerlies to shifts in the feeding distribution of the sub-Antarctic albatross and penguins. Whales and other marine bird species are more frequently recorded in locations where they have never been recorded before. Conversely, surface temperatures in West Antarctica have warmed slightly while the eastern coast has seen rapid summer warming. Sea ice observations from the Arctic confirm that the Arctic shows no signs of returning to the reliably frozen state it was in just a decade ago. Essentially what this means, is that we do not fully understand the effects of climate change on our planet – some regions might warm, others might cool. The effects of climate change will be seen in the poles long before they are seen elsewhere, making these desolate regions of our planet an ideal environment for scientists to study and understand our changing planet. Consequently, the POLAR2018 conference was initiated to bring together scientists at the forefront of Arctic, Antarctic and high-altitude research in an attempt to better understand, the Grand Challenge: a changing planet. This is the first time since the International Polar Year 2007-2008, that leading organizations in both Arctic and Antarctic research will convene in one place.

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Johan presenting his work during the Phytoplankton, productivity and carbon export dynamics session

What became glaringly obvious was that the Grand Challenge will not be solved by one scientific discipline, nor research conducted at one pole. Therefore the underlying themes of the conference were multi-faceted, focusing on the interdisciplinary nature of research conducted in Polar Regions as well as scientific communication, or lack thereof, between researchers in the North and South Pole. Science does not stand still and we must learn from one another to progress. However, this becomes exceedingly difficult as the Arctic and Antarctic are two completely different environments. One presenter summed up the difference quite nicely, “The Arctic is an Ocean surrounded by continents and the Antarctic is a continent surrounded by ocean.” This means that their response to climate change is expected to be different. The Arctic is more accessible with numerous northern countries staking claim to territories. Therefore, there is widespread international interest in the Arctic however, accompanied by the benefits of international interest come political squabbles. The Antarctic, on the other hand, is not as easily accessible and is virtually unreachable during the winter period. Furthermore, the Antarctic treaty, signed by numerous nations ensures that Antarctica has no territorial claim and that the entire continent is dedicated to peaceful, international scientific investigation. Challenges researchers from opposing poles face range from (1) barriers in communication in terms of one single platform in which data can be uploaded and shared in a similar format, (2) universal methodologies which can be systematically applied to both poles, making data more comparable and (3) differences in physical environments, it is not a simple case of comparing apples with apples.

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The team from Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town

The POLAR2018 conference was hosted in the quaint town of Davos, overlooked approvingly by the snow-tipped mountains of the Swiss Alps. The conference brought together over 2300 researchers from across the globe presenting their work in the form of posters, orals and workshops. The nature of Polar research is interdisciplinary and attendees ranged from geologists, engineers, biogeochemists, ice modelers, marine biologists, microbiologists and physicists to artists, historians, museum curators and political scholars. There was something for the whole family. To give you an idea of the interdisciplinary nature I keep babbling on about, I’d like to use an example of a researcher I met. I use the term “researcher” as after speaking with him I am still not certain what his field of expertise is. A species of petrel (marine bird) in Antarctica nest on rock or cliff faces that are clear of snow. Like many bird species, the adults will take turns hunting and upon returning to the nest will regurgitate their hunt to feed their young. Only the crème de la crème is eaten by the hatchlings while a lot of the regurgitated portion is leftover, this, overtime actually solidifies in layers preserving a short, concise snapshot of the feeding habits of that particular petrel family. Now because their nests are only constructed in areas devoid of snow this can serve as a paleo-proxy for snow cover based on where we find present and ancient nests. The “regurgitated paleosols” can be isotopically and geochemically analyzed and used to determine the source of the food and the time period in which it was deposited or “regurgitated”, this can then be geologically correlated to glacial maximums and minimums. If you want to reduce this to its most basic element, petrel vomit was used to date glacial periods. Future research which also caught my attention, was that being done on the Polarstern, Germany’s flagship icebreaker. The Polarstern will be frozen in sea ice at the North Pole for a year. This will enable researchers to study the polar winter while the Polarstern takes an unknown voyage on sea currents. This allows scientists the unique opportunity to work on a floating field laboratory to better understand physical and chemical processes in the sea ice and how these are linked to climate change.

On this conference I learned a lot about the value of international collaboration and how it can greatly benefit our work. Johan and myself, presented our work in the form of a 12 minute oral presentation. We received a lot of questions and were approached by potential collaborators after our presentations. Hopefully this will bear fruit in the future. I was also introduced to the concept of a “Facebook Collaboration” by Luca Stirnimann. This is similar to a scientific collaboration, except the collaborating party must be of the opposite sex and all collaborations must be done in a social setting.

During the conference we were told to separate into groups to discuss three current hot topics related to polar research and three hot topics of the future. Not surprisingly, the verdict was much the same across the room. The three hot topics at the moment are; microplastics, ocean acidification and climate change. Ironically, seven years ago the topic of microplastics did not even exist. Today microplastics are arguably one of the biggest threats to our marine eco-system. Hot topics of the future really got all of our attention. Most of the predictions were based on technological enhancements, for example autonomous sampling instruments allowing us to sample previously inaccessible regions. We also believe that future enhancements in software will allow for the compilation of larger, internationally available data-sets improving our scientific outputs and making climate prediction models more accurate. I believe one of the biggest changes we will see in the future is in the type of scientist. In a world driven by technology and social media, gone are the days of the lab-coat wearing scientist whom never leaves the confines of their lab. In order to influence governmental policy and ACCURATELY inform the public, scientists need to take their work out of the confines of the lab and into social media platforms, schools, public seminars etc. If we, as scientists, are not able to more successfully bridge the gap between science and society in the foreseeable future, future policies may be influenced by anecdotal evidence rather than fact and we may well be on our way to a sixth mass extinction.

Written by Ian Weir

 

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