Asst. Prof. Robert Bialik
PAS Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics
Robert Bialik, PhD, DSc, is head of the Department of Antarctic Biology at the PAS Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics and Poland’s representative to two international organizations: the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting/Committee for Environmental Protection (ATCM/CEP).
■ Name ■
The "Henryk Arctowski" Polish Antarctic Station
■ Location ■
Admiralty Bay on King George Island in the South Shetland Archipelago
■ Date of founding ■
■ Owner ■
PAS Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics
ACADEMIA: The United States, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Australia – these countries are scientifically active in the Antarctic, just like Poland. What did we do to deserve a place in this group? Is Poland a polar power?
ROBERT BIALIK: From the perspective of investments in science, we obviously can’t compare ourselves to such giants as the United States and Norway, not to mention Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, which has the British Antarctic Survey, the largest organization that conducts research in the Antarctic, and the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. Those are powerful countries that have a huge infrastructure and employ thousands of people. However, we also have polar stations, both in the north and in the south, which gives us a major advantage, because we can conduct comparative research. What did we do to deserve that? The Arctowski Station was established in 1977. We all know what system of government we had in Poland back then, we know that the Soviet Union was a powerful country that treated us as a satellite state. In an attempt to expand their sphere of influence, the Russians handed over the Dobrowolski Station to Poland. It was not used actively on a yearly basis, but it was needed for access to the marine food resources.
“Krill to feed Poland?”
That essentially was the idea. But it works best as a source of protein for farmed salmon. In addition to conducting scientific research, the Arctowski Station was supposed to provide logistic support for krill fishing vessels. Personally, I believe that what happened back then was phenomenal. Building an entire village with its own infrastructure – a power station, fuel storage facilities, cooling chambers, and warehouses – took just two months. Two hangars were built that are still used as storage facilities. These days, whoever works with helicopters in the region of the South Shetland Islands are the winners, because they have the logistics. Poland was one of those countries during the 3rd and 4th Antarctic Expedition, which means in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For the first years, we had pilots, mechanics, and maintenance. Back then, Poland was a powerful player in terms of logistic support for scientific research.
So what happened?
The system of government changed and the economy collapsed. The world started to wonder if the Antarctic marine resources were not being over-exploited. Consequently, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was established in 1982, and it started to regulate the catches of the Antarctic krill and the Antarctic toothfish, a type of fish living in the waters surrounding the Antarctic. At the same time, the Polish fleet, adjusted to the requirements set for the vessels in that region, became outdated, and there was no money for new vessels.
The krill dream came to an end, but the station remained in place.
Exactly. Its location was scientifically the best choice that could be made. When you go into the jungle, you can hear animals. Here, when you leave, you can see 10,000 animals. Three penguin species nesting close to the station (the Adélie penguin, the gentoo penguin, and the chinstrap penguin), elephant seals, Weddell seals, leopard seals, and Antarctic fur seals. We should also remember about two penguin species that visit the station area from time to time, namely the king penguin and the macaroni penguin. They can be found in the Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPA). You can’t just start your research there, bring your equipment, say a drilling rig, and make noise. You can’t conduct any invasive activities. Expeditions to the region are monitored. Poland manages two such areas, namely ASPA 128 and ASPA 151. Close to the station, there is an area called the Jasnorzewski Gardens, one of the largest marine wetlands in the whole of the Antarctic region. Some sources say it dates back around 5,000 years. You can’t even walk there, because every impression your step makes stays there for years. Others envy us for this.
- Photo: Jakub Ostałowski
What scientific opportunities does that offer?
Our strength lies in ecology. Things have looked so from the very beginning. Back in the 1980s, those who worked there, aside from the staff from the Department of Antarctic Biology, included a team from the University of Łódź whose members included Prof. Krzysztof Jażdżewski and Prof. Jacek Siciński. The materials collected back then are still used as a basis for PhD and DSc (habilitacja) dissertations. Today, there is not enough taxa, whereas we have discovered many new species. There are the studies of Prof. Wojciech Majewski from the PAS Institute of Paleobiology, who collected core samples and determined the age of new organisms. There is the work of Prof. Maria Olech’s team, appreciated by the SCAR this year. There’ve been plenty of studies, especially in the field of biology, because that was the scientific profile that the station adopted as a result of the presence of numerous organisms, and – despite the fact that the Antarctic climate is that of barren deserts – a wide variety of mosses and lichens.
From the outset, the station has observed indicator species such as penguins. Dr. Małgorzata Korczak-Abshire was entrusted with the task of developing these observations by the previous head. As a result of her work, the database that was created as a result of the counting of species and the population of the animals that are found there (pinnipeds, penguins, and birds such as the south polar skua and the southern giant petrel) became so extensive that it attracted the interest of the international community. We started to conduct observations of krill-dependent indicator species, including the Adélie penguin. After the economic crisis in the United States, when the Americans decided to limit the observations in the region of the Copacabana Station, located in the vicinity of the Arctowski Station, we began to continue those studies. Over the past 10 years, we have also monitored indicator species at Lions Rump, King George Bay. In 2014, the CCAMLR decided it was one of its main observation points. Three years ago, a Polish-Norwegian consortium led by the PAS Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics in collaboration with the Warsaw University of Technology, the Northern Research Institute in Tromsø, and other institutions, was given the Project MONICA (“A novel approach to monitoring the impact of climate change on Antarctic ecosystems”), whose purpose was to use new technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to conduct monitoring. Photographs taken by the aircraft allowed us to estimate the size of the population of penguins and pinnipeds as well as to map plant communities. Of course, such actions improve research to a great degree, but they are not sufficient. People must be present there, because you can’t establish the weight and number of the eggs or the weight of the chicks from an aircraft. Aside from that, an aircraft does not work without interruptions. That’s what we can boast about: the Project MONICA and ecological monitoring.
Is that enough to ensure the station’s maintenance?
No. When I was appointed head of the Department of Antarctic Biology two years ago, I decided it was necessary to conduct projects also from other disciplines. For example, we launched projects in glaciology and climate science. The glaciers in the Antarctic are the same as those on Spitsbergen, or even larger, and the climate is very similar, so it’s natural that we conduct comparative research. This year, we also have prominent ornithologists: Prof. Dariusz Jakubas’s team from the University of Gdańsk, which studies two species of small birds from the family Oceanitidae. We’ve started collaboration with Prof. Żaneta Polkowska from the Gdańsk University of Technology in the hydrochemical study of watercourses. We’ve started monitoring glacial meltwater to see how it shapes the moraines. Also, there are analyses of the impact of the station on the environment, and the results are favorable for us. Over these 40 years, however, we have also made some blunders. A type of grass called Poa annua, a highly invasive species, was accidently brought to the station – either from Poland or from South America, we don’t know. For now, we are trying to remove it and burn it, but we have a botanical project aimed at eradication. Analyses of the speed of coastline changes conducted by scientists from the University of Wrocław are also directly useful to us. The most important problem we face is caused by the fact that when the main building of the station was erected, it was more than 10 meters away from the coastline. Today, the distance is only 1.5 meter.
Is it all possible to move the buildings?
Only the British have such modern buildings that could be moved, if need be. For example, that’s what happened to the research station Halley VI this year. But we will probably never have the money to afford this solution. Aside from that, this method can only be used on ice. The Arctowski Station is situated on normal soil. The only way is to build a new station elsewhere.
Should we do that immediately?
Yes, because every storm is dangerous. Five years ago, there was such a strong storm that the winter-over expeditioners reinforced the coastline with concrete slabs. We realize this was done against the landscape conservation rules, but that was the only thing that allowed them to survive. Fortunately, things have been very peaceful since then. This year, however, we can expect unfavorable winds. The waves are already crashing against the windows of the room of the chief of the winter-over expedition. So the station is directly under threat, and action is needed immediately.
Who should take such action?
The Arctowski Station is supervised by the PAS Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics, whose statutory activity is financed from the funds of the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education. For that reason, we file relevant applications. Last year’s application was rejected. As for this year, there is no decision yet. However, we fear we will not get the money. The costs are enormous.
What does this mean?
Around 100 million zlotys, which is a lot for a single ministry. Various ministries are involved in the Antarctic affairs, including the Ministry of the Maritime Economy and Inland Navigation, which represents Poland in the CCAMLR, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is responsible for the Antarctic Treaty meetings. If they could participate in the costs, things would be much easier. However, the only ministry that can finance scientific infrastructure is the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. The only hope is that decisions will be made at the level of the government.
So if that sum of 100 million were found, then…
Then we have a design ready for a new Arctowski station, as a single, three-story building. Of the kind that houses other modern stations.
At this point the station is fragmented?
There is a main research building, which also has a dining room, kitchen, and rooms for the 14-member over-winter group. There is a “Meteo” building where weather observations were previously done, and now is where the head of the Department of Antarctic Biology customarily lives when at the station. Scientists make use of three houses with two-, three-, and four-person rooms without any conveniences, only beds and electricity, situated about 200 m from the station, but allowing for normal life and work. Everyone comes to the main building for meals. That arrangement is problematic, at the very least because of the wind. Such weather is only possible in Antarctica: sunshine, a blue sky, and wind of 100 km an hour for a week. One can barely open the door, walking 100 m takes some 15 minutes, and large-sized pebbles are flying around at the level of your knees.
Despite everything, I myself, and probably also my colleagues, will miss the main building of the station. Perhaps it can be preserved at least in part, as a museum. The part that is a unique mess hall can be separated, because it is composed of containers.
That means it is light. Erecting a large building in difficult terrain is an additional challenge?
Yes, that’s why last year the PAS Institute of Biochemistry and Biophysics also invested in the work of a team partially consisting of scientists from the Faculty of Geology at the University of Warsaw, which studied the soil some 200 m from the coastline. In subsequent steps we have to evaluate the environmental impact and secure permission for the construction. We should receive it, because the main justification is that there is a risk of catastrophe, and our people have to be safe.
How much does the station cost to maintain per year?
Our annual subsidies amount to 6 million zlotys. And that suffices to maintain ongoing operations. However, logistics are really expensive. Just hiring a ship entails huge expenses, and travelling from Gdynia to our island takes around 42 days each way. Fortunately, every year the call for bids is answered by a ship that is going to Antarctica anyway, so it takes our people and cargo with it essentially on the way. Increased subsidies would secure the functioning of the station, but it would also enable it to be adapted to facilitate top-notch research.
What does the station give back to Poland, to make spending such sums of money worth it?
Firstly, maintaining our presence on the continent, and the ability to have a hand in decisions there, should be part of Poland’s state interests and the Arctowski station allow us to do so. Aside from that, we truly are a kind of Polish embassy in the Antarctic. We are visited by guests from various countries and we try to greet them with the highest honors, we have the national flags of all the countries working in the Antarctic, to hang on the mast outside the entranceway to the main building. This is scientific diplomacy. Secondly, polar research raises Poland’s prestige in the international arena. Especially the ones that attract a lot of publicity.
With the ability to conduct direct observations, we can report that over the past 5 years there has been a local climate cooling and a noticeable slowing in the process of deglaciation, at least during the Antarctic summer. Many scientists conclude that things are nevertheless warming and that we have to curb CO2 emissions, which is of course hard to debate. But a discussion is starting in which we can say: we have additional information and our voice is starting to be important. About how what is happening at the poles is not a question of climate, but of certain other factors. And about the consequences of the phenomenon. A second example: this year we noted that seals were starting to die – over the course of a week, we were finding one body after another, 8 of them all told. If we had not been there, we would know nothing about it. Now our National Veterinary Research Institute. This happens year after year, all thanks to the fact that we can observe anomalies there. Our monitoring is valuable in and of itself, because it has been underway for 40 years now. Few countries possess such long-term data.
What interests you personally the most in the Antarctic?
Hydrology, of course.
But there are no big rivers there.
No, but the small streams that flow out of the glaciers are even more amazing. If one sees that a stream has appeared in a place where there was not one a year ago, I can work out how things once must have happened in Poland and predict changes in the future. For example, the transport of river debris. In Poland we have the Vistula River, which transports so much material that it is immeasurable. There is so much of it that we cannot evaluate the quantity. Models are fashioned, but it is only in the Antarctic, on this small scale, that it turns out we can verify them. Of course someone might say: why don’t you verify them in the Tatra Mountains in Poland? Because there we have already formed postglacial streams and washed-out moraines. We also have floods in Poland. When the water recedes, a lot of rubble remains. But again we don’t know how much. There, we can evaluate it. In other words, without intervening in nature, we can observe things that be naturally adapted to the environmental landscape back here in Poland. There are many such topics.
In other words, Antarctica is the world in miniature?
Yes, a natural laboratory. A wealth of potential topics to study, and a major brand of its own.
Interview by Anna Zawadzka and Katarzyna Czarnecka
- Design for a new Arctowski Station. Photo: Kuryłowicz & Associates
- Dr. Michał Pętlicki doing glacier-scanning work. Photo: Leszek Krzemień
- Dr. Mateusz Strzelecki hard at work at the Arctowski Station. Photo: prof. Grzegorz Rachlewicz
© Academia special edition 1/3/2017