A glimpse on: Austrian Polar Research

- given by the Austrian polar research community


How has polar research in Austria developed in the past decade(s)?

Austria has a long-standing tradition in polar research. This started with the Austrian-Hungarian Polar Expedition during the 1870s and continued with participation in the First International Polar Year, during which Austria’s contribution was focused on conducting research on Jan Mayen. By the way, the idea to strengthen polar research through the coordinating effort of an “International Polar Year” was formulated for the first time by Carl Weyprecht, an explorer and officer of the Austro-Hungarian Navy.

Other milestones for Austrian polar research were the contributions to the International Geophysical Year in 1957/58, which formed the basis for a polar focus at the University of Innsbruck and had the consequence of attracting and hosting several well-recognised researchers working both in the Arctic and the Antarctic. During the 1990s, the anniversary of the discovery of the Franz Josef Land focused the Austrian polar research on this Arctic archipelago for nearly a decade. Finally, the most recent International Polar Year in 2007/08 was a great success for the Austrian polar research community, strengthening national and international collaboration, and leading to the foundation of the Austrian Polar Research Institute (APRI) in 2012.

What is currently the main focus of Austrian polar research?

Currently, research at APRI is represented by the three research focus areas: Polar Ecology, Cryosphere and Climate, and Social and Cultural Systems, in which 15 research groups address issues in the natural as well as the social sciences. Regular field campaigns are carried out for the study of snow and ice, soils and vegetation, atmospheric composition, as well as for the study of social and cultural conditions of local communities in the Arctic (there is no Antarctic social science research in Austria to date). Investigations range from microbial communities in ice and permafrost soils, climate reconstruction from ice cores and climate-permafrost feedbacks, to the analysis of socioeconomic changes. Most of these activities are conducted through the lens of global change, which is not only affecting polar environments but also altering living conditions for the (indigenous and non-indigenous) residents of polar regions.

In the natural sciences, remotely sensed data from satellites are used by several groups for monitoring of larger regions with focus on glaciers and permafrost across scales. An important role plays the modelling of terrestrial and marine environments, as well as of the atmosphere, to address changes in the coupled polar energy and water budget. In the field of the Arctic social sciences, researchers address issues ranging from how humans related to infrastructure and the built environment to natural resource industries and their relations with local populations to theoretical and applied approaches to human mobility and locality to security and sustainable regional development.

Austria so far has no research station or other large infrastructure in either the Arctic or the Antarctic. Thus, the research of Austrian researchers is largely enabled through European and international cooperation and linkages with international polar organizations and networks, such as IASC and SCAR.

How is the polar community in Austria set up?

The Austrian Polar Research Institute (APRI) is a research consortium founded in 2012 by the Universities of Vienna, Innsbruck and Graz, as well as by the Central Institute of Meteorology and Geodynamics. APRI promotes and coordinates research and education in the area of polar sciences between the polar research at the participating organizations.

Due to its structure as a research consortium, the actual research in the polar regions is being conducted by members of research groups affiliated with member organizations of APRI. In total about 100 scientists in Austria are involved (although rarely exclusively) in polar research. This relatively large community of polar scientists for a small country like Austria is mainly due to Austria being located in the Alps and the fact that many research questions and approaches in Alpine and Arctic communities are similar.

The strong connection to universities and research institutions in Austria gives us the opportunity to implement the findings of polar research also into academic teaching. However, the polar community is not limited to scientists within the Austrian Polar Research Institute, but also contains a number of laypeople who are interested in aspects of polar history, mountaineering, or simply traveling. We consider this wider community an important addition to the scientific community, because they provide a strong link to the general public.

Unfortunately, there is no dedicated polar science program being supported by the Austrian government or Austrian funding agencies. Thus, all APRI research groups need to compete for grants in their disciplinary fields, irrespective of the regional focus of the proposed study.

Austrian Polar Research Institute
c/o Universität Wien
Universitätsstraße 7
1010 Vienna