Masaryk University's Polar Research in Antarctica
Thanks to the extreme climate and severe living conditions, the Earth's southernmost continent is almost exclusively populated by research teams manning polar stations established and operated by individual countries. Researchers must brave the Antarctic weather, including subzero temperatures, extreme winds and omnipresent ice. They are frequently locked in at their stations for weeks on end with no choice but to wait for conditions to improve in order to be able to continue their work or return home safely. Researchers must also ensure that any environmental impact on the near-pristine Antarctic ecosystem is kept to a minimum.
Masaryk University has been operating a Czech polar station in Antarctica since 2006. The station bears the name of Johann Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics and an avid climatologist. It is currently the only polar station in the world independently operated by a university.
Czech Polar Research and the Antarctic Research Station
Czech polar research takes place primarily at the J. G. Mendel polar station on James Ross Island east of the Antarctic Peninsula (63°48'S, 57°53'W). For most of the southern hemisphere's summer, the station is home to research teams from Masaryk University and other Czech institutions, e.g. the University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice. In addition, visits by guest researchers from other European universities are becoming increasingly common. Research activities are supported by the following institutions: Masaryk University, Ministry of Education of the Czech Republic, Czech Science Foundation and European Science Foundation.
Research conducted at the station is carried out in collaboration with international partners and focuses primarily on spatial and temporal climate variability and its impact on polar ecosystems. Scientists monitor the speed of retreating glaciers and permafrost change and study extreme doses of UV radiation associated with the depletion of the ozone layer and the state of the atmosphere. Biologists focus on the impact of climate change on the structure and function of Antarctic ecosystems and their autotrophic components. Key research areas include the long-term monitoring of photosynthetic and production activity of Antarctic mosses and lichens as well as studies of the microclimate found in their habitats.
In addition, Czech scientific activities focus on the mechanisms facilitating the survival of algae and cyanobacteria in extremely cold conditions. Polar explorers are also studying the biodiversity of microbiological communities such as microfungal and bacterial biofilms, especially since similar organisms may be expected to exist on neighbouring planets. Studies focusing on the biodiversity of autotrophic components of polar terrestrial ecosystems target organisms living in freshwater lakes of varying types and ages and in wet substrates.
Zoological research focuses primarily on marine fish parasitology and bird nesting ecology on James Ross Island. While the former aims to decipher the interspecies relationships and life strategies of marine benthic organisms, the latter focuses on how birds (especially skuas, terns and petrels) adapt to the environment in terms of food, climate variability and sea ice extent.
Johann Gregor Mendel Station
The Masaryk University research station, erected on James Ross Island east of the Antarctic Peninsula in 2005 and 2006, bears the name of Johann Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics and a pioneer of meteorology. Seasonal operations are limited to the southern hemisphere's summer period, i.e. December to March. The station is manned by scientists from a wide range of fields including climatology, botany, plant physiology, glaciology, palaeontology, parasitology, ornithology, geology, microbiology and geomorphology. All researchers live and work together under one roof or else spend time in tents out in the field.
In addition to the main accommodation building, the station consists of nine technical and storage containers housing three motorboats, a half-track vehicle, a waste incinerator, electric generators and a switch room.
In early 2013, the station's capacity was increased to a total of 20 persons. Non-scientific crew members include a doctor and a technical support team. The Czech research station is located off the main shipping and tourist vessel routes in the Antarctic Peninsula area. Furthermore, since it has no airstrip, all expeditions are forced to rely solely on supplies delivered along with research and expedition teams. Weather is a key factor influencing research, station life, and – in particular – polar transportation. Seasoned Antarctic explorers are well acquainted with the many kinds of transportation issues caused by extreme weather conditions. Logistics are usually handled in collaboration with the Chilean Navy or the Argentine Air Force, which is tasked with servicing the station's nearest neighbour – Marambio Base, located eighty kilometres away on remote Seymour Island. Up-to-date information about individual expeditions and participants may be found at http://polar.sci.muni.cz.
Student Participation in Polar Projects
Students of the Faculty of Science of Masaryk University may enrol in courses focusing on polar regions. The latest Arctic and Antarctic research findings are presented in the following courses: Polar Ecology, Geography of Polar Regions and Plant Polar Biology. The Polar Ecology field course, held annually in collaboration with the University of South Bohemia in the Svalbard Archipelago, is an extension of these theoretical courses. In addition to studies and field courses, students may focus on a variety of specialized problems when preparing their Bachelor's, Master's and doctoral dissertations, especially at Faculty of Science units such as the Department of Geography, Department of Experimental Biology, Department of Botany and Zoology and Department of Chemistry.
Student theses thus tackle e.g. the processing of climate data collected by automated weather stations, laboratory experiments examining the survival mechanisms of extremophile organisms or the parasitology of selected polar marine animals. Studies dealing with stress physiology are conducted at the Extreme Environment Laboratory (EEL) of the Faculty of Science, which is part of the CzechPolar project framework.
The global importance of polar research has increased dramatically in recent years; Masaryk University is a proud member of this scientific community. Established and operated by Masaryk University with the support of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports of the Czech Republic, the Czech polar station is one of the five most recently erected facilities in the Antarctic area. Throughout the next several scientific seasons, the CzechPolar project, i.e. Czech Polar Stations: Construction and Management (LM2010009), will focus on the completion of the station, its continuous development and all necessary repairs. The project is scheduled to continue until 2015.
In the near future, station capacity is scheduled to expand from 15 to 20 persons; additional changes will include the installation of a drinking water treatment and storage container and new solar panels. Wind turbine assembly renovations are also being planned. Future international scientific collaborations will likely focus on areas including geochemical and limnological research. Upcoming expedition seasons are expected to feature joint projects with researchers from the United Kingdom and Belgium. Research conducted at the J. G. Mendel polar station will thus engage top experts from various fields and countries.
A major turning point in Czech scientific, technical and logistical activities in Antarctica took place in 2013: on May 29, the Czech Republic was granted consultative status as a state party to the Antarctic Treaty. This statutory change was made possible thanks to the involvement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.