Universities and higher education institutions as centres of Antarctic research

Scientific work at universities and higher education institutions is one of the pillars of German Antarctic research. It plays a substantial part in exploring key issues regarding Antarctica’s role in the climate system. One example is the question whether the melting of the ice sheets could accelerate irreversibly from a certain point, which would result in a rapid rise in sea levels. Experts at German universities are also investigating the extent to which the Southern Ocean can absorb heat and carbon dioxide, or how the Antarctic ecosystems will change under climate stress. Nowadays researchers at universities and other higher education institutions have excellent networks and engage in interdisciplinary collaboration. For example, eleven delegates represent German university and higher education research on the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), an organisation that initiates, develops and promotes international Antarctic research. In Germany, University Antarctic research is coordinated by the SCAR National Committee, established and supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). The SCAR National Committee consists of delegates from all polar research institutions, scientific disciplines, and relevant federal agencies, thus offering a broad‑based forum for exchange, discussion, and initiatives. To reach a comprehensive picture of the changes in the polar regions requires integrating findings from all disciplines, such as marine, atmosphere and ice sheet research, biology, geosciences, and social sciences.

Special logistics for a harsh climate

Owing to the extreme conditions in the southern polar region, Antarctic research, more than other fields of research, requires specific logistical solutions and a special scientific infrastructure. This includes, for example, the research icebreaker “Polarstern”, as well as polar aircraft and polar stations. This infrastructure is available in particular to researchers from universities and higher education institutions. For instance, with its multidisciplinary Priority Programme 1158, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) promotes Antarctic research by providing funds to university groups for using the logistics and infrastructure of the Alfred-Wegener-Institut (AWI), the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Federal Agency for Cartography and Geodesy. Priority Programme 1158 was launched almost 40 years ago. Since 2010, scientists from 48 German universities and higher education institutions have received support. Until today, 59 projects from university researchers have been funded.

Research and education

Antarctic research at universities and other higher education institutions is important, especially since these are the places where young scientists are trained. Thanks to university research promotion, polar research topics are now an integral part of many degree courses. As a result, a large number of motivated young scientists are highly trained to tackle the expanding tasks of polar research. In addition, university researchers have for many years provided the general public with valuable information about the polar regions – at Children’s Universities, for example, or in adult and senior citizen education. Supported by the German Society of Polar Research, these activities have greatly increased the public awareness and interest in polar research. The results of research activities by German universities and higher education institutions have played a key role in clarifying Antarctica’s role in the Earth system and in arriving at a realistic assessment of climate change. Without this knowledge, it would be impossible for humanity to take necessary mitigating actions in the future.