Scientists and their Arctic base camp at the World Economic Forum in Davos | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 25.01.2018
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Scientists and their Arctic base camp at the World Economic Forum in Davos

This year, Davos is a meeting of scientists as well. Numerous Nobel laureates exchange ideas in well-heated conference rooms, others camp out on mountain tops to draw attention to their findings.

The man looks a lot like Santa Claus. Stout figure, his face framed by a long scraggly beard, his eyes lined by friendly laugh lines. He stands in the deep snow on top of a mountain in the Swiss town of Davos and talks about reindeer.

But there is nothing romantically festive about his story – Bruce Forbes is a professor at the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland and has been conducting research on Siberian reindeer for years.

"I work with indigenous reindeer herders who still migrate with their reindeer about 1,200 to 1,400 kilometers each year," Forbes said. "In the last 12 years or so, they had major icing events where rain has come from the Barents Sea offshore onto the shore and then refroze as ice. So the reindeer, who feed below the snow in winter, can't actually reach their fodder anymore. They can't break through the ice crust and they starve."

Camping out at 1,800 meters

In 2014, this phenomenon led to the death of 64,000 Siberian reindeer, Forbes explained stone-faced. That amounted to 25 percent of all animals. He says this could now happen more frequently in the Arctic.

Rentiere (picture-alliance/empics/B. Birchall)

Thousands of Siberian reindeer died in 2014. In general, Arctic reindeer are getting smaller and weaker due to the impact of climate change on their food supply

The culprit is climate change, which leads to extreme weather conditions. The American, who speaks Russian fluently, is one of about a dozen scientists who have set up camp in the snow, 1,800 meters above sea level, during the World Economic Forum.

They call it "The Basic Arctic Base Camp" and hope it will help to raise awareness of the dramatic situation in the Artic. Forbes and his colleagues often spend months on location and experience first-hand how the large-scale melting of the Arctic ice is changing the atmospheric and oceanic conditions.

Extreme weather events on the rise

Jennifer Francis is an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. She is wrapped in a thick insulated jacket and the cold up here doesn't seem to bother her. She soberly describes the impact of the temperature changes in the Artic on the global climate. 

"Europe saw drought and heat waves this summer," Francis said. "At the same time the UK was having a very long spell of very cold rainy weather this past summer. Over North America there was a very long and cold winter in the East, while the West was having a very long dry winter. We think the Arctic is making this kind of pattern happen more often."

Under the ice with diving robots

A few dozen visitors have come to the Schatzalp this evening to listen to the scientists. While the rich and powerful talk about the economic or political future of the world down in the valley, the discussion up here is science-based. To make sure it doesn't get too cold, the organizers have lit small camp fires. It looks almost romantic how the flames are reflected in the glistening snow but the mood is pensive.

A kind of torpedo rests on one of the piles of snow. The yellow, oval device weighs 50 kilograms and is about 5 feet (1.5 meters) long. It's a diving robot. Craig Lee, a professor at the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory, has been working with these mobile robots for many years. They can spend an entire year below the ice, constantly sending data to research stations.

"We have data from underneath the sea ice, which is a new thing to be able to measure these sections," Lee said.

On January 24, 2018, Lee and his colleagues started a special experiment.

"We launched three gliders that will explore the underside of the big ice shelves for the first time,"  he explained. "That is a very high-risk, experimental effort."

The impact of Arctic change

The scientists want to understand the changes in the Artic and to analyze the consequences. They also get support from the European Union for their efforts. During the past few years, 12 million euros were made available to 24 institutions in 12 countries. The project is called ICE-ARC and is a cooperation of chemists, physicists, biologists and engineers, as well as economists and social scientists.

"What happens in the Artic does not stay in the Arctic," atmospheric scientist Francis said. "It is affecting people everywhere,"  

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