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In the middle of the commemorative years of the discovery of Franz-Josef-Land 150 years ago by the Austro-Hungarian Payer-Weyprecht expedition (1872 - 1874), the polar research station "Sermilik" in East Greenland was officially pre-opened on September 5, 2023. A delegation of the University of Graz, the Austrian Polar Research Institute APRI and journalists of Austrian media celebrated in the presence of the financier Christian Palmers. It was a historic moment for Austrian polar research!


Tobias, an East Greenlandic hunter who takes us in the open motorboat from Tasiilaq, the East Greenlandic administrative centre, to the station skilfully steers the boat over the wave crests rolling in from the open North Atlantic. The trip along the Ammassalik Island into the Sermilik Fjord to the polar research station of the same name takes about an hour, depending on the weather, along  huge icebergs that define the horizon. The variety of shapes is diverse: long, flat ice islands remind of oversized container ships; jagged icebergs with ice columns and caves stimulate the idea, that the best artists have realised daring shapes on them.

In the boat are the rector of the University of Graz, Dr. Peter Riedler, the leader and initiator of the station-project Prof. Wolfgang Schöner, Robert Galovic who is responsible for the technical planning and Roman Vilgut from the media office. The financier of the project, Christian Palmers, sees with joy that the long-planned project is now to be officially handed over for polar research in a pre-opening ceremony in his honour. People from the Austrian media –  Paul Sihorsch (ORF), Andreas Puschautz (Kurier), Norbert Swoboda (Kleine Zeitung) and Christine Lugmayr (News) – will report accordingly in all channels. The station has been built since 2021, with Covid-related delays, by master builder Lars Vestergaard from Tasiilaq, involving the local population for boat transfers, construction material deliveries and handicraft activities. For him, the boat trip is routine. Wolfgang Schöner not only represents the University of Graz, but as director of the Austrian Polar Research Institute APRI he also represents the umbrella organisation of Austrian polar research. As APRI Media Officer I feel privileged to participate in this special event. In keeping with the cold, wet, overcast September day, hoods with the University of Graz-logo are distributed and completed by the APRI-Sermilik-pin. The coastline is incredibly impressive with alpine-looking coastal mountains and glaciers. The white horizon of the inland ice dominates the western shore of the Sermilikfjord. Despite the grey sky, one can glimpse the reddish colour of the gneisses that structure the East Greenlandic mountains in sometimes highly deformed layers. Behind the low rocky islands, the station buildings slowly emerge from under the rocky hills near the Mittivakkat glacier.

The new station building

The excitement rises as we make our way through the icebergs to the temporary pontoon landing site. We take off our life jackets and climb up the wooden jetty built for material transport to the new main station. To the north is the main building of the Danish station for 6 people, which will continue to be operated by the University of Copenhagen. The smaller buildings will be used for simple laboratories and storage in the future. Master builder Vestergaard opened the door to the new Austrian station building. Wolfgang Schöner led us through the two floors, which are built on top of the basement as storage space.

Now we understood better why it is a pre-opening ceremony: The outer building is finished, but the interiors still look raw and have to be finished with wood and plasterboard. 3-layer windows and the heavy insulation of the walls will reduce the energy demand to such an extent that operation will also be possible in the wintertime. Immediately behind the entrance is the room for storing clothes with drying facilities. Next to it lie the communal kitchen and the large living space, which will serve for the well-being and social aspects of the station. The modular construction with thermal partitions allows to reduce the heatable rooms to a core area so that research can also be carried out in the wintertime with reduced staff. The dormitories for 25 people, which will be equipped with bunk beds, are located on the upper floor. A terrace above the entrance area will not only provide relaxation in the summertime, but also allow the staff to detect the presence of polar bears early from a safe height.



The opening was marked by the installation of a metal plate in honour of the financier Christian Palmers. He was visibly moved to be honoured in this way and to have come a big step closer to his goal of making a lasting contribution to Austrian polar research. He mentioned in a personal conversation that a station was an important component for him because of the social dimension and for networking among the researchers. The idea came to him during a semi-circumnavigation of Antarctica, when he stood in the Scott station and was able to experience the atmosphere of earlier polar expeditions in the confines of the historic building.


“An important motivation for financing the station is its social dimension and to facilitate networking among the researchers.”

Christian Palmers

The opening words were spoken by Peter Riedler, who as Rector of the University of Graz also acted as a representative of the operator of the station. Wolfgang Schöner complemented the opening speech with insights into the research tasks in the fields of cryosphere research, meteorology and ecology. An important point for the choice of the location was the continuous measurement of the Mittivakkat glacier carried out by the University of Copenhagen since the 1970s, which is the longest series of measurements in Greenland. Exactly during the champagne toast with a “cheers” to the station, an iceberg collapsed directly in front of the station, giving the historic moment a special dimension, like a gun salute.

Opening ceremony teaser (© Christoph Ruhsam)

Research insights

After a lunch snack in the station building, we hiked to the nearby sandy beach, through which the glacial river from the Mittivakkat glacier flows. Older terminal moraines mark historical glacier extents up to close to the sea. Since the 1930s, the glacier level has been steadily declining. This is also noticeable in all other smaller glaciers in the region. Many are disappearing, as in the Alps. Pioneer vegetation of mosses and the polar willows creeping in sheltered areas stabilize the glacier foreland, which is constantly changing. Further up towards the glacier, Wolfgang Schöner conducted discharge measurements in the milky turbid glacier stream in an overall, and there was plenty of time for the journalists to question the connections between climate change and the disappearing ice. The amount of meltwater can be inferred from the cross-section and velocity profiles.

The next day, September 6, we explored the Hann Glacier, which flows from the inland ice into the Johan Petersen Fjord on the west side of the Sermilikfjord. Wolfgang Schöner explained to the group the interrelationships of the energy fluxes on the ice with the components from the atmosphere, the back radiation (albedo) and the long-wave terrestrial radiation, which determine the budget of glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet. Unexpectedly a reference to Austrian research is popping up: The Hann Glacier is named in honour of Julius Hann. He was a pioneer of climate research at the turn of the 20th century and director of the ZAMG (now GeoSphere). We can hear the thunderous calving of icebergs as background noise. Otherwise silence dominates, interrupted by the sounds of nature.


Immediately after the celebrations, the interior work will be resumed and the electrics installed. In springtime, the delivery and installation of the energy supply units will take place in small buildings yet to be constructed in front of the station. The energy supply system consisting of 100 kWp photovoltaic panels and 200 kWh battery will be installed in combination with a generator block with 100 kW output next spring. The use of the station is planned to start in summer 2024 and is free to anyone who obtains a permit with appropriate research applications. The aim is to promote international cooperation. To this end, the station is already anchored in a new EU project. Thus, Austria takes an important step towards continuing and permanently strengthening its polar research tradition, especially in the anniversary year of the discovery of Franz-Josef-Land 150 years ago.

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