Researchers in Antarctica, ice ecology iO Donna

TOwe met five experts on the polar regions. They talk about how the extreme north and south of the world are different and what the most urgent problems are, from climate warming to the modification of ecosystems.

The thrilling record of the “Ice Mermaid”: she swims 2.5 km in the waters of the Antarctic

They also tell us about their life “in the cold” between the challenges of research and the (very sweet) encounters with the local fauna.

«The ice tells us who we have been and who we will be»

Rita Traversi52 years old, Calenzano (FI)

«Ice preserves the remote past of the planet, it is an extraordinary natural archive created by the snow which, as it falls, brings with it everything that is in the air» explains Rita Traversi, analytical chemist at the University of Florence. «The data is collected through ice cores, cylindrical blocks extracted by drilling the ice cap: they are the climatic history of the earth brought to light». The work site is not chosen randomly.

Rita Traversi 52 years old, Calenzano (FI)

«It must have an undisturbed accumulation, i.e. free from winds and immune to summer melting. The thickness of the shell also counts: the further you want to go back in time, the higher it must be.” All this provides valuable information. «From the end of 1700 onwards, for example, the human contribution in terms of fuels and heavy metals is clear, both in the Arctic and in Antarctica, although in the latter to a lesser extent because in the southern hemisphere industrialization arrived later . Ice also knows measures to combat pollution, such as limitation of sulfur-based fuels implemented in the 1990s to limit acid rain: their decrease was immediately recorded.”

Today, when the challenge is to lower CO2, we also know that human beings are not always at fault. «It is the orbital variables that regulate the great climate changes characterized by the alternation of glacial and interglacial eras; inside, then, there are minor variables, those on which to intervene: we are the wild card that can make the difference”.

«Pollutants arrive at the poles through the atmosphere and ocean currents, and enter the food webs of ecosystems»

Nicoletta Ademollo, 48 years old, Arezzo

Biologist specialized in ecotoxicology and environmental chemistry, with a doctorate in Polar Sciences, Nicoletta Ademollo at the Cnr Isp in Bologna studies how persistent organic compounds (POPs), a category of pollutants, arrive in the polar regions, becoming toxic for the food chainAnd. «Many chemical products we use reach the Poles through the atmosphere, ocean currents and, to a minimal extent, carried by migratory animals. In the atmosphere, they undergo a series of condensation and evaporation cycles, but at the Poles, due to the low temperatures on the ground, they are trapped in the ice and accumulate, also thanks to the less intense light which prevents their degradation” explains Ademollo.

Nicoletta Ademollo 48 years old, Arezzo

They are present in both the Arctic and Antarctica, although in different ways. In Antarctica, for example, it is important to study resident species such as the Adélie penguin, an excellent indicator of the health status of the continent. «It feeds mainly on krill, linked to sea ice in its life cycle; the pollutants pass from the ice to the animals, compromising their health.” If a toxic compound is detected in these latitudes it should be banned because it means it is capable of traveling long distances and bioaccumulating. “Polar regions play a valuable role in accelerating the regulation of chemicals through the support of existing regulatory frameworks. Research allows us to intervene, demonstrating that not everything can coexist with the environment».

«There are species destined not to survive, but the ecosystem, in its entirety, is resilient»

Giulia Castellani 38 years old, Varese

Giulia Castellani 38 years old, Varese ©Photo by Suse Kuehn

Researcher atAlfred Wegener Institute from Bremen, Giulia Castellani is sea ​​ice ecologist, that is, it studies the ecosystem connected to the ice that forms on the ocean surface. «About two meters thick, algae grow inside, accumulated in the part in contact with the water, which contains nutrients useful for their development». These algae are at the base of the food chain, fundamental for the survival of some microorganisms such as zooplankton. «They take advantage of the fact that the algae grow at a different time than those in the water, a guarantee of food for a long period of time because they have both the former and the latter available».

As the ice melts, food will decrease, a phenomenon that is already visible. «Some species will disappear, but the ecosystem must be seen in its entirety and as a whole it has great adaptability. We know from experiments that algae living in water will benefit from higher temperatures, while ice does not. Furthermore, ice attenuates the passage of sunlight: when it decreases, the growth rates will also change.” In the Arctic things have already changed, while in Antarctica the ice cap strengthens resilience. «Overall the continent is stable, action can still be taken».

«The poles are an open-air laboratory, in exploring the depths of the sea the mystery never abandons me»

Roberta Ivaldi 56 years old, Genoa

Roberta Ivaldi 56 years old, Genoa

Exploring and studying the seabed, both in its superficial and porous morphology, is the work of Roberta Ivaldi, professor of marine geology toHydrographic Institute of the Navy of Genoa. «The geometries of the seabed are particular because it is here that the ice deposits have left their imprints. When we encounter a U-shaped glacial valley, for example, we know that the ice cap there has retreated, while the melting icebergs leave scattered glacial sediments, like drops of rock.” The studies are the result of systems that use acoustic data and 4D reconstructions.

«In 2022, in Antarctica, we used Proteus, a robot developed within the Pnra (National Antarctic Research Programme) by the Institute of Marine Engineering of the Cnr of Genoa. Capable of navigating under the ice, it allowed us to map multiple elements together, from the seabed to the water temperature, up to the overlying ice: in this way even instantaneous processes such as seasonal melting can be recorded.” The seabed of the Arctic and Antarctica are similaralthough the former is an ocean surrounded by continents and the second a continent in itself. “In the Arctic, records of ice sheet deposits can now only be seen morphologically, while in Antarctica the ice shelf still exists.” A job full of emotions, which so far has led the hydrographic community to map approximately 23 percent of the polar seabed. «The beauty is the awareness of making a contribution, accompanied by constant wonder: when you explore you can imagine, but you are never certain of what you will find».

«Antarctic animals do not fear humans: it means that we can have incredible encounters, but also that we must stick to strict rules»

Pippa Low 36 years old, Findhorn, Scotland

Pippa Low 36 years old, Findhorn, Scotland

«Visiting these places is impressive: the scenery is epic, unlike any other place» explains Pippa Low, marine biologist and expedition leader for a shipping company specializing in the Arctic and Antarctica. «The fauna is amazing, it is rare to observe animals in their natural habitat in such extreme environments! Encounters accompany you throughout your life.” One wonders whether human presence can impact such delicate balances.

«The impact is mitigated by Iaato, International Association that regulates both environmental rules (such as cleaning boots, jackets and not bringing food ashore, ed), that the correct behavior to follow. The goal is to leave no trace.” Necessary rules, also because polar fauna does not fear man. “It happens especially in Antarctica, where the animals do not experience hunting and are not conditioned in their behavior.”

Dr. Low spends the southern summer in Antarctica and the northern summer in the Arctic, which made climate change clear to her. «In the south, rain and snow have increased, but there is also an extreme variation in the extent of ice. To the north, however, the changes are more evident, such as the retreat of the glaciers in Svalbard; the extent of sea ice is also variable, with a tendency towards lower amounts in summer. For this reason the guidelines for fauna are more stringent.”

«The experience of absolute silence, one of the strongest sensations I have ever felt»

Giuditta Celli, 31 years old, Ortignano (AR)

Giuditta Celli, 31 years old, Ortignano (AR)

Giuditta Celli also deals with polluting elements in the polar environment, PhD student in Polar Sciences at the Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, currently in Canada, in Manitoba. At the center of his studies, the behavior of mercury and iodine inside the polar ice caps. Twice in Antarctica (the longest stay was a year) and one in the Arctic, in Svalbard, experienced the pros and cons of life in the polar regions.

«During the Antarctic winter it is very dark, but the starry sky is very bright. The strongest sensation was the experience of absolute silence, but also feeling small, a tiny being in front of so much immensity.” Life on the bases is not easy. «At Concordia, the Italian-French station in Antarctica, during the southern summer there can be up to seventy people; from February to November, however, there were only a few of us, around thirteen. Emotionally the experience of darkness is difficult, it is important to form a group and involve each other.” Problems of coexistence between men and women do not exist here.

«Only professionalism and respective skills count: we are always a team». The best things that have happened? «In the North the Northern Lights, in the South the most beautiful day was November 8th, when the fresh fruit arrived». At certain latitudes you also learn to appreciate what seems obvious elsewhere.