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Polar research

The Earth’s Poles are some of the most uninhabited and inaccessible regions in the world, but they are largely affected by human activity, and, in return affect global society. Polar regions play a key-role in global climate, they are among the regions most affected by, and responsive to, current climate change. The Arctic has often been described as the canary in the global coal mine as it is warming at roughly twice the rate of the rest of the world [1] and the melting of polar land ice increases sea-level, which will impact most costal societies. The ice sheets that cover Antarctica and Greenland contain enough ice to raise global sea level by 65 m.

Additionally, polar snow and ice reflect sunlight back into space (the albedo effect) which helps to cool the planet, however as temperatures rise and the snow melts, the amount reflected decreases. This is an example of a ‘feedback mechanism’ which increases temperatures more than the sole effect of greenhouse gases. Another climate feedback occurs in areas of permafrost (frozen surface soil or rock), which are mostly found in high latitudes. The thawing of permafrost destabilises the ground and threatens to release large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The Poles provide additional information about the Earth’s past. Drilling ice cores in Antarctica and Greenland give some of the most detailed temperature and atmospheric composition records (up to 800,000 years ago). Understanding past climate can help learn more about present day changes and its implications for the future.

The changing Polar Regions will have an effect on ocean currents, wave formation, biodiversity (through ocean acidification) and how humans use and interact with them (e.g. as sources for energy resources and the impact on shipping routes). It is therefore necessary to research into these effects and increase our understanding that this will have on society.

In a wider context, water effects in the form of natural hazards are extremely damaging to society. In Europe, extreme precipitation events trigger most of the economic losses related to natural hazards [3]. For example, in 2013 losses caused by severe floods were €11.7 billion. Likewise, exceptionally dry and warm conditions can have catastrophic consequences – in 2003 economic losses mounted up to €13 billion [4]. Throughout the 21st Century the effects of climate change will be increasingly felt. Effects like increased droughts and more extreme precipitation events will require adaptive strategies to ensure sustainable water management can be achieved.

Current EU Policy

In 2014 the European Commission was requested to develop a new policy proposal for the Arctic. The proposed framework was adopted in April 2016. Its primary objectives are to “step up its existing action and engagement in the region with 39 actions focussing on climate change, environmental protection, sustainable development and international cooperation. The particular importance of research, science and innovation is reflected across these priority areas.” [2]

Although not an original EU policy, the Antarctic Treaty has been signed by many EU member states. The main objectives of this treaty are to:

Future challenges

EGU polar research areas

Recent EGU papers



With special thanks to Sophie Berger, researcher at the Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium, Dr Jürg Schweizer, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, Switzerland, and Professor Jonathan Bamber, Principle Investigator at the University of Bristol, for drafting this webpage.

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