Climate Change Brings New Opportunities to Estonian Polar Research


“One never really gets used to the cold,” says the renowned Estonian polar lake researcher Dr Enn Kaup from the Institute of Geology at the Tallinn University of Technology. Kaup has been on nine Antarctic expeditions and lived in the Antarctic for three years. His recent research focuses on how ecological systems react to polar conditions and how both climate change and human activity affect them. Still, one of his brightest memories is about discovering the lake with the clearest water in the world, Untersee in the Antarctic. “No other lake is as transparent, you could see 77 meters deep,” he notes.

Yet, Kaup is not the only polar researcher in Estonia. Although Estonia and polar research might sound incompatible at first, as Estonia has limited research capacity, this small country has been unusually active in polar research throughout its history. It is worth noting that several pioneers of polar exploration were Estonian Baltic Germans (e.g., Bellingshausen, Baer, Wrangell, Middendorff, Toll). Together with Soviet scientists Estonian researchers have been exploring the Arctic regions since the 1970s and they have participated in Norwegian expeditions during the past 15 years. Similarly, they have been active in the Antarctic since the International Geophysical Year of 1957–1958, first with Soviet scientists but in recent decades with a few other countries. Now researchers are waiting for funding decisions to be made about new projects.

“Money is always the key issue, as it’s a very expensive area to study,” says professor Rein Vaikmäe, chair of the Estonian Polar Research Commission. Still, both he and Dr Kaup are optimistic about the future because if there are positive sides to climate change then the rising importance of polar research is one of them. “The Antarctic and Arctic are the key regions for finding secrets that would help to explain climate change. These areas are the most sensitive to climate change and ice acts as a historical almanac that shows the way climate has changed over the years,” explains Vaikmäe. As his own research focuses on paleoclimate studies, and he examines different time periods “stored” in ice cores, Vaikmäe is excited about one of the biggest future EU research projects—Beyond EPICA—, which aims to drill ice from locations where it retains evidence of more than a million years of climate change.

Despite ongoing financial issues, Estonia is raising another generation of polar researchers. One of them, the young scientist and traveller Timo Palo, is both a researcher and adventurer. He also holds a Guinness world record for his 2012 unsupported expedition from the North Pole to Longyearbyen in Svalbard.

Enn Kaup instructing Indian post-graduate students in ice drilling on an Antarctic lake. Photo by Enn Kaup
Enn Kaup instructing Indian post-graduate students in ice drilling on an Antarctic lake. Photo by Enn Kaup

Although Estonian polar research has been mainly focusing on the fundamentals so far, interdisciplinary research is getting more and more important in polar areas, as the Arctic particularly attracts many economic opportunities. It will not be long until we see ships navigating in that very region, so winter navigation rules and ice breaking facilities should be developed and implemented. Right now, Estonia is among the nine countries in the world that break ice every year to ensure access to harbours. Polar shipping and ice breaking studies will become even more topical as Estonia is going to build a multipurpose icebreaker that is to be used outside the Baltic States as well.

Still, it is wrong to consider polar research the playing field of Nordic countries only according to Professor Vaikmäe: “There is a lot of cooperation all over the world: countries like Poland, Spain and Portugal are very active in those areas because climate change affects all of us.”

However, because Russia owns or shares borders with a vast proportion of the Arctic, geopolitical issues have always played a big part in polar research, both now and in the past. As most of the Russian Arctic was closed to foreign scientists, it has been less extensively studied than other regions. The area is also controversial in terms of the history of glaciations and corresponding environmental changes compared to the other Arctic regions. The situation improved greatly after the collapse of the Soviet Union but has again worsened in recent years.

“Working there is getting increasingly more expensive and the cooperation with Russian scientists is more difficult due to the isolation politics,” explains Vaikmäe. “Yet, we still have good relations with our Russian colleagues who are trying to overcome these issues,” he adds.

According to Kaup, a lot has changed since he started with polar research in the 1970s. “It took us months to even get there, not to mention endless walking with heavy equipment. Nowadays we often fly planes or helicopters, it saves a lot of time,“ he explains. What is more, living conditions in the cold have improved: “Let me just quote a log from the Australian research station: “Even my grandma would have loved it here, she could have managed just fine, and the only help she would have needed would have been for getting from the ship into the boat to get here.“

This article was supported by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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