Marine Biology Under the Arctic Ice


During my first expedition to the ice-covered Arctic seas, pure fascination and permanent excitement were my predominant feelings. The endless sunshine of the polar day, the unspoilt white and blue of ice and sky, the fascinating work using innovative methods such as under-ice video, the sightings of marine mammals such as minke whales and polar bears, and living and working with the incredibly nice and helpful colleagues onboard our research icebreaker " Polarstern " all made for an enjoyable and successful piece of work.

After my second expedition, I could add the reverse of the coin to my experience: the impenetrable fog of the arctic summer, all the fancy equipment broken down on the ice, no samples at all after several weeks of hard work, the real danger of encountering polar bears, and--yes--difficult colleagues onboard with whom you have to get along, for as long as the cruise lasts. Today, with my eighth expedition to the sea ice coming up, I always have the whole mixture of feelings and thoughts when planning and preparing an expedition, but the overall conclusion has always been that it is a great privilege to take part in these cruises, and that the research that we conduct up there is unique and important.

The biological sea-ice working group of the University of Kiel's Institute for Polar Ecology was formed in 1993. Our main topics for field studies are the diversity, distribution, and abundance of sea-ice organisms in the Arctic, Antarctic and Baltic Sea, ranging from bacteria and protozoans to algae and metazoans. In addition, we are working on general biology and ecology of these so-called sympagic (ice- associated) species and communities.

The interface between sea ice and water column in the Arctic is inhabited by specialised under-ice amphipods whose life strategies and adaptations to this extreme environment are my major research fields. Over the last few years, I have done several experiments with these creatures to reveal their feeding habits and energy requirements, and conducted some biochemical analyses to elucidate overwintering strategies based on lipid storage. However, there are still many unanswered questions to be resolved, in and under the sea ice. An overall research aim is to identify possible implications of global warming and a shrinking sea-ice cover in the Arctic for the sea-ice habitat and its organisms.

Since my first snorkeling experience in the Mediterranean as a teenager, I had wanted to be a marine biologist and nothing else. Thus, I started my studies in biology at the University of Kiel, a place famous for excellent biological oceanography and marine biology research. During my graduate studies, I took some lectures and seminars in polar ecology, but in those days I was more interested in applied ecology and environmental issues, so I chose the close-by Wadden Sea and its eutrophication problems as the research topic for my diploma-thesis. After 2 years of postgraduate study in applied science at the University College Cork (Ireland), where I worked on ecological questions in relation to aquaculture of marine snails, I finally got the opportunity to participate in a large and long-term research project at the University of Kiel again. This time, the study area was the ice-covered Greenland Sea in the Arctic, and the ecology of the under-ice fauna was the major research topic. Based at the Institute for Polar Ecology in Kiel, I wrote my dissertation on "Ecological studies on the Arctic under-ice habitat--Colonization and processes at the ice-water interface" in 1997. After two and a half years as a postdoc at the institute, and some short-term, job-market-related deviations to totally different employers including Greenpeace Germany, the German Federal Institute of Hydrology, and the Federal Research Centre for Fisheries, I am now happy to be back at the Institute for Polar Ecology on a 4-year contract.

Apart from collecting field samples on expeditions to polar areas and running experiments in the cold (about 0°C!) lab, I have to do some teaching (lectures, seminars) at the university. This year, we are going on a student excursion to Western Greenland, which means a lot of organisational and administrative work for me. But I enjoy travelling, and one of my favourite "tasks" in my job is to visit international conferences to present and discuss results and new research ideas with colleagues from all over the world.

From my point of view, the most important skills for a career in my area of polar science are--apart from educational and professional qualifications--the ability to motivate yourself, equal ability to work in a team or independently, the capability to implement your best ideas under very unfavourable conditions, and of course the willingness to spend several weeks, or even months, on a research vessel, usually during that part of the year when everybody else is on summer holidays. You have to motivate yourself during the long, and often frustrating, weeks of working through those heaps of paperwork (e.g., German customs!), packing and unpacking equipment boxes, as well as writing dozens of funding applications, many of which will not be approved. Ice work is teamwork; nobody can do this sort of fieldwork alone. Working on polar sea ice is demanding, no matter how comfortable and well-equipped the research icebreaker moored to the floe behind you might be today. Your personal and technical, as well as scientific, standards will be different (i.e., mostly lower) than they would be if you were working in other areas, such as a near-by boreal lake. However, the rewards in polar science can be outstanding, making the efforts so worthwhile.

Unfortunately, the prospects for a career in polar science do not look great in Germany and other EU countries these days. Despite the general political commitment that research on topics related to climate change is relevant and required, funding has been severely cut in recent years. Many of my former colleagues have "emigrated" to the United States or Norway, where the job market for polar scientists is much better. The new German law introducing a time limitation of 6 years for temporary working contracts after the dissertation will make the situation even worse, because most of the scientific work in this field is done on temporary project positions. I really hope that the overall situation for polar scientists in Germany will improve in the near future.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers