A glimpse on: Estonian Polar Research

– given by Prof. Rein Vaikmäe

How has polar research in Estonia developed in the past decades?

The Estonian research community, as one from a very small country with limited research capacity, has been unusually active in Polar Research throughout its entire history. Worth noting is that several pioneers of polar exploration originated from Estonian Baltic Germans (e.g. Bellingshausen, Baer, Wrangell, Middendorf, Toll). During the Soviet period Estonian scientists as well as supporting personnel participated remarkably in Arctic and Antarctic expeditions. In glacier and polar icecap research Estonian scientists have shown internationally highly recognised results. Also polar atmosphere, permafrost-related, sea-ice and limnological research are well developed, and together with the studies on marine systems form a solid basis for the current and future Estonian Polar research.

In more detail, in the Arctic Estonia has been involved particularly in ice-core research starting from the late seventies through collaboration with the Institute of Geography RAS, Moscow and with the AARI, St.Petersburg. Stable isotope records of ice cores from Svalbard (Lomonosovfonna, Austfonna, Vestfonna), from Severnaya Zemlya (Vavilov Ice Dome) were extracted. During the last 15 years the research in Arctic has been performed together with the Norwegian Polar Institute on Svalbard to investigate the present and past 800 years of climate by means of shallow ice core records.

In the Antarctic research Estonians have made significant contributions in earth sciences, atmospheric physics, hydrology and ecology of surface waters (incl. human impact on them) and in isotope studies of the ice sheet (reviewed by Kaup and Tammiksaar (2011)). Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA2005) and Antarctic Climate Change and Environment (ACCE2009) reviews have used results published by Estonian researchers.

How is the Estonian polar community set up?

Placing Estonian Polar Research in a global context we face the reality of the problems and challenges, which are nearly identical all over the world. A small, but well integrated community is lacking proper support both for current research as well as for the development of future human resources. In the Estonian context the challenges are especially dramatic due to the overall small number of researchers. Many prominent scientists are close to their retirement age and the young generation of researchers is critically low in numbers.

However, an important positive characteristic of Estonian Polar research is the involvement of new research groups from marine sciences, limnology, botany, ecology, experimental and molecular microbiology, which are are actively targeting questions related directly to modern polar research. Combining the classical approaches of polar research with modern methods of chemical-physical measurements, in connection with up-to-date modern molecular- and systems biology tools, IT and numeral modelling is opening up new perspectives for interdisciplinary activities. 

Currently information from polar research is used to some extent in the Ministry of Environment’s annual GHG inventory reports and in selected studies concerning some effects of climate change. Largely the exchange of knowledge has been needs-based, without a systematic approach.

The National R&D program of Environmental Conservation and Technology (ECT) treats research in Polar Regions as an integrated part of studies that are aimed towards mitigating climate and environmental change and developing appropriate adaption measures. The ECT program draws focus on (1) cooperation in international projects and consortiums; (2) coordinated expeditions and shared infrastructure and; (3) remote sensing of Polar Regions. While the aim of the studies is to collect and analyse further information about this sensitive area, special attention should be directed to applying the added knowledge into modelling regional climate-change patterns and human adaptations.

Which status does polar research have in Estonia?

Whilst it is acknowledged that polar research has a decisive importance in studying climate change and increasing knowledge about the Earth systems, the role of Estonia’s polar research activities on a global scale and it’s contributions to domestic policy-making are less clear. A long-term vision and integrated approach to research activities is needed, as well as a clearer concept on how to use scientific information for policy-making. These steps will help to establish a coordinated effort that leads to more continuous research opportunities in the field.

Despite the earlier discussions in Estonia about building some national infrastructure for Polar research, particularly plans for opening a station in Antarctica, the current dominant point of view does not support that approach. The focus is on the development of high-level international collaborations, thus taking advantage of the infrastructure of our partners and of the EU joint infrastructure, under development in the frame of implementing of the ESFRI roadmap. That simplifies efforts for logistics and has proven to be substantially more cost efficient. In a situation where multiple nations have set new facilities for polar research during the last decades there in fact exists a surplus of research infrastructures, particularly in Antarctica.

Which research priorities does the Estonian Polar research program highlight?

In 2012, commenced by the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research, the Estonian Polar Research programme for 2014-2020 (ESTPOLAR) was compiled. In this document Estonian polar researchers have defined several priorities based upon previous expertise, existing, emerging and advanced national and international collaborations, available and projected funding and human resources. The research is planned in five directions:

  • Paleoenvironment of glaciers, polar icecaps, terrestrial and limnic sediments
  • Sea ice physics
  • Studies of atmosphere physics in Polar Regions
  • Biological diversity and resilience of marine, terrestrial and limnic biological systems in the context of global warming
  • Historical and educational aspects of polar region research and social research of polar communities

The research is planned in academic environments of the Tallinn University of Technology, the University of Tartu, the Estonian University of Life Sciences, the Tallinn University and the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics.

Another important lead is the increasing intensity of international collaboration and joint research with leading polar research organisations and nations. Up to 100 people at universities of Estonia have research activities related to the five main directions of polar studies.

The main reason for compiling the ESTPOLAR programme is to have a joint and structured plan about the activities of Estonia’s polar research for the period of 2014-2020, which enables the achievement of the following strategic goals:

  1. Combining the actions and priorities of the programme with international polar R&D-trends and strategic directions
  2. Outlining existing and potential collaborations between research groups and institutions as a base for joint participation in international projects

What are new developments within Estonian polar research?

Until recently Estonian Polar Research has been mainly focusing on fundamental issues of Polar Regions. However, new emerging themes targeting directly technology development and leading to future socioeconomical benefits are clearly visible.

One such issue is the application of ice research in fields of technical sciences such as materials design, mechatronics and shipbuilding. Polar shipping and ice breaking studies will become even more topical, as Estonia is going to build a multipurpose icebreaker to be used not only in the Baltic Sea and the running of such an expensive asset without good ice information would not be effective. The Estonian sector of logistics is growing and if the planned opening of a Northern Sea Route for international shipping comes to life, sea ice data and the overall knowledge will become very important and vitally useful. Existing good communication and collaboration with Estonian ice researchers have laid a good and relevant foundation for research in those applied technical science fields. 

A second applied research field emerging in Estonian Polar Research in the close future is bioprospecting. Polar regions have been pointed out as an important source of biological diversity with specific adaptations to the climate and originating from that are unique biochemical pathways and molecular adaptations. In addition, sparse sources of energy have created ground for the selection of extremely efficient bioconversion pathways. With the current program, involving an unprecedented amount of new biological research in Polar Regions, including modern microbiological and molecular biology research combined with a high level ecology and classical biology opens new research possibilities for the Estonian research community. Involvement in bioprospecting for bioactive compounds and organisms important for pharmacology, medicine, material technology, and industrial processing and food industry becomes clear and unavoidable. Future participation of Estonian developing biotechnology industry partners is foreseen and nucleating for the afromentioned themes.

Rein Vaikmäe

Rein Vaikmäe is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Isotope-palaeoclimatology of the Institute of Geology at Tallinn University of Technology, a EU-PolarNet partner institute, and the Chair of the Estonian Polar Reseach Committee. In the following he introduces the development, the status and the priorities of Estonian polar research.