Polar research is a hot topic for Swiss scientists

The North Pole is partially covered by open water in the wake of global warming. Keystone / AP Photo / New York Times / Malcom C. Kenna

Few people in Switzerland are aware that Swiss scientists have long been studying the polar icecaps. A symposium, which takes place in Winterthur on Thursday, aims to change all that.

This content was published on October 11, 2000 minutes

Polar research may leave the general public cold or at least raise the question: why is land-locked Switzerland involved in such research at all?

The Swiss Committee on Polar Research is holding a symposium with the aim of answering that question and explaining more about the work of Switzerland's scientists.

The disciplines represented at the symposium include climatology, geology, geography and anthropology, and presentations will explore topics such as human adaptation to Arctic conditions, the reaction of tundra flora to experimental temperature increases, and the age and stability of Antarctic landscapes.

Professor Thomas Stocker of the Physics Institute at the University of Berne says it is important to engage the public on such issues. "Our work doesn't usually make the headlines, but it is very important in terms of questions of climate change."

Stocker says Switzerland's environment also gives it an edge in polar study, because of its similarities to conditions at higher latitudes, particularly in terms of temperature, precipitation, dryness, soil composition and the presence of permafrost in the high mountains.

Stocker says Swiss interest in polar research has a long history. At the turn of the century, a Swiss made the first Greenland crossing from west to east, and later in the 1960s, when attention focused on climate reconstruction, Switzerland became a leader in snow and ice research.

Stocker says much of the credit belongs to the pioneering work of his predecessor, Hans Oeschger, who went to Greenland and the Antarctic to collect deep ice cores. Studying these enables scientists to reconstruct the climate over the past 100,000 years.

Switzerland is currently involved in two deep drilling projects. Stocker says one of them, on the Greenland icecap, is now within 150 metres of the bedrock, having drilled through nearly three kilometres of ice.

On the present state of the world's climate, Stocker is careful about over-reacting to recent reports that a hole has appeared in the Arctic sea ice at the North Pole.

"From observations, we've realised that the extent of the sea ice cover has reduced by about 10 per cent over the past 30 years and the ice thickness has reduced by as much as 40 per cent.

"Whether this isolated singular observation is a direct consequence of long-term thinning or whether it is an isolated consequence of a wind pattern, we cannot say at the moment."

by Paul Sufrin

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