Dispatches from GEO XIII: A Chilly Perspective – GEO Considers Adding a Cold Regions Initiative

EarthzineGEO/GEOSS News, Original

The 2016 GEO Plenary will vote on the addition of a Cold Regions Initiative. A field trip to the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute of Russia reveals the type of research under consideration and the importance of partnerships.
Considering the amount of data a single slice yields, samples from the Vostok ice core look fairly commonplace: just a thick ring of clear ice with a small hole in the middle surrounded by a thinner band of white, opaque ice. However, this simple cylinder represents triumph over challenging field conditions, successful international collaboration, and the weight of a significant component of evidence for climate change. Ice core sampling is just one facet of a suite research activities carried out at the Earth’s poles. This week, the Group on Earth Observations (GEO) Plenary will vote on whether to add cold regions research as one of its official initiatives.

A ceramic mural depicting arctic research at the entry to the Arctic and Antarctic Resea:rch Institute

A ceramic mural depicting Arctic research at the entry to the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute. Image Credit: Author

As part of the Cold Regions side session held at the GEO conference on Tuesday, a tour of the State Research Center of the Russian Federation, the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI), was offered to participants. The tour demonstrated multiple examples of the type of research being conducted in these frozen areas.
Work at the AARI ranges from generating sea ice forecasts to analyzing lakebed sediments to mentoring a next generation of scientists.
Because of the remote and often harsh conditions associated polar research, it is expensive to conduct and availability of data and other observations is limited. Partnerships can help disperse the financial burden of conducting studies and significantly increase the volume of available data.
“I am a big fan of networking,” said Dr. Heide Kassen, director of the German side of the Otto Schmidt Laboratory, a Russian-German collaboration housed at the AARI.
“Networking is one of the most important things we can do, it makes our work more efficient.”
A researcher in a cold room at the AARI holds up an ice sample from Vostok. Most ice samples here are around 1.5 million years old

A researcher in a cold room at the AARI holds up an ice sample from Vostok. Most ice samples here are around 1.5 million years old

Kassen says international collaboration is already occurring on polar research and has been for decades. In the conference room of the AARI, there are plaques on the wall from the U.S., Norway, and numerous other countries. In the small library of the Otto Schmidt laboratory, Russian and German flags sit side-by-side and incoming master’s students in the mentoring program Kassen leads now learn about polar research in three languages.
Receiving a GEO initiative status would offer an opportunity to build on and deepen existing partnerships, as well as develop new collaborations. With climate change rapidly accelerating change in the Arctic, the need for collaborative research is urgent, both as a means of studying the past (through proxies such as ice and sediment cores) and as a way of projecting the future: Arctic sea ice patterns and ice melt have the ability to influence weather patterns around the globe. This rapid response of the Arctic to global climate change is also what makes polar research so interesting to Kassen.
“It’s so interesting in that you can see the global change. You see it and its effects every day … The areas without ice are so huge now; I don’t say big—they are huge.”
Large impacts over a vast geographic region may best be met by sharing resources. Kassen described Germany and Russia’s cooperation in this arena as natural, in a statement that could perhaps sum up many of the cold regions participants of GEO: “They are our neighbors … and of course we should cooperate and talk, and science is maybe the best way of doing this.”
Elise Mulder Osenga is IEEE Earthzine’s senior science writer. She is in St. Petersburg, Russia, covering GEO-XIII.