Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report


The importance of studying the polar oceans

202. The polar oceans play a particularly important role in climate change studies. The impact of climate change on the ice caps and on the circulation of the oceans could have devastating consequences for the planet. Information about past ice ages stored in the ice in the Arctic and Antarctic could assist scientists in understanding both the normal range of changes in temperature and other factors and the phenomena linked to extreme events.


203. April 2007 saw the launch of the two-year International Polar Year (IPY) programme which is the largest co-ordinated scientific effort for 50 years, bringing together more than 200 Arctic and Antarctic projects and people from 63 nations. The total expenditure will be more than $2bn.[412] We were told that the UK is contributing to 40% of the projects and British scientists are participating in 33 projects, including polar ocean monitoring, circumpolar studies of marine ecosystems and polar gateways.[413] An update in August 2007 suggested that more than half of the 459 projects approved by IPY had the involvement of UK scientists.[414] We commend IPY as an excellent example of international collaboration and interdisciplinary work.

204. There is a question over NERC funding for the IPY. POL stated that NERC has invested just £5m for polar research under its recent IPY funding initiative, which supported only two major projects.[415] Professor Shimmield of SAMS also told us that although "the International Polar Year has been a strong catalyst in grouping people into clusters and setting the priorities accordingly … Resources are still a limitation".[416] In addition, it is important that IPY should not be seen by NERC as merely a two year-long project, but as a long-term refocusing of effort. IMarEST argued that "it is imperative that measurement and monitoring funded by the UK as contributions to the International Polar Year are sustainable and not simply seen as short term research projects".[417] We welcome NERC's commitment to the International Polar Year but consider that the additional funding dedicated to the UK contribution is less than generous. NERC must confirm that it will provide sustained funding to IPY projects after the end of the programme.

The UK's role in polar science

205. The UK has a strong presence in the Antarctic through the British Antarctic Survey but has only limited resources expended in the Arctic which may have more direct relevance for the North Atlantic region, including Great Britain. Earlier this year NERC set up a working group to advise NERC Council on the major scientific priorities in the polar regions, and to recommend national and international approaches to supplying the infrastructure required to support these polar science priorities. This includes assessment of NERC's relative investment in the Arctic and Antarctic. The working group published a draft strategy for consultation in August 2007, requesting comment by 1 October 2007. We welcome the review of NERC's activities in polar science.


206. The UK's involvement in polar science has historically been focussed in the Antarctic where the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has an established and highly regarded scientific presence. The Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica is described by BAS as "highly relevant politically, socially and economically to the UK".[418] It cools 40% of the world's oceans and regulates regional and global climate; it contains the planet's largest unexploited marine protein resource; and it has unique ecosystems and exceptional biodiversity.[419] It could also be a direct threat to the UK since if all the Southern Ocean ice were to melt, the sea level around the world would rise by up to 60 metres.[420]

207. Research in the Antarctic is co-ordinated through the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR). The largest individual contribution to this research comes from the US but the second largest comes from the UK, delivered through BAS which provides "the national focus for polar science undertaken by the wider UK science community".[421] BAS has committed itself to become, by 2012, the leading international centre making use of the exceptional importance of the Antarctic and the surrounding Southern Ocean to achieve new insights into key global phenomena and scientific fundamentals. To this end, it has established a five-year research programme Global Science in the Antarctic Context. Its research topics cover climate change; biodiversity, evolution and ecosystems; sustainability of Southern Ocean biological resources; and geology.

208. BAS's facilities include two ice-strengthened research vessels, one of which can be deployed elsewhere for four months of the year, and four shore-based research stations. It also draws on support from the Royal Navy in the form of HMS Endurance. Its research areas cover

209. Whilst most UK effort in the Antarctic is from BAS scientists, there have also been attempts to involve more scientists from other institutions. The Antarctic Funding Initiative (AFI), co-ordinated by BAS, provides responsive mode funding to scientists from NERC centres and from universities. The recent NERC working group report concluded that AFI was "regarded as providing sufficient access to UK bases in Antarctica for investigators pursuing research that lies outside the BAS core programme".[422]  

210. The UK effort in the Southern Ocean conducted through BAS is truly impressive and gives the UK a genuinely world-leading position in this area of expertise. We support the continuation of this research focus and the resources dedicated to it. This is particularly important in view of the impact that climate change may be having in the Antarctic and its implications for the rest of the planet. Research into the Southern Ocean needs to be closely aligned and co-ordinated with research into the other oceans of the world, and we were pleased to note that BAS is contributing towards NERC's new Living with Environmental Change programme. However, we were concerned that BAS was not fully involved in the development of Oceans 2025, being merely "linked" to the programme.[423] As a NERC centre with a major focus on marine research, BAS should not have been regarded as at the periphery of the science proposal for the marine centres. We recommend that BAS be brought fully within the scope of NERC's marine policy as it affects the research centres.


211. SAMS and Cefas both work in the Arctic but on a much smaller scale to the effort of BAS in the southern polar seas. SAMS has a long history of Arctic interests and has received NERC strategic funding over the past six years for a range of polar studies in the European Arctic.[424] It has also worked with EU programmes, most recently the Damocles project to measure the properties and volume of the water leaving the Arctic system in the coastal waters of Greenland, and is the only UK partner in the Marine Laboratory at Ny Alesund, Svalbard, for which it has dedicated funding for ten years.[425] Cefas is involved in measurements of the flow of cold dense water out of the Arctic region in the sea east of Greenland, which measurements "form a component of the largest ocean-observing system in the hemisphere, the Arctic-Subarctic Ocean Flux study, which was instigated and is currently chaired by Cefas".[426] The aim of this study is "to map out and quantify the freshwater flux out of the Arctic, which is thought to modulate the thermohaline circulation of the World Ocean and provides us with an understanding to support prediction of future climate change".[427] Cefas is also participating in Damocles.[428]

212. Evidence from NERC centres suggests that more attention needs to be paid by the UK to the Arctic. POL described the Arctic as a "barometer" and as the "engine room" for rapid climate change. They argued that "In view of the extreme climate sensitivity of the Arctic, the likely global impact that it will create and the sensitivity of UK climate thereto via the thermohaline circulation, we believe that the UK should be at the forefront of research aimed at developing regional (including Arctic) climate prediction models."[429] NOCS agreed that there needs to be a shift of focus of marine science towards the Arctic seas and that "the UK will need to develop its particular contribution in this field of research where other nations have more experience and resources".[430] This might be a matter of co-ordination, rather than substantial extra funding. At the moment, Arctic work is reliant on responsive mode grants, and Professor Willmott of POL suggested that these needs to be harnessed "in a more effective way under a common umbrella to better address some of these really important questions relating to global change driven by the change in the Arctic".[431] BAS agreed that "it is not as much a question necessarily of resource but being more integrated".[432] We note that the recent report from NERC concluded that "a more strategic, long-term approach" to Arctic science was needed on the part of NERC to make a significant impact in the field.[433]

213. There is no UK equivalent for BAS working in the Arctic to lead and co-ordinate activity. Witnesses agreed that the necessary expansion of British involvement in the Arctic would best be done in combination with other nations, led by one of the institutes with current experience in this area. Professor Willmott of POL explained that "we [the UK] have the intellectual base; we have the people, but I think we do not have the infrastructure to go up there and carry out programmes either in marine environment or working looking at meteorological changes".[434] He suggested that "there is a strong case for us over the next ten years to up our game in partnership probably with other European countries, such as Norway and countries like Canada, bordering on the Arctic".[435] Professor Shimmield of SAMS pointed out that there had been "in the last five years a dramatic shift in the way in which Arctic research and Arctic marine research is being carried out", exemplified by "joint education programmes for the universities in the Arctic and UK universities and the University of Svalbard, which is an international organisation for training both at undergraduate and postgraduate level".[436] SAMS is "a founder member of the EU Integrated Infrastructure Programme—ENVINET working in the European high Arctic."[437]

214. International co-operation on infrastructure for Arctic research would certainly need to include the use of research vessels. BAS research vessels are not appropriate for Arctic cruises and are heavily committed in the Southern Ocean, so new dedicated facilities, including an ice-breaker, would be needed to provide year-round data from the Arctic. Professor Shimmield of SAMS agreed that the provision of such vessels "would clearly need to be done, I think, at a European co-ordination level now".[438] One possibility would be the long-standing proposal to build a European ice-breaker,[439] although the NERC polar working group was decidedly equivocal in its support for this vessel.[440] Instead, the group argued that there should be collaborative arrangements to permit UK scientists to use Canadian, Russian and Swedish vessels, with the necessary proviso that the UK should have a significant partnership role, allowing participation in the planning of cruises, for example.[441]

215. Another expansion of UK capability in the Arctic could be through logistics support. SAMS called in its evidence for NERC to establish "a physical co-ordination and logistics centre" in the Arctic as part of IPY, preferably run by SAMS.[442] POL pointed out that SAMS has "a long track record of collaborating with Arctic nations, in particular the Norwegians".[443] If it were decided to designate a NERC centre as a focus of Arctic activity, SAMS would be an obvious choice. POL argued that BAS was not in a position to provide leadership for Arctic research in addition to their work in the Antarctic because they lacked the facilities and time to do so.[444]

216. The UK could also offer capability in the development of regional Arctic climate prediction models through the Hadley Centre, BAS, the National Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, the National Oceanography Centre and the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory.[445] POL suggested that the modelling capabilities of these centres should be co-ordinated "under the umbrella of a new UK initiative, the Arctic Climate Prediction Programme, say" to enhance their effectiveness.[446] There is clearly scope for the development of collaboration in this area.

217. Professor Dickson of Cefas argued that UK effort had increased in the Arctic in the last ten years and there was now much more information available about the region than before.[447] The NERC Chief Executive accepted that the Council needed to invest more in Arctic research. He pointed out that NERC was working to identify future priority areas[448] and examining opportunities to collaborate with other countries in Arctic research.[449] We believe that the UK should be more involved in Arctic science. We do not, however, believe that this expansion in the north should be at the expense of the UK effort in Antarctica. Nor do we believe that it should be grafted on to the remit of BAS who have a very specific expertise. Instead, we would prefer to see the UK take a leading role in international co-ordinating bodies, such as the International Arctic Science Committee, with more support given to SAMS, in particular, to take up this increase in responsibilities, and a strong focus on UK strengths, rather than trying to provide independent capacity. We recommend that NERC identify funding for an expansion of Arctic research in collaboration with other nations which already have substantial presence there.

412   Ev 182 Back

413   Ev Ibid Back

414   Polar Science Working Group Draft Report, Version 5 for Comment, NERC Polar Science Working Group Report, para 44; Back

415   Ev 102 Back

416   Q 432 Back

417   Ev 230 Back

418   Ev 158 Back

419   Ibid Back

420   Ibid Back

421   Ev 159 Back

422   Polar Science Working Group Draft Report, Version 5 for Comment, NERC Polar Science Working Group Report, para 65;  Back

423   Ev 160 Back

424   Ev 165 Back

425   Ibid Back

426   Ev 101 Back

427   Ibid Back

428   Ibid Back

429   Ev 102 Back

430   Ev 169 Back

431   Q 251 Back

432   Q 469 Back

433   Polar Science Working Group Draft Report , Version 5 for Comment, NERC Polar Science Working Group Report, para 60;  Back

434   Q 252 Back

435   Q 251 Back

436   Q 469 Back

437   Ev 165 Back

438   Q 471 Back

439   Q 253 Back

440   Polar Science Working Group Draft Report , Version 5 for Comment, NERC Polar Science Working Group Report, para 64; Back

441   Ibid, para 63 Back

442   Ev 169 Back

443   Ev 102 Back

444   Ibid Back

445   Ev 102 Back

446   Ibid Back

447   Q 430 Back

448   Q 567 Back

449   Ibid Back

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