This year the Netherlands will have its own laboratories on Antarctica for the first time. Three of the four laboratories started their journey to Antarctica on Monday 16 January. State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science, Halbe Zijlstra, together with NWO chair, Jos Engelen, sealed the laboratories for transport and announced their names.
The four laboratories have been built in sea containers and on Antarctica they will be attached to a joint ‘docking station’. The laboratory on Rothera will be called the Gerritsz laboratory and the four separate modules bear the names Faith, Hope, Love and Glad Tidings.
Up until now Dutch researchers depended upon the facilities of other countries with a base on Antarctica when they wanted to do research on and around the South Pole. The Dutch laboratories will be located on a British base. That will provide savings on costs for an own base and infrastructure and minimise the potential damage to the natural habitat on Antarctica. The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science are jointly investing 8.5 million euros in South Pole research.
The mini-laboratories were built by a company from Dirksland that is specialised in refrigeration technology. For example, they tested whether the laboratories could withstand the freezing cold conditions on Antarctica. NWO attaches great importance to the sustainability aspects of this new research facility. For example, the temperature in the mini-laboratories is controlled by a heat pump that extracts heat from the external surroundings to regulate the temperature inside. Solar cells will also be installed on the roof of the docking station.
Researchers will first make use of the laboratories at the start of 2013 when it is summer in Antarctica. Research in the laboratories will focus on climate change, glaciology, marine ecology and oceanography. Research subjects include chemical reactions in the atmosphere above Antarctica caused by the release of greenhouse gases during algal blooms. The rapid warming up along the West Coast of the Antarctic peninsula is facilitating the algal bloom and consequently exerting an influence on the global climate. A second study will also investigate algae and will specifically look at their place in the food chain; the underlying question is how the ecologically important Antarctic waters respond to changes in the climate. The third study concerns the changing level of iron and trace elements in seawater and sea ice, levels that are important for all living organisms in ecosystems. The fourth study will examine the increase in fresh meltwater that is flowing into the sea from Antarctic glaciers, and finally there is a study into the influence of this meltwater on food chains.
The laboratories are named after a convoy of ships that left Rotterdam in 1598 in search of a trade route via the tip of South America to Asia. The ships were called Faith, Hope, Love, Glad Tidings and Loyalty. In the Magellan Straits the convoy was driven apart under severe weather conditions. One ship, the Glad Tidings under the leadership of Dirck Gerritsz, was blown far south. At 64° South Gerritsz saw a ‘very high mountainous country, full of snow, like the country of Norway’. This was probably the first sighting of Antarctica.
The investment in research laboratories and research on the South Pole is part of the Netherlands Polar Programme, which funds Dutch scientific research in and into polar areas. As a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty the Netherlands is obliged to invest in research on the South Pole. Furthermore, the South Pole is a unique research environment where the consequences of climate change can be clearly measured, free of disruptive human influences.