Antarctica is a nature reserve dedicated to peace and scientific research. 29 signatory states to the Antarctic Treaty, including Germany, work in close and continuous cooperation in science in the perpetual ice. Their research covers a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from climate research to marine biology.
Research is the main human activity in Antarctica. It focuses on current issues in climatology and meteorology (climate change), glaciology, oceanography, geosciences, marine biology, sedimentology/seismology and other disciplines. Exploration of the sensitive and still little known Antarctic ecosystem is an important international endeavour. 29 Consultative Parties currently maintain 80 research stations on the continent, about half of which are manned year-round, and the rest are operated only in the summer season. Argentina was the first country to operate a year-round station back in 1904 on the South Orkney Islands at the northernmost tip of Antarctica. It took nearly 50 more years before other countries had their own stations. Many of the early research stations were located on the South Shetland Islands, a group of islands off the Antarctic Peninsula only some 900 kilometres from the tip of South America which is relatively easy and quick to reach by ship (or aeroplane nowadays). The region still has the highest number of stations in Antarctica today. For a detailed list of the research stations go the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs - COMNAP).
German research in Antarctica
The Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) was founded in 1980 in Bremerhaven. The AWI conducts research in the Arctic, Antarctica and in the high and temperate latitude oceans. It is the central excellence centre for German polar research. Other German institutes are involved in research within the scope of their activities (see below under "Other Organizations and Institutions "). The AWI provides the basic infrastructure for German researchers and in the framework of international cooperation. It deploys the national ice breaker vessel Polarstern for scientific expeditions and logistical supply trips. The AWI is responsible for the operation of the polar research stations in the Arctic and Antarctica.
The Neumayer stations over the years
Germany has conducted year-round research in Antarctica since 1981. Its first station, "Georg von Neumayer″, named after the major 19th century proponent of German research at the South Pole (1826-1909), was located northeast of the Weddell Sea on the Ekström Ice Shelf. Due to ice movements and the ever increasing snow load on its cylindrical structure the station was shut down according to plan and deconstructed, only to be replaced in March 1992 by a similar new station, the Neumayer II, located ten kilometres away. The Neumayer station serves as the logistics base for summer expeditions and year-round as a scientific observatory for geophysics, meteorology and air chemistry. The Neumayer Station II was vacated as scheduled in 2008 and replaced by a new structure.
The new Neumayer III station, located only a few kilometres south of its predecessor, started operations on 20 February 2009 and is a multi-purpose building for research, operation and living on a platform above the snow surface and connected with a garage built in the snow. One of the new station's distinctive features is its ability to compensate for snowfall and ice buildup with hydraulic lifting gear, without burying parts of the structure in the snow below. Its total weight of 2.300 t is distributed among 16 foundation plates. Before the entire station is moved, hydraulic supports raise each of the plates and new snow is filled underneath. Although the new station is much larger than the previous one and the heated area has nearly doubled, it consumes less than half the energy.
The German Environment Agency authorised the Neumayer Station III in October 2005, following a comprehensive environmental impact assessment by an international team.
Other German stations
The AWI set up the Kohnen station 2001 as part of the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA). The station is named after Heinz Kohnen (1938-1997), longstanding head of the logistics department at AWI. The station serves as a logistical base for ice-core drilling during the Antarctic summer. The collected ice cores from the Kohnen station supply comprehensive data on the changes in the Earth’s climate and atmosphere over the past 215,000 years, which are attributable to greenhouse gases, aerosols and cosmogenic radionuclides.
In cooperation with the Argentine Instituto Antártico Argentino (IAA), the AWI has also operated the Dallmann Laboratory on King George Island (South Shetland Islands) since 1993. The laboratory is named after the German discoverer and polar researcher Eduard Dallmann (1830-1896). The laboratory is a part of the Argentine Carlini station in Antarctica. The Netherlands played a significant role in the station’s history by providing the sewage treatment plant, a significant feature of the entire station. Cooperation reduces costs and puts less of a burden on the environment than two separate self-sustaining stations. This first research location in Antarctica to be jointly operated by two countries provides accommodation and a workplace during the austral summer for up to twelve scientists in the fields of biology, geology and geography in one of the few ice-free regions in Antarctica. Here it is possible to do research on land and coastal organisms, including algae, or marine animals in aquariums and to carry out diving expeditions.
Research activity in Antarctica also does put a strain on the environment. As the number of research stations increases so do flight, ship and vehicle activity for the purpose of passenger transport and logistics as well as the danger of potential (oil spill) accidents. Emissions to the air (waste gases), soil (waste), ice and ocean (sewage) are also on the rise. Furthermore shipping traffic and seismic testing add to the sound emissions in the Antarctic Ocean.
The impact of climate change will be felt more strongly in the future – and in Germany too. This is the conclusion reached in what is called the vulnerability analysis, a comprehensive study on Germany's vulnerability to climate change.