A glimpse on: Dutch Polar Research

- given by Annette Scheepstra and Maarten Loonen

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

The history of 50 years Dutch polar research was recently summarized in the Dutch book "50 jaar Nederlands onderzoek in de Poolgebieden". It started in 1962 with the first PhD thesis about Leadership and Law among the Eskimos of the Keewatin District, Northwest Territories. Since then, almost 120 PhD theses defended at 11 different universities have followed, most of them at the University of Groningen and the University of Utrecht. There is an overview with a broad variety of titles available on the internet.

Several polar research projects started from personal interest of a researcher, often funded via crowd funding or small expedition grants. An example is the ecological studies on Edgeøya on East- Svalbard. Four students wintered while studying polar bears in 1968-69 and the study continued as a more general ecological study until 1987.

In 1970, the University of Groningen initiated an Arctic Centre, a multidisciplinary research group studying human environment interaction relations in the past and present. Its first major research project was the excavation of a Dutch 17th century whaling town Smeerenburg on Svalbard. In 1980, an expedition ship was purchased to support the operations. Tourists were taken along and this developed into a private tourist company. The Arctic Centre is still active in polar research, focussing on long-term human-environment relations with disciplines like archaeology, ecology and history. It manages a small research facility in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard and represents the Netherlands in working groups of the Arctic Council. It has established the Willem Barentsz Polar Network, which unites all polar researchers in the Netherlands.

With the first Arctic migratory bird expedition to Spitsbergen in 1979, a still continuing time series on goose studies started. The opening of the Russian Arctic gave a boost to Dutch Arctic ornithological research with expeditions to Taimyr and the Pechora Delta studying geese and waders.
At the University of Utrecht, glaciology on the Greenland ice sheet and especially modelling the mass of glaciers, developed into a strong polar theme within IMAU. They installed a network of automated weather and mass balance stations on glaciers in both Arctic and Antarctic.

In 1990, the Dutch government installed an interdepartmental group to become full member of the Antarctic Treaty System. They financed a science program in Antarctica in cooperation with other countries as they did not want to start an independent station. Since 1996, part of their resources were used for Arctic research too, when The Netherlands became observer to the Arctic Council and an active contributor to three working groups AMAP, CAFF and SDWG via researchers at the Arctic Centre of the University of Groningen.

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (2004) clearly defined the polar regions as the areas impacted first. With this report polar research gained political and public awareness. During the International Polar Year (IPY), 2007-2008 a Dutch participation was supported by an additional budget of 7 million euros. The funding originated from various government ministries and the Dutch research council (NWO). The Dutch research council (NWO) became the manager of the Netherlands Polar Program and at the moment hosts the European Polar Board. A visit of the Crown Prince and Princess of the Netherlands and the Minister for Science to Antarctica in 2009, resulted in the opening of the Dutch Dirck Gerritsz Laboratory at the British Rothera Research Station at the start of 2013.


What is currently the main focus of Dutch polar research?

The commitment to Antarctic research is linked to the membership of the Antarctic Treaty System. For the Arctic, the government has published an Arctic strategy paper for the period 2016-2020 under the theme: Working together on sustainability. These governmental policies have led to the present Netherlands Polar Programme (NPP) which finances PhD and Post-doc projects in Polar Areas. The science must provide insights into the developments that are rapidly taking place in the Polar Regions and the possible consequences for the Netherlands. Ultimately this knowledge should contribute to solving problems and utilizing opportunities that arise as a result of these changes. Part of the science will focus on partnerships and consultations with Dutch industries and societal groups.

In the NPP research is organised along four themes representing the broad range of research topics. Geographically the focus is on the international setting of Rothera, Ny-Ålesund and Greenland. The four themes are:

  1. Ice, climate and rising sea level
  2. Polar ecosystems
  3. Sustainable exploitation
  4. Social, legal and economic landscape

How is the polar community in the Netherlands set up?

Nowadays many different research and knowledge institutes conduct Dutch polar research. Some are financed independently but the NPP plays an important role in polar research and (inter)national research cooperation. The universities of Groningen, Utrecht and Wageningen have developed special polar programmes.

The University of Groningen decided to strengthen polar cooperation by funding the Willem Barentsz Polar Network (WBPN). WBPN developed into a polar researchers network. WBPN works in good cooperation with the NPP, which led to a Dutch expedition to Edgeøya, Svalbard in August 2015. Under the name SEES.NL, WBPN and NWO worked together under the leadership of the Arctic Centre to conduct the largest Dutch polar expedition ever. A tourist vessel went on a 9-day expedition to Edgeøya. On board were tourists, policy makers, media, artists, a parliamentarian and a total of 55 Dutch scientists, from a wide variety of disciplines, ranging from archaeology and ecology through to social geographers and cultural anthropologists. After 9 days of intensive fieldwork the ship returned to Longyearbyen, Svalbard, where Netherlands Foreign Minister, Bert Koenders was welcoming the group. In total, the SEES.NL expedition resulted in over 300 articles appearing in newspapers, magazines, on websites and on television. A delegation of scientists was invited in the Dutch parliament. The expedition had a major impact on Dutch public awareness of Arctic issues and resulted in more intensive cooperation among scientists.

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