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The life of a climate researcher in Greenland

During the recent Rio+20 conference climate change was hotly debated but the people gathering the data remained behind the curtains. The University Post talks to one of Copenhagen's very own researchers about life in the field, the dangers, the politics and the boredom of living in the Arctic circle

Just returned from his latest tour of Greenland with the NEEM project Prof. Jørgen Peder Steffensen, who has been studying the worlds glaciers for over 30 years, has witnessed great technological and cultural changes in climate science during his tenure. He was kind enough to share some of his thoughts.

The NEEM project (North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling) is a multinational collection of universities that is attempting to retrieve ancient ice cores from glaciers from the far north of the island. Ice cores contain compressed layers of snow that give us information about the worlds climate thousands of years in the past.

Ice core research is a very specialised field, Steffensen suggests »perhaps a 1,000« people work with them and that Denmark occupies a leading position in the area.

A more demanding world

The biggest difference between when he started researching and now is »communication«, he says. Previously they used high frequency radio and »sunspots could mean complete isolation« from the rest of the world. Upgrading to TELEX in the 1990’s was a massive event.

Currently, the main camp has access to telephones and internet which are reliable, though expensive. For the current 20-30 people in the camp, bandwidth costs DKK 300,000 a month. In order to cut costs they try and pool some use, for example the EURO 2012 scores were looked up by one person, and then announced.

This connectivity has meant »the outside world also demands more« with staff giving daily blog updates and more closely intertwining the wider world with the remote base.

Emergency medical evauations

Prof. Steffensen estimates that the camp is full of about 25 percent field scientists, 25 percent maintenance staff and 50 percent Masters and Ph.D. students »Sometimes it feels like a summer camp«.

And there is a variety of nationalities from the 14 participating countries. He finds the international environment inspiring, with the scientists finding time to compare national proverbs and metaphors in their downtime.

Over the last 30 years the professor has seen a dramatic change in camp activities. Previously, the entertainment of choice were board games such as Risk or Settlers of the Catan which encouraged socialisation amongst the inhabitants. Now personalised electronic gadgets have taken over »Even in a tent in the middle of nowhere, with the wind howling outside you can still put your headphones on and watch a movie«.

The wind and weather are still some of the biggest challenges. The extremely northern camps face massive storms and moving ice frequently closing down airfields, blocking deliveries and trapping researchers in the field. There have been two emergency medical evacuations, one for a suspected heart attack and one for a real one – the latter soon returned to Greenland.

Information providers, not decision makers

When asked if this project will have a direct impact upon climate change policy he responds with a simple »no« but this is not as negative as it sounds. He continues »No single project will have an impact. It is the collection of measurable evidence«.

The base has had visits from members of the Danish parliament (who were amusingly distraught when storms cut off communications from the mainland for a day) which he believes has resulted in changing attitudes from parties across the political spectrum.

As for the political nature of his research Prof. Steffensen simply says »our role is to provide knowledge to decision makers, for the enlightenment of the population in general« and not to make decisions ourselves.

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