Mendel’s contribution to polar science | Polar Jobs

Mendel’s contribution to polar science

Ole Ellekrog | 7 February 2024

The work being done at Mendel Polar Station sheds light on the past. That could help us understand our future

Czech scientists working with an ATV in the field near James Ross Island (? Czech Antarctic Programme)

On the continent of Antarctica, there are around 70 research stations operated by 29 different countries. They vary in size, but each one of them is contributing, in its own way, to the corpus of scientific knowledge.

With that many stations in operation, the question would seem to be whether there enough discoveries to be made to warrant them all? In the case of Mendel Polar Station, the Czech Antarctic base, the answer would seem to be “yes”.

“We have made many individual discoveries, but our most important achievement is the continuous monitoring of the Antarctic environment,” Daniel Nývelt, head of the Czech Antarctic Programme, tells Polar Journal.

“This provides data to the Antarctic community, and, since we have the only station on James Ross Island, it adds a piece to the puzzle of the entire continent.”

Glacial melt has been occurring longer on James Ross Island than most other places in Antarctica. Still, even in summer, snow can be found there (? Czech Antarctic Programme)

Various types of scientists conduct research at Mendel Polar Station: palaeoclimatologist, palaeontologists, climatologists and glaciologists, to name just a few.

And, even though the individual discoveries are secondary, Dr Nývelt agrees to name a few that he is proud of.

Fossilised sponges
Scattered around James Ross Island, where Mendel Station is located, many strange fossils can be found. For a long time, before the Czechs arrived on the island, these fossils had been known but identified incorrectly.

Some of the fossils were stored in an archive of the British Antarctic Survey, so before starting field work on the island, one Czech palaeontologist went to study them.

“Sponges are very ugly organisms, which are very opportunistic and do not change over time, and when this guy discovered these ugly fossils in the archive he went and asked: ‘What the hell is that?’”

Lots of data are collected during the Antarctic summer, when Mendel Polar Station is in operation (? Czech Antarctic Programme)

The British geologists didn’t know what they were, but Radek Vodrážka, who was a specialist in sponges, recognised them immediately.

And just like that, the first sponges on Antarctica were officially discovered in a British archive. Soon, when he went to James Ross Island himself, the Czech palaeontologist found hundreds of others.

This provided an invaluable glimpse into what Antarctica was like millions of years ago when the planet was warmer, and more species were able to live on the continent.

Glacial water caused local cooling
The second discovery Dr Nývelt mentions started as a mystery.

When the Czechs went to James Ross Island, they noticed that some glaciers were growing. This phenomenon, which mainly took place between 2009 and 2015, would seem to contradict global warming.

But, the Czech researchers, along with British and Spanish researchers, helped discover a particular reason why it did not.

“For a short period of time before 2009, the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet produced a lot of fresh water. This fresh water freezes at a higher temperature and so it creates a lid on the salty ocean, which caused it to freeze earlier and expand more,” Dr Nývelt says.

Mendel Polar Station seen from afar (? Czech Antarctic Programme)

The expanding sea ice, in turn, caused the atmosphere above Antarctica to be colder and the local glaciers to expand. However, in 2016 came a particularly warm year, and the cooling was again reversed, making the Antarctic warming correspond to the one observed in the Arctic.

But the discovery remains important; it shows why short-term cooling events can be consistent with a long-term warming of the planet.

Extreme glacial melting

The third discovery has yet to be published.

The Czech team has noted considerable melting of the glaciers on James Ross Island. This loss started in 2016, then accelerated in 2019, before, in 2022, a loss of more than two meters of ice was registered; more than five times as much as previous years.

“We know this kind of loss from Svalbard and the Arctic where it happened 15 years ago but we never thought it would happen so soon in Antarctica,” Dr Nývelt says.

Daniel Nývelt shows off one of the latest results from the Czech Antarctic Programme, a study showing massive ice loss on local glaciers (? Ole Ellekrog)

The rapid increase in glacial melt also means a decrease of albedo, a term describing the amount of sunlight reflected from the surface of the Earth. This, again, will lead to more warming of the Antarctic continent.

“When we started at James Ross Island 15 years ago, our first paper predicted that the glaciers would survive for 150 to 200 years. But with the new data, they will only last 30 years. This is a very rapid change, and it may get even worse,” Dr Nývelt says.

Past, present, future
The examples above are just three of many discoveries made at Mendel Polar Station. And, although some of these truths are inconvenient, they are vital in helping humanity understand how the climate is going to change.

Moreover, they highlight the wide variety of work being done at just a single Antarctic station.

“These discoveries,” Dr Nývelt says, “show how we work both with shedding light on the past, on observing and measuring the present, and on predicting future changes.”

Originally published by Polar Journal.

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