|Arctowski, Poland's Antarctic research station on King George Island|
Q: What are Poles doing in Antarctica?
A: The wealthiest more and more often come as tourists but scientific research is still the main reason why people come here. It has been 35 years since the foundation of our research station, named after Henryk Arctowski, on King George Island and it has been in operation continously since then. I have had the honour of being its founder, builder and, for almost 20 years, its director. Over 20 people work at the station in summer and between 7 and 10 in winter. A ship sets sail once a year from Gdynia (Polish seaport-CK), usually in November at the start of the Antarctic summer. It carries supplies and the new personnel, and it brings back the returning scientists. It is a journey of almost 16,000 km. and it lasts more than a month. The summer group work from November to the end of March, and then they travel by ship to Ushaia, and back to Poland by plane. The winter group stay for the whole year, until the ship returns.
Q: So much time at the end of the world. I suppose it can get boring?
A: In Antarctica you do not have even 5 minutes to get bored. Batteries, snow vehicles, boats, scientific equipment-- you have to check everything, re-check it, maintain, refuel, repair.... Everything has to be kept in working order. You are up to your eyes in work. Once a year Arctowski announces job vacancies. The station needs a doctor, a chef, an electrician, a radio technician, a mechanic, a tractor operator amongst other jobs. Scientific research is carried out mainly by employees of the Department of Antarctic Biology of PAN (Polish Academy of Science-CK) ,which is part of the Biochemistry and Biophysics Institute of PAN, and scientists from Polish universities involved in various international projects. Sometimes, however, researchers from other organisations and institutes can work at Arctowski if their projects can be sychronised with the PAN researchers, and if they have adequate funding. We also have an underwater research programme, which is why we have divers at the base. Generally, there are more applicants than there are places. The final decision on who gets to work at Arctowski is made by the recruitment commitee.
|Stanisław Rakusa-Suszczewski, founder of Arctowski|
Q: Are living conditions at Arctowski spartan?
A: I think they are comfortable, although it is all relative. For example, in the American research stations one can live more comfortably than in a luxury apartment. Arctowski is great, we have a varied diet which includes fruit and vegetables (frozen of course, delivered once a year.)
Q: And alcohol?
A: It is available in sensible quantities, everyone at the base is an adult, after all. Smoking, on the other hand, is forbidden. Every member of the crew has a seperate, albeit small, room and there are bathrooms with showers. When I chose the location of the base in 1977 I was lucky-- I picked a spot where freshwater flows all year round. In the nearby mountains there is a large basin where the ice melts so even in winter the base has running water and there is no need to melt snow. You can have a shower, everyone smells nice... When I stayed in the Russian stations we could wash once a week and that was all.
Q: Do female researchers also spend long periods at the station?
A: Yes, and they have done practically from the very beginning, although they are still in the minority. They deal with things perfectly and their presence in a rather male environment does not cause any problems. This has been confirmed by a 3-year American-Polish research project into small, isolated groups organised by NASA (the results are useful for planning long-range spaceflights.) The research looked at polar research stations of various countries, including our Arctowski. The results show that the people involved did not show any signs of abnormal behaviour. There are female researchers working at Arctowski right now, of course.
Q: Can working as a polar researcher be dangerous?
A: There are no polar bears in Antarctica, so there is no danger from wildlife. However, unfortunate accidents can happen, as they can everywhere. In 1978 2 scientists who were carrying out research in a cabin away from the base suffered gas poisoning. They were tired and fell asleep. Their camp stove went out, perhaps extinguished by water dripping from the ceiling. Professor Krzysztof Birkenmajer was on the top bunk and survived. Professor Stanisław Baranowsi was on the bottom bunk. He was evacuated to Poland but unfortunately he could not be resucitated.
Q: What has been your most dangerous moment?
A: It happened a year after the gas incident, in summer. I was sitting in the station building wearing slippers. Suddenly, without putting on shoes, I decided to go outside. I got into the jeep and drove to the shoreline, where a large bulldozer was preparing to push a boat off its runners back into the sea. I saw that my colleague Commander Marian Spera was standing facing the boat in the exact spot where the bulldozer was about to hit it. The wind was very strong so Marian couldn't hear the bulldozer and the operator couldn't see him. I jumped out of the jeep, grabbed his arm at the last second and pulled him out of the way. We both fell into the water. We went back to the station, got changed and drank a dram to warm ourselves up. Neither of us so much as even caught a cold. If I had decided to put on shoes or had arrived a few seconds later for whatever reason then... On the same expedition the filmmaker and traveller Włodzimierz Puchalski died of a heart attack. His grave has been incsribed on the list of historical monuments in Antarctica.
The weather conditions can be dangerous. One winter I was at the American McMurdo station and I went out in a storm when it was 52 degrees below zero. I didn't put on my protective suit because I only wanted to run 200m to the laboratory. I didn't make it, in fact I only just managed to get back. The greatest risk, however, is fire. A month ago my colleagues at the Brazilian station Comandante Ferraz unfortunately suffered such an incident. The fire destroyed most of the buildings and killed 2 people, leaving another injured. Our people took the injured man to Arctowski and the Brazilian president sent us his thanks. It will take at least 2 years to rebuild the Brazilian station.
|A view of Arctowski's lighthouse|
Q: When did Poles first become interested in Antarctica?
A: The first Polish polar explorers, Arctowski and Dobrowolski, took part in a 2-year expedition in 1897 aboard the wooden frigate 'Belgica' ( barely 2 years later the first people set foot on Antarctica.) A hundred years later I organised a cruise on our hydrographic ship ORP 'Arctowski' to Antwerp, where the 'Belgica' set sail from. Polish and Belgian polar researchers met each other and the event was attended by Gaston de Gerlache, a descendant of the leader of the 'Belgica' expedition. Our interest in the sixth continent was revived at the end of the 1950s. The first Polish researchers took part in Soviet expeditions and stayed in Soviet stations.
In 1959 the Russians gave us 2 wooden cabins in Bunger Oasis, and we named the new station after Antoni Dobrowolski. The station has been abandoned since 1979 but it has been preserved. From time to time it is visited by Austrailians and Russians. It is hard to get to because it is far inland. You have to fly 350km in a helicopter, and that is one-way. Supplies have to be flown in and logistics very much depend on the Russians, as they have a base just 200m away.
Q: And how did you end up in Antarctica?
A: First of all I was in the Arctic, on Spitsbergen. Professor Stansiław Siedlecki, the leader of our expedition, needed a biologist so I put myself forward and he accepted me. The expedition helped me to write my Master's dissertation and I began to become known in polar research circles. In 1968 professor Romuald Klekowski, co-director of Poland's polar research programme, gave me the opportunity to spend a winter at the Soviet station Molodyozhnaya in Antarctica.
After 4 trips to Antarctica, with both Soviet and American expeditions, I wrote a report on the need to set up a year-round Polish station which would serve both our scientists and our fishing fleet. The implementation of my recommendations was partly due to the worsening food situation in Poland. The shelves in the food shops were bare but we had a fishing fleet of great potential, more than a dozen high-seas trawlers. The Marine and Fishery Ministry and PAN decided that my arguments for building a station were strong but they first wanted to check what fish we could actually catch there. We knew almost nothing about what type and quantity of fish we could hope to find in Antarctic waters. They therefore put me in charge of an expedition comprising the research ship 'Profesor Siedlecki' and the fishing trawler 'Tazar'. In 1976 we examined and evaluated the fishing grounds and a year later our fishing fleet was in action. We started catching mackerel icefish and marbled rockcod, probably the most delicious fish I have ever eaten. I was given funds to set up the station and was appointed to lead the expedition to build it. It was a serious logistical undertaking. 2 ships, 'Dalmor' and 'Zabrze', transported all the personnel and building materials. We completed the project in good time-- less than 2 months after landing on King George Island the station was ready.
Q: Was it you who also proposed to improve the food situation in Poland with the aid of krill?
A: Of course, we looked into the possibilities of catching and processing krill but contrary to subsequent propaganda we never did so on an industrial scale. Our research meant, however, that we did become the world's foremost experts on krill. Our expertise was never utilised. In 2009-2010 our last trawler was catching krill on behalf of the Japanese and Norwegians, who use it to produce a very healthy omega oil. Krill know-how is no longer our domain. The prospect of krill fishing is becoming more and more tempting for other countries. Krill are a huge marine source of protein and oils. Poland has already lost its knowledge, the research has been thrown in the bin, the last research vessel has been scapped. Our last trawler was sold this year so we no longer have a high-seas fishing fleet and we no longer catch anything from Antarctic seas. If Antarctic fish had appeared in our hungry market at the end of the 70s then it would have provided a good argument for scientists asking for money to carry out research and maintain our station. After all, it was the inital fishing expedition which was used to justify the station's founding.
|Chinstrap penguins on King George Island|
Q: Wasn't there always the temptation to save money by closing the station?
A: 1977 was the last possible moment for the station's foundation. If we had decided to build it a couple of years later, just after the end of the Gierek era, the government wouldn't have been willing to spend a penny on it. The same can be said for all governments since then. Since 1980, funds have almost always been scarce but somehow the station has survived and is still working today. The most difficult period was at the beginning of the 90s when Poland's financial situation threw the station's existence into doubt. That was when I offered to take of Dutch scientists to Arctowski and allow them to use our technical and logistical resources. The Dutch at that time were becoming increasingly interested in Antarctic research and they were planning to become members of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), which exercises control over Antarctica. The ATS consists of countries which carry out, in the words of the treaty, 'vital scientific research' or those which operate research stations. Holland started its involvment at Arctowski and with our support it became a member of the ATS. In exchange, Poland gained clear financial benefits. To sceptics who ask how much we spend on Arctowksi I reply that the cost of sending an expedition there once a year for 30 years is more or less the same as a single F-16 jet fighter.
Q: Isn't it a valid question to ask why we maintain an Antarctic station when we no longer have a high-seas fishing fleet?
A: There are dozens of reasons why. Because we have a research station we are full members of the ATS. In 1977, when we built the station, there were 11 member states. Now there are 28 and more countries are eager to join. Under the treaty Poland governs 2 areas of special environmental protection located on King George Island. Antarctica is international territory and we have an equal say in any decisions affecting it along with the other member states of the ATS. Decisions must be unaminous. Various countries have different claims to parts of Antarctica. Norway bases its claims on the fact that they were the first to reach the pole. British claims are not only based on Scott of the Antarctic, but also on the immense contribuiton they have made to polar exploration and research. Austrailia is one of the nearest countries to Antarctica and they feel that they have inherited Britain's claims. Argentina and Chile base their claims on a papal bull which once granted them territory reaching to the South Pole. Due to the ATS, however, all territorial claims have been out on hold for the time being. In 1991 a 50-year moratorium was declared on the exploration and extraction of mineral resources-- Antarctica is rich in oil, gas, uranium, iron ore and other metals. It is possible that this moratorium will not be extended. In the neighbourhood of Arctowski there are natural gas deposits.
Q: We should have gas nearer to home, from shale rock.
A: If we are pinning our hopes on shale gas, then exploiting Antarctica's resources is not an attractive proposition. But this could change in the future. The location of our station is also suitable for offshore drilling on the Antarctic shelf. This is extremely costly as the shelf lies at a depth of around 500m. but it cannot be ruled out that oil rigs will eventually exploit it. Because Antarctica has no territorial waters, offshore rigs can be towed anywhere.
Finally, Arctowski flies the Polish flag and it has contact with a wider world than a hundred scientific institutions in Poland. Thanks to our polar researchers scientific work is achieving world renown. Scientists such as the botanists, professors Ryszard Ochrya and Agata Olech, or the parasitologist Krzysztof Zdzitowiecki ( also once an excellent mountain climber ) are known and respected around the world. I am proud to say that I got them involved in polar research. It was our scientists who were among the first to notice a rise in the average temperature in western Antarctica and to discover that a new, unknown species of grass had started to appear there.
Q: Is global warming real?
A: It depends where. In eastern Antarctica and the South Pole the ice is certainly not melting, in fact it is growing. In the western part of Antarctica and around the North Pole, however, the surface area of the ice is gradually shrinking. The Northern Passage is now accessible to smaller ships for 4 months of the year.
Today in every Polish university one can find a specialist educated at Arctowski. Our knowledge and accomplishments are appreciated by other countries. I myself have colloborated with the chief of the Spanish polar programme and I selected the location for the Spanish base on Livingstone Island. I knew the terrain, thus I knew which location would be the best. Today the Juan Carlos I station stands at the spot. The King and Queen of Spain thanked me personally and I received a medal. More importantly, however, was the fact that the consultancy fee I received from the Spanish enabled me to buy a plot of land in Warsaw for the needs of the Department of Antarctic Biology of PAN. I have also acted as advisor to Brazil's polar research programme which led to our current cooperation. Bear in mind also that our station is visited by tourists from all over the world, around 3,000 a year. This is good for the image of Poland abroad. In the 70s and 80s we were almost starving in Arctowski, we barely had anything. Today we can welcome tourists and offer them a cup of tea and a bite to eat. We do not benefit financially from doing so, but if people have a good impression of Poland and our polar research then it only serves to increase the prestige of our country.
Q: Is it an unwritten rule of Antarctic etiquette that you have to offer everyone hospitality?
A: It depends on the culture of the hosts. The Americans often say "get out of here, our time is too precious to be dealing with tourists!" We always welcome visitors, although when we get almost 200 guests a day it can interfere somewhat with our work. To deal with visitors in the peak summer season we have built a tourist centre outside the main station building. One of our naturalists woks there and explains to people how they should behave. For example, you cannot go closer than 20m. to a penguin otherwise they get heart palpitations and can die.
Q: You are an advocate of our presence in Antarctica but we are much nearer to the North Pole, where there are a lot of fish and natural resources.
A: The Arctic is divided between 5 Arctic countries. Poland is not one of them. We are interested in Arctic research but Spitsbergen, where we operate the Stanisław Siedlecki station and several university research bases, is Norwegian territory. The Norwegians have strictly limited the activities of other countries on Spitsbergen under the pretext of environmental protection, despite the conditions of the Paris Treaty, signed by Poland in the 1920s. Our Arctic facilities mostly train geographers. Geography does not have much of a future as a scientific field as the age of exploration of planet Earth came to a close with the discovery of the last new land, the Severnaya Zemlya archipegalo, at the beginning of the 20th century. Stations are not required to monitor temperatures, the ice-cap or polar bear numbers. Satellites will suffice. In other words, our presence in the Arctic cannot really be justified.
Q: During your time as a polar researcher you have worked and lived with dozens of nationalities. Which have you like the most?
A: I have always got on well with the Russians, they are not too different to us in terms of character and I have lots of good friends amongst them. I also have a lot of friends amongst the Americans. They are clever people, although they work differently from the Russians because they give a higher priority to individual careers. I really like the Spanish and Brazilians. They are cheerful people who do not take everything seriously-- which is good because does everything need to be taken seriously? All in all, though, I would say that I have the most admiration for the Dutch as they have made the best impression on me-- highly-educated, solid but not without flair. They have always been good to us and critical of the Germans...
Q: And what type of impression do we Poles give other countries?
A: Well, we are not a nation of complete idiots. If there is a leader who leads consistently and with an iron rule, and people can see that he has clear, well-defined goals which he truly believes in then Poles can be motivated to work together in the same direction. It is not always easy, however.
Interviewer: Andrzej Dryszel Taken from 'Przegłąd' magazine