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31 July, 2018  ▪  

Ukrainian life in Antarctica

What Ukrainian researchers do at the Faraday Station

In late April, expedition teams rotated at the Ukrainian Vernadsky Station in the Argentine Islands. The 22nd expedition returned home after a year of exploring Antarctica while the 23rd one arrived to replace it. A separate seasonal expedition of Ukrainian explorers managed to squeeze in between the rotations. Ukrainian Antarctic exploration is expanding.

This is not new. Ukrainian scientists were part of Soviet expeditions. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia did not a single Antarctic station build jointly in the Soviet period with any of the post-Soviet countries. In 1996, Ukraine bought the Faraday Station from the UK for a symbolic 1 pound. Renamed into Vernadsky Station, it has since been a base for exploration of Antarctica by Ukrainian researchers. 

Vernadsky Station works all year round focusing on ocenography, exploration of bioresources and hydrometeorology, the physics of Antarctic geospace and Sun-Earth connection, as well as on researching nuclear physics of the Earth and the atmosphere, geology, geophysics, biology and physiology for medical purposes. Ukrainian exploration in Antarctica encompasses research of the atmosphere, as well as hydrosphere and glaciers. It is linked to many international programs. 

“Our meteorologists spend a year at the station doing measurements that are transferred to international centers for data collection and processing,” says Denys Pishnyak, Head of the Atmospheric Physics Department at the Education and Science Ministry’s National Antarctic Science Center.

A meteorologist himself, Denys spent a year in Antarctica as part of the 16th Ukrainian expedition. In April 2018, he worked there as part of a seasonal expedition from Ukraine. He has the expertise to talk about climate change, weather conditions in the Antarctic and the notorious “ozone hole”. “We do measure the density of the ozone layer at the station. I can say that ozone depletion has stabilized in the last five years,” Denys shares. “The ozone layer is recovering its density and moves towards restoration.” When asked about the trigger of this restoration, Denys suggests restriction of freon use.

Ukrainian geophysicists at Vernadsky Station focus on researching the upper layers of the atmosphere. Andriy Zalizovskiy, a Kharkiv-based Deputy Head of the Radio Astronomy Institute at the National Academy of Sciences, says that this has been a traditional field of the station’s research since the time when it was still the British Station F. Andriy has worked in three expeditions to Antarctica. According to him, the program of geophysical research at Vernadsky Station “is expanding. There are some projects focusing on atmospheric gravity waves and physics of plasmas, and Ukrainian scientists with accumulated experience in these areas work jointly with their US colleagues from Boston, Alaska and the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.” According to Andriy, Ukrainian researchers are in the process of establishing direct online transfer of measurements from the station equipment to Ukraine.

Antarctica is probably one of the best places on Earth to see the effect of global climate change. “The Antarctic icesheet depends on many factors, its size and  thickness varies by years. If you look at the data for most periods, you can see that the ice is melting. That’s for sure,” Denys Pishnyak says. Therefore, claims that the global sea levels are rising are not phantasies. This will affect the entire planet. 

Overall, Antarctica is a laboratory for scientific research thanks to international protection agreements. Ukrainian scientists contribute to its development. The 22nd expedition launched research of the structure and components of Antarctic glaciers with sensitive georadars produced in Ukraine. As part of that expedition, they installed supersensitive magnetometers at the Ukrainian station, also made in Ukraine. These allow the scientists to study the Earth’s magnetic field and magnetic features of rocks. The Ukrainian Antarctic program thus motivates both science and technological development through the production of innovative equipment. Polar researchers met with Education Minister Lilia Hrynevych after they returned from Antarctica to discuss this. Quite recently, the Ukrainian station has installed more new equipment providing the polar researchers with better internet connection with Ukraine. 

Four members of a seasonal Antarctic expedition from Ukraine visited the neighboring US Palmer Station located 50km away in April. “Technologically, they have it all highly automated. Their specialists arrive at the station for several months to install and set up the equipment. Their expeditions don’t spend the entire year in Antarctica unlike ours,” Denys shares.

Ukrainian polar researchers plan to expand into oceanography. 12 scientists from Zhytomyr, Kyiv, Lviv, Malyn, Odesa and Kharkiv have started the 23rd expedition at the Vernadsky Station. They will work in Antarctica until the spring of 2019, which will be fall in the Southern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, scientists are already being selected and prepared for the 24th expedition.  

Ihor Dykiy, a lecturer at the zoology department of Lviv National Ivan Franko University and senior fellow at the National Antarctic Science Center, worked in the 11th and 14th expeditions to the South Pole. He is now planning to join the 24th trip. “The key field for biologists and zoologists at Vernadsky Station is biodiversity. Antarctica is home to many species unknown to science. Our zoologists, including Andriy Utievsky, are thus developing research of the ocean. They have already discovered nearly ten species and are describing them, studying their DNA,” Ihor comments. “In some places along the continent shoreline glaciers slide into the ocean and bulldoze everything with them. Some places, however, are more sheltered — that’s where many animals and plants settle. Scientists are exploring and describing them in order to establish marine reservers. These are Antarctic oases.”   

Yet, these spots are extremely vulnerable both to possible human interventions and to climate change. For instance, the animals that live in the water at -1,5°Сwill not survive temperature rise to +1°С.It’s like putting them in boiling water, Ihor explains. While the large mass of the water slows down the change of its temperature, hikes on the surface are more noticeable. The average Antarctic temperature has gone up 3°Сover the past 50 years. 

Climate change in Antarctica is getting too obvious — Ukrainian scientists have noticed a new landscape zone, the Antarctic tundra, emerging there. “Plants like Antarctic hair grass or pearlwort end up in the spots vacated by glaciers. Birds carry organic pieces there. Soils are forming,” Ihor says. “Climate change is changing the landscape. That’s another field of our research in Antarctica.”

Biologists in this year’s seasonal expedition from Ukraine studied land ecosystems of the region, including vascular plants and soils. “The populations of Antarctic hair grass and pearlwort are markers for climate change. According to data by British scientists, their habitats expanded with the warmer years and shrunk with the more snowy periods. Also, we have received measurements for light and temperature from our equipment installed last year. We processed them at Palmer Station where we explored soils to compare this data with the data from Vernadsky Station and see the pace of change in nature.” Also, Ukrainian biologists collected samples for virologists, microbiologists, researchers of invertebratesand moss, including for Polish and American colleagues.  

Antarctic exploration has a practical dimension to it. Back in 1991, a moratorium was signed to ban the extraction of minerals for 50 years there. Some countries have been questioning its extension. The Antarctic Treaty is in place with the Secretariat located in Buenos Aires since 2004. Now, international scientists, including Ukrainians, are exploring resources in Antarctica. “We are studying the populations of penguins, seals and whales — the key eaters of krill which is the major source of protein for them. The weight of krill population in the world is more important than that of human population,” Ihor compares. “Humans fish the krill, too. Our goal is to study the effect of climate change on the krill whose population is shrinking. Ukraine is involved in an international project to keep track of penguins which act as markers for krill habitats as they hunt for it. Our work is aimed at preventing distortions caused by human fishing for krill in places where whales, seals and penguins feed on it. This would lead to disastrous consequences.” 

Oksana Savenko, a Ukrainian researcher, has established a similar database for whales. That one is, too, connected to the international database. Ukrainian scientists are planning many more important projects. Whether they are implemented depends on how well Ukrainian authorities realize the importance of Antarctic research. Between Ukraine’s neighbors, only Poland and Bulgaria have their Antarctic stations, in addition to Russia which had taken over all Soviet stations there.

By Volodymyr Moroz

Translated by Anna Korbut 

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