Polar Research in Portugal: Breaking the Ice

Not since Portuguese navigators such as Bartolomeu Dias and João Vaz Corte-Real were at the forefront of exploration more than 6 centuries ago has Portugal shown much interest in the poles. A small number of Portuguese scientists have managed to contribute to polar research over the last several decades, but only sporadically and by exploiting international collaborations.

But things are changing, thanks to a core of enthusiastic Portuguese scientists who have decided to use the International Polar Year (IPY)–which, oddly, runs for 2 years, from 1 March 2007 to 1 March 2009–as a platform for developing Portugal’s polar research effort and its workforce.

In the middle of this small crowd stands Gonçalo Vieira, a 35-year-old physical geographer from the University of Lisbon who has developed his career via networking and much patience. Vieira is determined to reconnect Portugal with its centuries-old interest in the world’s remote places–especially the poles. The IPY “is a great opportunity for Portugal to become involved in polar research,” Vieira says.

On the trail of past explorers

“The Arctic and Antarctic regions have always been part of my imagination,” Vieira says. But “in Portugal, there was no chance for [doing] polar research, only in countries abroad.” So at first, he used as a proxy the Portuguese mountains, which fortunately are high and cold enough to allow him to study processes relevant to polar research.

In 1993, Vieira earned a degree in physical geography and regional planning from the University of Lisbon, followed 2 years later by a M.Sc. in physical geography and environment from the same institution. For his M.Sc. project, he looked at soil erosion and the formation of ice in the ground of the 1500-m-high mountain of Gerês in the north of Portugal.

Vieira then did a Ph.D., also at the University of Lisbon, working on a 2000-m-high mountain–the Serra da Estrela in central Portugal–studying colder ground temperature regimes and their relation to climate. He also started working on glacial chronology and the reconstruction of the geomorphology of past periglacial environments–“those environments that are nonglacial but where frost action in the ground [is] the main morphogenic process,” Vieira explains. He did a lot of fieldwork, spending about 2 months a year in 1-week campaigns in the mountains during summer and winter, sometimes on his own and sometimes with colleagues.

Meanwhile, “I was always trying to go to polar regions for conferences,” says Vieira. A break came when he went on holiday to northern Scandinavia with his girlfriend and decided to get familiar with Abisko research station in northern Sweden. He wrote to the station operators and got an invitation just as a conference on geomorphology was under way. “We went to the talks and were invited to go to the field trips and measure temperature. It was a push forward for me. It showed me that it was possible.” Later, he attended courses in Finland and Poland and made more polar-research contacts.

Then in 1999, Miguel Ramos and his group from the physics department of the University of Alcalá de Henares in Spain invited him to join a project in Antarctica. Vieira’s background in physical geography was good scientific preparation for polar research, Ramos says: “Gonçalo is a very enthusiastic young researcher, and he … integrat[ed] very well [with] our scientific group.”

Since then, Vieira has been studying permafrost–bedrock, soil, and deposits that have remained frozen for more than 2 years–in Livingston and Deception islands in the South Shetlands. Together with his international colleagues, he is modelling the distribution of permafrost and monitoring the temperature and other physical parameters in an effort to connect it with climate change. The research is important, he says, because scientists recently have uncovered “a close linkage between permafrost and climate,” says Vieira. Rising global temperatures may cause the permafrost to melt and the organic matter in the ground to decompose, releasing gases such as methane and COthat amplify climate change. Although the situation has been studied well in the Arctic, in the rockier Antarctic it is still possible “to study an area where almost everything is unknown and the relationship between climate and ground is very poorly understood.”

Vieira became an assistant professor at the University of Lisbon in 2005, just after earning his Ph.D. “Now I am [at] the stage where I am leading a small research group, and it’s quite good because I have collaborations and other contacts.” Right now, he is setting up new collaborations with Brazil and Argentina, which both have Antarctic research stations.

Vieira’s Antarctic-research portfolio continues to grow, but he still has projects in Portuguese mountains. The two activities complement each other. “In the Antarctic, I am studying the present-day processes. In the Portuguese mountains, I am looking at relic processes [to] try to reconstruct the landscape 20,000 years ago. These are similar processes, so I can apply what I learned in Antarctica.”

The Antarctic experience

Vieira has done two stints of a couple of months each at a small research station in the Antarctic, with his Spanish colleagues. “It is cold, but not too cold.” Temperatures usually stay between 0 and -5 degrees Celsius in the summer. But “you have to be healthy” and follow strict safety regulations. “If you have an accident there, it takes a long time to go to a hospital.” It can be a challenge socially as well. “You have to be quite flexible, understand the others, know that people are not perfect, be patient. You have to know that not everything will be going well,” and “you don’t make a big case of small things that happen.”

It is an “isolated, totally different environment. … All the things that you see in books are there and unexploited.”

Leading the Portuguese polar effort

In 2004, after taking part in a meeting organised by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research of the International Council for Science, a co-sponsor of IPY, Vieira became the national contact point for IPY in Portugal. He set up a Portuguese IPY committee made up of 10 Portuguese biologists and geophysicists who together lead Portugal’s new polar research effort.

“My goal is to support the new generation of polar scientists,” says Vieira. No Portuguese university offers an advanced degree in polar science. For students who want to get involved, “the difficulty is in finding a supervisor, because there are very few,” says Vieira. “What we try now is to use our contact networks and other programmes” in other countries “to send our students to work with them in the field, in Antarctica.” Still, it is “a big problem to fund the current Ph.D. students.”

Funding is also a burning issue. Money is scarce, the evaluation of research proposals is slow, and Portugal’s traditional lack of interest in the poles means “it is very difficult to find funding for such projects.” But there are signs that the situation is changing. New projects are being discussed, and money has been promised for polar research. The European Union, which supported more than 60 international polar research projects over the past 10 years with more than €200 million, also has money available, for Portugal and other European countries.

“Portugal was an explorer country,” says Ramos, and now it looks to be reclaiming a part of its tradition. “The changes are huge at the moment because it’s a new field,” says Vieira. “Of course, we can’t compete with countries with a long tradition. [But] things are improving.”

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700038

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