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A new home for the Austrian Polar Research in East Greenland is becoming reality. The construction on the area of the Sermilik Research Station is continuously proceeding. What is so special about the place and how did the observations at the Sermilik Fjord start?

After several years of planning, the Austrian polar scientists soon will get better facilities with a new permanent base in East Greenland. The construction of the new Building at the Research Station Sermilik is proceeding. The Station will be operated by the University of Graz in cooperation with University of Copenhagen and builds on decades of polar research experience. This is a major step for the Austrian polar research.

Location of the polar research station in East Greenland on the west coast of Ammassalik Island on the Sermilikfjord. (© Google)

Sermilik – Towards a Century of Research

It may seem strange that Austrian polar researchers decide to build a research station in the middle of nowhere, 20 km from the nearest (small) town on the East coast of Greenland. However, the history of polar science in the Sermilik area began already in 1933 when the last expedition led by the famous Danish polar explorer, Knud Rasmussen, made the first observations and measurements of the nearby Mittivakkat Glacier (back then known as Midtluagkat). Keld Milthers, a geologist participating in the expedition, recorded ablation and photographed the glacier and its surroundings. The foundation for the next almost 90 years of research in the area was established.

Mittivakkat Glacier captured by Keld Milthers in 1933 (a) and by Niels Jákup Korsgaard in 2010 (b).

Because of the studies from 1933, the Mittivakkat glacier was chosen as one of four case studies for the Danish contribution to the International Geophysical Year (1957/1958). When Børge Fristrup and his team arrived at the Mittivakkat glacier in 1958, 25 years after Milthers, the glacier front had retreated 0.6 km and experienced more than 50 meters lowering of the ice surface (Fristrup, 1960). Since then, the glacier has retreated further and made it possible to study a proglacial landscape in rapid change.

Interactive 3D model of the Mittivakkat glacier (zoom in and zoom out – mouse wheel, drag around – left button + move, pan – right button + move) (© Iris Hansche – Own work with the help of QGIS and Qgis2threejs plugin (thanks to Minoru Akagi). Base map: OpenTopoMap; glacier outlines: Mernild et al. 2011; DEM:ArcticDEM)

The Establishment of the Sermilik Station

During the field work for the International Geophysical Year and the field campaigns of the next years all work was done with a temporary tent camp as the logistic base.
As scientists from University of Copenhagen intensified the scientific work in the 1960s it became clear that there was a need for a more permanent base for the field work. Consequently, the first Sermilik Station was built in 1970. To celebrate the opening of the station, the Danish crown princess Margrethe (now Queen Margrethe II) visited Sermilik and left a coin in the foundation. The position of the station was chosen to be sheltered from strong storms coming from the Greenland ice sheet. However, while protected from heavy storms it was exposed to other natural hazards: in spring 1972 the recently built station was destroyed entirely by an avalanche. Luckily, at least the royal coin was recovered and donated to Børge Fristrup.

The dedicated researchers did not let themselves turn down, yet they started planning a new station at a slightly different location: from 1973 to 1974 new buildings were built and have since then been the base for numerous researchers and students.

1975, break from the fieldwork. (© B. Fristrup, Arktisk Institut)

University of Graz in East Greenland

In 2016 the idea of establishing an Research Station in Greenland for Austrian Polar Scientists started. As mentioned in earlier APRI articles (1, 2) the already long history of science in the area and an existing close cooperation between the universities of Graz and Copenhagen made the Sermilik area ideal for the Austrian polar Research. After a long period of planning and the difficulties and delays during Covid, the construction of the building started in the summer of 2022 and the station is now winter- and weatherproof. The building already survived its first Piteraq (strong fall wind, which name translates to the very describing “that which attacks you”) in the end of September 2022. This Piteraq showed gusts stronger than 53 m/s (190 km/h) and caused many destroyed roofs and windows in Tasiilaq. During 2023 the work on the station will continue with the inner part of the station and some infrastructural work as electricity and water supply. The new House is big enough to accommodate 20 scientists and students. Together with the existing Houses, up to 25 scientists will be able to do their research. Both Universities of Graz and Copenhagen can use the old and new stations with equal rights.

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