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The photographer and limnologist Klemens Weisleitner currently works at the Department of Ecology at the University of Innsbruck. His research has led him to remote regions in the Arctic and Antarctic. In a fascinating multimedia lecture, he provided insights into the adventurous world of scientific polar expeditions and presented his research results.

In polar regions, local conditions determine the schedule for research activities (©

Research outside the comfort zone

Weisleitner studies microbial communities in snow and ice in polar regions. For his research, he uses laser-based equipment, drills ice cores from the glacier and lives in a tent because there is no research station at his study site. Even a fully functional research laboratory is set up in a tent.

Especially research expeditions in Antarctica require an immense logistical effort that takes several months of preparation. After arriving at the research site, it usually takes another week until a tent camp and the scientific infrastructure are ready for use. At this point, however, there is uncertainty as to whether the planned research projects can be carried out successfully despite detailed advance planning. For example, scientific equipment may have been damaged during transport and supposedly accessible sampling sites turn out to be difficult to reach despite thorough studies of satellite imagery. Using the example of an expedition to Lake Untersee Oasis in East Antarctica, Weisleitner explained in an earlier article typical procedures that have one thing in common: Collecting data and samples to gain new insights.

After several weeks of research, the camp is dismantled and the return journey begins. Whether the ice cores will actually arrive in a frozen state in the laboratory at the Department of Ecology in Innsbruck (Austria) is uncertain, despite careful planning. The logistics companies contracted for the special transport had already delivered boxes of melted ice cores in the past and therefore caused immense loss of potential scientific knowledge.

Kitchen (left) und laboratory (right) at the study site in East-Antarctica (©

“Polar conditions push boundaries, both personal and scientific. New discoveries often happen during these most challenging circumstances.”

Klemens Weisleitner

Klemens Weisleitner at Lake Untersee with his ice coring equipment (©

The Arctic in the Anthropocene

Besides studying microorganisms in Antarctica, Weisleitner also quantifies litter in the Arctic. For example, plastic items in the natural environment can be colonized by bacteria and fungi and thus cause biological and chemical effects at ecosystem level. In addition, this fouling poses potential hazards to humans and mechanical impacts can be harmful to animals, ranging from water insects to birds and other animals. Initial results show that even in the Arctic research settlement of Ny-Ålesund, up to 0.85 pieces of plastic per square meter are present. About 10% of these items can be traced back to research activities. This study is intended not only to raise general awareness, but also to emphasize the accountability of the polar research community. Within this study, more locations of litter items in Canada, Greenland and Spitsbergen can be viewed on this map.

Effects of plastic litter in the natural environment (© Klemens Weisleitner).

APRI members Klemens Weisleitner and Birgit Sattler have been preparing for the next Antarctic expedition for several months. This time they focus on the detection of local and atmospheric anthropogenic traces in ice and snow.

Duct-tape at Midtre-Lovenbreen glacier in the vicinity of the research village Ny-Ålesund (©

Media information

Written by Klemens Weisleitner and Birgit Sattler.
Layout by the APRI-Media Team.
Contact: use our contact form.
Photos: ©Klemens Weisleitner.

About the scientific authors

Klemens Weisleitner PhD (Universität Innsbruck)
Birgit Sattler Mag. Dr., Priv.-Doz. (Universität Innsbruck)

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