Cutting-edge research far from home

Totalling almost 14,000 kilometres, the distance from Berlin to the Neumayer III Antarctic research station is roughly the same as the distance from New York to Beijing via Berlin. But Antarctica is much closer to Germany than it might seem. Shifts in the Antarctic climate have consequences for the climate around the world. In Europe too, we notice the changes directly. If parts of the Antarctic ice cap melt, it would trigger a rise in sea-level affecting all European coastlines. Polar research is playing a key role in understanding historic climate shifts and improving prognoses on future climate change. That is why Germany, one of the 29 Consultative Parties to the Antarctic Treaty, has been conducting intensive research in Antarctica for many decades.

East Germany was there first

From 1959 onwards, East German researchers took part regularly as guest scientists on Soviet Antarctic expeditions. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) acceded the Antarctic Treaty in 1974 and two years later, the first all-year German research station “Georg-Forster”, named after the first German to set foot on Antarctic soil in 1775 in South Georgia, was opened with logistical support by a Soviet research base in the Schirmacher Oasis. Here, East German scientists carried many field missions and research programmes to study Antarctic meteorology, geology and biology. After the German reunification, East and West German research programmes were synergistically combined with the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for- Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR). The Georg Foster station itself was dismantled in the early 1990s and today only a protected, commemorative plague remains of the first German station in Antarctica.

The central hub of German polar research

The founding of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven in 1980 was a huge step forward for German polar research. Ever since, the AWI coordinates and facilitates German polar research activities. Once the original Neumayer research station was completed in 1981, researchers were able to spend the winter on the ice in Antarctica. Since 2009, AWI is operating the Neumayer Station III which, like its predecessors, was named after Georg von Neumayer (1826-1909), a major champion of German South Polar research in the 19th century. The AWI also uses the German research ice-breaker Polarstern for marine research expeditions and to transport supplies.

The world’s oldest ice core

One of the most interesting international Antarctica projects in which Germany is currently involved is the project “Beyond EPICA – Oldest Ice” (BE-OI), which can be seen as a follow-up to the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA), which took place from 1999-2008. The project aims to drill through the Earth’s oldest ice core. Research to date indicates that this core could be up 1.5 million years old. The ice contains air that was frozen within the ice and preserved to this day. When the ice melts, measurements can be done to reveal the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere back then — as well as data on the climate at the time. Beyond EPICA should help to solve a riddle. Having analysed sediment from the seabed, experts know today that there was a shift in the rhythm between warm and glacial periods between 900,000 and 1,200,000 years ago. Prior to this time, warm and glacial periods switched around every 40,000 years. Since then, each period has lasted some 100,000 years. Sediment cores from the sea do not contain gases so it remains unclear how the atmosphere changed at that time. This is precisely the data that BE-OI is to provide. The BE-OI team also hopes to be able to make predictions about future changes to the climate. Ice and climate scientists from 14 institutions from ten European countries are working on the EU project which is coordinated by the AWI.

Understanding the passing of continents

The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) is one of the German institutions active in Antarctica. It operates the Gondwana Station at Terra Nova Bay in the Ross Sea which was upgraded with new environmental technology in 2016 and is used primarily for terrestrial geological and geophysical work. For over forty years now, the BGR has been engaged in long-term research programmes. The work focuses on eastern Antarctica and the Ross Sea region bordering on western Antarctica. Questions regarding structure, make-up and historical development of the continent of Antarctica are of particular interest. Fundamental geodynamic processes play a role here which have, for example, led to the emergence and disappearance of super continents such as Gondwana or Rodinia millions of years ago. For some 70 million years, the continent of Antarctica has been situated in an isolated position at the South Pole, a fact which reveals incredible staying power given the dynamic of plate tectonic processes. At one stage, the continent was at the centre of Gondwana and its predecessor the super continent Rodinia. But then the land drifted away bit by bit. To understand Antarctica’s role in the Earth system and the dynamic processes that led to the emergence of modern Antarctica, it is incredibly important to shed light on its geological history. The BGR has thus operated the geological research programme GANOVEX (German Antarctica North Victoria Land Expedition) since 1979. Fourteen expeditions to this region have been undertaken to date.

Radar data and astronaut food

The German Aerospace Center (DLR) is also active in Antarctica. Together with the Federal Agency for Cartography and Geodesy, it maintains a station that operates all year round: the radar station GARS O’Higgins at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. This station receives data from the German earth observation satellite TerraSAR-X and the German radar satellite TanDEM-X. Both provide important data on ice coverage and ice spread in the polar regions. Up until 2019, the DLR also ran the EDEN ISS project at the Neumayer Station III. This included containers in which vegetables are grown under artificial light and in a nutrient solution instead of topsoil. During the project, tests were conducted on cultivating higher plants for future space stations, for example on Mars. Such facilities could in future not only supply foodstuffs but could also be used to reduce the carbon dioxide concentration in the stations, to produce oxygen, to reprocess water and to manage waste. The plants on board could also had a positive impact on the psychological welfare of the crew. The project officially ended in 2019 but the AWI and the DLR want to continue operating the facilities in the future — not least to provide supplies for researchers at the Neumayer Station.