Cold Climate Research in Poland: Interview with Dr Mateusz Strzelecki, University of Wrocław

By Alisa Musanovic
University of Wroclaw Collection

Alisa Musanovic 

Today I’m with Dr Mateusz C. Strzelecki, a researcher at the University of Wrocław, who recently helped establish the new Alfred Jahn Cold Region Research Centre in Wrocław, Poland. Could you tell us more about yourself and your career so far, particularly how you came to specialise in Arctic affairs?

Thank you for inviting me to talk about Arctic affairs and my way to the Arctic. I think it started with good teachers. I’ve been lucky to have excellent geography teachers both in primary school and high school. Geography was always my favourite subject at school. Later, when I started my Master’s degree in Poznań at the Adam Mickiewicz University, the geography group was very active in the Arctic. For many students, it was a dream to get the chance to go on an expedition with people like Professor Kostrzewski and Professor Rachlewicz – the big names of the 90s and early 2000s. I wrote a student essay for a competition about why I would like to go to the Arctic. This was at a time when I was reading about Arctic heritage, including the big expeditions led by people like Scott, Amundsen, Bering and Franklin. I was lucky enough to get accepted, and my first trip to Svalbard, where Poznań and other Polish universities have research stations, took place in 2005. When you enter the Arctic landscape and spend just a little time there, you can love it or hate it. In my case, I had an inner spirit telling me I needed to try to understand that pristine Arctic landscape more, because I realised even in those early days that the big questions about the future of the Earth’s climate are shaped in the Arctic. 

My research questions predominantly focus on coastal zones, the area of my specialisation. As a coastal geomorphologist, I explore the reaction of the Arctic coastal zone to shifts in climate. I specialise in areas of the Arctic that are still glaciated, like Svalbard and Greenland. To explore that topic slightly more than I could do in Poznań, I moved to the UK to do a PhD at Durham University. Again, I had wonderful teachers; I was working with the one and only Professor Antony Long, who is a leading British investigator of sea-level changes in Greenland. I also had the privilege of working with Colm O’Cofaigh, Chris Stokes, David Evans and Jeremy Lloyd. That experience in Britain was very important because it showed me that even small Polish teams with a lower budget can contribute to the discussion run by the big Arctic or scientific nations such as Britain, the US, France, Germany or Norway. 

After the PhD in England, I moved to Norway for my first postdoctoral stay at the University Centre in Svalbard, where I became slightly more specialised in rocky coastlines. This is a sphere of Arctic coastal research where the Polish voice is particularly well heard because we are probably one of the only teams exploring the important changes to rocky coastlines that are quite difficult to detect. These questions are crucial not only from the perspective of landscape research and geomorphology itself, but also in terms of future investment in the Arctic. We need to search for the areas that are stable and less impacted by permafrost degradation, other coastal erosion and extreme processes. Rocky coastlines and stable bedrock zones of the Arctic will be the areas for potential investment or development of infrastructure in the Arctic. That’s why we have decided to focus a bit more on this. After Norway, I worked with some colleagues from Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Potsdam who specialise in Arctic coastal change, although their focus is on Siberia, Alaska and Yukon, where there are ice-rich permafrost coastlines rapidly eroding and changing. My group was the voice of the stable bedrock coastlines, but I think that interaction went very well as we are now in close cooperation.

After many years abroad, I decided to go back to Poland and selected Wrocław as the place to continue my work. Wrocław has a special place on the map of Polish Arctic research because some of the most important names in Arctic environmental research are linked with Wrocław University. We have at least three big names: Professor Kosiba, a polar meteorologist and climatologist who established one of the schools at the university; his colleague, Professor Stanisław Baranowski, a prominent glaciologist after whom Wrocław’s research station in Spitsbergen is named, who died tragically in an accident in Antarctica; and the one and only Professor Alfred Jahn, who was probably the most recognised Polish geographer working on cold region landscapes during the Cold War period, mainly focusing on permafrost and periglacial processes in Greenland and Svalbard, as well as Alaska. So, I would say there is something special about Wrocław regarding polar research. The University’s legacy slightly decreased in impact in the late-90s and beginning of the twenty-first century, but it was more like a generational gap or a change following the death of Professor Jahn in the mid-90s. There were different topics that the researchers were working on; they were more interested in mountain ranges and slope processes. However, the amazing long-standing Arctic legacy was one of the reasons why I selected Wrocław when I arrived in Poland in 2013.

The decision to start working in Wrocław was also linked with the chance given to me by Professor Migoń, who was the head of our department. He said that if I came to Wrocław I would be able to pick up the topics I was most interested in exploring and could be fully independent. This was quite tempting because normally when you are in the earlier stage of your career, you have to work under leaders running a large project. You are not actually designing the research scope. The move also felt like an obligation. I’d had the chance to study in the best places in the world regarding Arctic environmental change, so now it was time to give something back. I could use the experience and knowledge I gained in Britain, Norway or Germany to help develop a creative atmosphere inspired by Durham, Longyearbyen or Potsdam here in Wrocław. 

The idea that we need to go back to the big questions left for us by Jahn and our former big colleagues, who were visionaries of Arctic and cold region research, was growing in me over the last few years. They were living during times when Poland was still on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. They didn’t have the methods we now have, but they left big questions. We have a word in Polish to describe such people, which is ‘omnibus’ – they had a very open mind even though they didn’t have access to as many libraries or resources. Their educational background was much more wide-ranging; it included philosophy, social sciences, humanities, as well as physical sciences. They understood the region and its processes on a much wider scale than we do now. Now, we specialise – we are so focused on our very tiny discipline. We can make great progress with this, but maybe because of the sheer amount of information and data that is now filling modern science, we have lost sight of the broader perspective.

Now, we are trying to return to these big questions with new methods and approaches. That’s how the idea of establishing the Cold Region Research Centre started. I’m happy to tell you that in February this year, our university opened the Centre. We’ve got a blank page that we can now fill. What is also special about Wrocław is that our university currently has the largest number of early- and mid-career Arctic researchers in the country, specialising in landscape transformation due to climatic changes in the Arctic. Therefore, there’s huge potential for us – everything clicks really well here. We have a nice team that is motivated and quite experienced already. We have a great Chancellor of the university who believes that if they give us such a chance, we can push our understanding of the cold regions further. So, that’s where I am with my Arctic journey today.

How did the idea for the Cold Region Research Centre first come about? Is it a result of many years of discussion among you and your colleagues?

My thoughts about Wrocław’s legacy simply built up to that moment in your life or career where you feel that if you don’t make use of certain circumstances or opportunities, you will regret it for the rest of your life. At some point in academia, you reach a stage where you want to build up your career and progress fast. You think about getting grants, publishing, gaining experience. But here, the question is about selfishness, and you need to be very careful. At some point, it is very tempting when you are on the first page of the news and successful in your academic career. However, that balance between your own development and your duty to the community is important. I believe that we, to some extent, play a special role in society. We should be ready to use our skills and knowledge to help others, especially those in need. I think that’s the most important role of the academic. I knew that I could not take all the profits of my research only for myself. Of course, I have also benefited from my return to Poland. I have been well supported by a number of organisations and successful in obtaining research funding, all of which have helped me grow. At the same time, I knew I had to do something that focuses not only on me, but utilises the skills I have to help other colleagues grow. Together, we can help create an atmosphere of work which will be even more beneficial for wider society. 

Over the last few months, I was involved in a special process. I was given the chance to participate in a unique experience at the Centre for Leadership at the Leadership Academy for Poland, run by Professor Cezary Wójcik. He gathers successful early- or mid-career Poles from different sectors, including business, culture, art, non-government organisations and academia. Every year, they look for change-makers who bring commitment, engagement and courage to the world and gather around 40 people. They taught us about leadership, again with a focus not on yourself, but rather the wider work we need to do to help make Poland as well as the world a better place. We were asked one question in particular: what is your work and what is your purpose? I could have stayed with what I was doing, like getting published and getting grants – building my own ego and career. But I realised I needed to give something back, so I went to the Chancellor and told them all the details I’ve already mentioned to you about the unique opportunity Wrocław posits. Some people would say that this focus on historical legacy in establishing the Cold Region Research Centre is just philosophical, but I believe that the words we are using and names we are following are extremely important. If we pay attention to and respect the work of our former colleagues, those who established Polish polar research, we can take what they left us and give it to our generation. 

A final special linkage with history is that last year we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the University of Wrocław’s Polar Station – the Stanislaw Baranowski Polar Station in Spitsbergen. This was something that motivated us – that for 50 years, that little cabin has been used for summer fieldwork. All the big names have experiences in Baranówka (a nickname for the Station), many of them spending their first Arctic expedition there, collecting samples for their Masters and PhDs. The Station was built without any special programme or even any special permission. Baranowski dreamt of having a glaciological station close to the glacier they were investigating, Werenskioldbreen. He was influenced by his stay in Cambridge, where he had the chance to visit the Scott Polar Research Institute and learned about the glacier monitoring programmes that were starting up in various parts of the Arctic at the time. He returned to Poland in the middle of the Communist regime, where they had no resources, and it was very difficult to get anywhere outside of the system. He asked his wife to draw a plan of the little cabin on a serviette in the restaurant, took it, and somehow they managed to reach Svalbard and built it with their own hands. That’s how the Station began. For 50 years, it has served as a shelter and place where students can come and carry out their postgraduate research programmes or collect samples for their theses. 

The 50th anniversary of the Station was a time where we sat down and said we would establish this new research centre so that we can manage the Station better and maybe extend its operation beyond sporadic expeditions, creating the necessary administrative, financial and logistical foundations to maintain the station every season and open it to everyone for free. We want to make sure the Station is not only for Polish scientists; we already have several questions from colleagues in Czechia, the UK and Norway, concerning their potential use of the Station for their own projects. We really want to do that, but to ensure it’s done in a professional way, we needed to set up the Centre. Now we will have dedicated funds which will at least secure basic funding allowing us to repair the Station on a regular basis and maintain the technical side of it. Whoever comes to the Station will be working on their research project in safer conditions. Therefore, this has also been one of the ideas behind the Alfred Jahn Research Centre – we are now the major logistical, administrative and scientific support mechanism for our research base in Svalbard. As you can see, there are many issues that are linked together – that’s where we are at the moment.

What are the main fields or topics that the Centre will explore?

To answer your question, I need to again go back to the history of Wrocław’s cold region geographical research. As mentioned before, our patron, Alfred Jahn, was a leading Polish researcher in permafrost and periglacial processes. He investigated landscapes shaped by frost, cold temperatures, snow and frozen ground conditions – we want to build on that legacy. If you take a look at Svalbard or other Arctic landscapes that are still glaciated, most of the established teams, at least from the European scientific community, focus on glaciers, glacial rivers, processes of deglaciation and permafrost (mainly in ice-rich permafrost regions, like Siberia and northern Alaska). We have found a small gap in the research that we have experience in, and we want to follow up on this. We will investigate the state and development of permafrost conditions in areas that have just recently been exposed to retreating glaciers in the Arctic. Our team have also become experts in understanding coastal permafrost, particularly in Svalbard, but we aim to develop this knowledge further and use those skills in Greenland and other glaciated archipelagos of the Arctic. 

Therefore, the major focus of the Centre will be the transformation of Arctic landscapes by periglacial and permafrost processes. However, we need to add a little star here that our interest is also in environments or landscapes, which in modern cold region geomorphology, we call paraglacial. Paraglacial landscapes might be a new term for those not involved in physical geography; they are landscapes shaped by glaciers or glaciations, but at the moment are controlled by all other geomorphological processes, like rivers, winds and coastal processes. In short, the Centre will try to improve our understanding of Arctic landscapes that have experienced a very rapid retreat of glaciers and have been reshaped by cold periglacial processes and frozen ground conditions.

Do you have an idea of who will be involved in the Centre’s work? Will you have students of all degree levels?

The core group will be physical geographers, however, the philosophy of the centre is that we are open to interaction with humanities and technologies. We are going to work like an operational umbrella linking researchers across all universities of Wrocław, because we also have a University of Environmental and Life Sciences and a University of Science and Technology. They have had some Arctic activity in the past, but they’ve never had the logistical abilities and scientific backgrounds to continue their research. We believe that if we group us all together, we can operate as one Wrocław team. 

In its first stage of operation, the Centre will link early-career and mid-career researchers, who are at least PhD level. We already have four PhD students involved in our operation and we will continue to train them. At this stage, we are not thinking about specialised courses for Master’s or Bachelor’s degrees. It’s probably too early for this; we are now at that stage where we need to actually prove that the chance we’ve been given by the university is working, let’s say, scientifically. We must show that we are delivering new projects and solving certain research questions. We need several years of testing, which also includes testing each other. We need to look at how we are going to operate in a new realm where we are working on our own careers alongside trying to build something together with colleagues from other universities.

In the meantime, we are also trying to unite the three other university stations that Poland has in Svalbard, owned by universities in Toruń, Poznań and Lublin. Through our Centre, we want to create something like a ‘Union of University Stations of Poland in Svalbard’ (this is just a working title). We will start to fulfil joint research themes and projects together that we will carry out at the same time across our four stations. The first idea is to focus on glacial lakes, given the surroundings of all four of our stations. If the project works, that would probably be the area where we train the first Master’s students and maybe we would have joint PhDs working in four stations over the next few years. We will be trying out different ways of cooperating.

If I have one comment that is slightly less optimistic, it is that some of the colleagues from my generation realised that while Poland is strongly present in Svalbard and a number of Arctic areas, somehow our groups have been separated. During previous polar symposiums organised in Poland, we would realise that others were working on similar things to us. Why had we not been cooperating? I think that was a major fault of our slightly older colleagues – somehow they forgot about joining forces. That’s another motivation of our Centre, to have one hub for cold region geomorphological processes, acting as a catalyst for joint research. Our group has enough experience and energy to help smaller teams who have great ideas but have somehow been omitted by big names or programmes. Some of these researchers haven’t had the chance to go to the field or access certain literature – we want to secure that for them. We want to be leaders who help create the conditions for other leaders to rise and develop in their own fields and institutions.

While we are using Alfred Jahn’s name for the Centre, we also want to learn from the mistakes made by previous researchers to improve our own cooperation. Jahn left an amazing legacy but, while I never met him, I heard from his students that he was quite authoritarian. He was an old-school professor whose ego was very big. He was very confident because he had that wisdom, but somehow it suppressed his students and younger colleagues from developing following his death. We want to foster an atmosphere of trust and friendship with our colleagues. I think that’s what Arctic research teaches us – that we need to respect nature but also each other, particularly the weakest member of your group.

How will the new Cold Region Research Centre fit into Poland’s Arctic institutional map, given there are already numerous Polish institutions dealing with polar matters?

One initiative the Centre promises to deliver is ‘The Wrocław School of Frontier Research in Periglacial and Permafrost Environments’ (again, this is just a working title). We would like to meet every two or three years in a friendly atmosphere, maybe somewhere in the Karkonosze Mountains where we also carry out periglacial research. I’ve attended some wonderful meetings in Iceland, Britain and Norway where important professors met with students and early-career researchers. Without that big conference pressure, you can create an open discussion in beautiful, scenic landscapes. You can take inspiration from the nature surrounding you and just be honest with your thoughts about a research concept or present your idea for your PhD project. I realised that this is something that’s been missing. We no longer have such meetings in Poland, at least in our field. That’s our target – to be a driving force of organising such meetings. Through those meetings, we would like to create a larger group active in permafrost research. 

We have one big goal somewhere on the horizon, which is to propose Poland to be an organiser of the European Conference on Permafrost, which takes place every four years. The last meeting was in the Alps, organised by the French research community. Now we will have a conference in Spain. I believe it’s time that Poland returns to the game. The term ‘periglacial’ was actually developed by Walery von Łoziński, a Polish geologist working during the turn of the twentieth century. The most important journal in the scientific world focusing on periglacial research, Biuletyn Peryglacjalny, was also Polish. It was published in Łódź in German, English and French. It was a journal read and edited by big Polish researchers like Jahn, also shaping the careers of people like French, Allard, Tricart or Burn. Therefore, our future goal is to bring permafrost researchers from around the world to Poland, to show them that legacy. We really want to make use of the next five years – I think we will bid to host the Permafrost Conference in 2031. We have nine years to prove that periglacial and permafrost research in Poland is still active – that we actually have significant things to show the research community.

Could you provide any more insights into Poland’s past and present specialisms in the Arctic?

I would say that Poland’s interaction with the Arctic is linked with Polishness, or the Polish spirit. Maybe it’s a romantic approach, but a number of early Polish interactions with the Arctic occurred when there was no Poland, and we were divided into three by Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Our polar explorers were to some extent ambassadors of a Poland which did not exist in those days. To take an example from Antarctica, we cannot forget about Henryk Arctowski, a member of the Belgica expedition. We have a history of amazing discoveries in and exploration of Siberia by Poles who were probably sentenced to death, but managed to survive. They were so passionate about their landscape and the resources of the area that a number of the first maps and scientific descriptions of several cold region landscapes in the Far East were drawn up by Polish explorers. 

Poland has a very strong will to be companions of our Western colleagues. I think that in Western culture, we treat polar research similarly to space or oceanography research, maybe even archaeology. These are the kinds of scientific disciplines we treat with a special interest because they show that the country funding such research is well developed. Countries interested in these topics really understand that science needs to search for the truth on those extreme frontiers, and that mankind can reach that frontier in space, or on that ice sheet, or in the deepest sections of the ocean, but also by confronting our past. Poland has always been strong in astronomy and physics. Even currently, Polish physicists and astronomers, while having a budget around the 30th place in the world, rank among the top 10 countries in astronomy and physical research. Poland has always been strong in archaeology, particularly in the Mediterranean Sea and Egyptology. And, one of the branches where, out of the blue, Poles have really contributed, is the polar world. We were not present on the map of the world for 123 years, and yet somehow, in the interwar period, they led expeditions to Svalbard and Greenland, without resources and without even having properly rebuilt the country. They found that spirit, energy and will pushing them to organise the first traverse of Svalbard and investigate Greenland as their colleagues from Britain, France and Germany were doing. I think they were crazy, but it was that Polish character guiding them. 

I have a funny recurring comment from my colleagues in Britain and the US, told at many conferences. They are always saying that even now, in the twenty-first century, Poland is the only country in the Arctic only there for science. I think there’s something in that. We are there for that purity of science and need to gain the truth and understand nature. Recently, however, we have started to observe several Polish interactions in business in the Arctic and that’s good – it’s part of what partnership between science and business is about. We’re hearing about small Polish shipyards specialising in building nice boats which can be sold to Arctic communities in Norway or Greenland. However, pure scientific motivation is the number one driving force of Polish presence in the Arctic,, and myself and my colleagues are quite proud of that presence for many reasons. One of those reasons is that we are involved in so many research initiatives with a budget probably 10 times smaller than big countries like France, Germany or the UK, so we are quite efficient with spending money. We are treated as partners and able to take part in that discussion of Arctic change with significantly lower funding. I think this shows great potential. We will see what will happen with this economic growth Poland is experiencing now, because at some point this money should reach Polish science. Through this, more and more money will hopefully support our larger polar research programmes.

One of the big investments Poland is involved in now is building an Antarctic station. Just before the war in Ukraine, Poland was also preparing to build her own large professional oceanographic vessel, supposed to serve not only Poland but also Czechia, Hungary and other nations of the so-called Intermarium, so that’s also ahead of us. That will be another sign of Polish presence in the Arctic – building a proper, modern research vessel open to other Central European nations. I think that’s the major infrastructural goal we have as a country for the next few years.

What is Poland’s relationship with Arctic and Nordic organisations and bodies?

From a research perspective, our major focus is on standard co-operation with partners from other universities. We have a good developing research partnership with one of the best universities in Norway, the University of Bergen. We are running a large project on Arctic storminess together with a team run by Professor Willem van der Bilt. We also cooperate with the Western Norway University of Applied Sciences on glaciological research. Through the Arctic storminess project, we re-established cooperation with the University Centre in Svalbard. This summer, we are planning a joint scientific cruise with Bergen as well as the University of Tromsø. Those are just examples of Wrocław’s co-operation. 

In the last few years, cooperation between Poland and Norway in polar research, especially in Arctic research, has become even stronger. Norway decided to invest quite a lot of money into Polish Arctic research. Therefore, several Polish universities are now running joint Polish-Norwegian research programmes and grants. I also have a nice example of Wrocław acting as a centre linking Norway with other Central European researchers. We created an opportunity for an early-career researcher from Czechia, Dr Jan Kavan, to come to Wrocław, and this Polish-Norwegian funding helped fund his postdoctoral research stay. His project SVELTA is on the influence of climate change on Svalbard’s delta systems, where we cooperate with universities and colleagues from Norway. 

Thinking about Nordic countries, we also have good collaboration with our colleagues from Copenhagen in Denmark. One of my inspirations for the Alfred Jahn Cold Region Research Centre was CENPERM, which is the Centre for Permafrost established in Copenhagen a few years ago. We are thinking about making CENPERM our leading partner. Also, the largest project I am running right now, called GLAVE, is in Greenland. It is focused on the impact of extreme waves on Arctic landscapes, with particular focus on the safety of Arctic communities in Greenland and Arctic Canada, and partly in Alaska. We are already cooperating with Danish colleagues who have longstanding experience of Greenlandic exploration and landscape research, so that’s another link we have with Denmark.

To go back to the legacy of Professor Jahn, he had a colleague in Finland, Matti Seppälä, who was a famous Finnish permafrost and periglacial researcher. They had many years of research partnership. When Jahn and then Matti Seppälä passed away, their partnership was forgotten about. Now we think it might be interesting to join our experts from Wrocław with colleagues in Finland. A few years ago, the University of Oulu in northern Finland established an initiative called ‘Arctic Interactions’, re-igniting Finnish permafrost research. We are thinking about inviting them to cooperate with us and maybe having a joint research programme – one in Finland, and maybe one in Svalbard. We could offer them access to our Station. We just contacted them recently because we want one of our experts, Dr Kasprzak, to go to Finland for a research stay to investigate one of the periglacial landforms in one of the national parks in northern Finland. 

To select a final example of cooperation with Nordic bodies, we work closely with the Svalbard Science Forum, which is the major Norwegian platform for research cooperation between Norwegian and international scientists working in Svalbard. The Forum provides the chance to find a partner among Norwegian universities, as well as coordinate our research efforts in Svalbard. They have played an important role in organising our cruise to Svalbard later this year together with our Norwegian partners. There will be three teams on one boat, reducing the environmental impact of our fieldwork, as well as being economically beneficial for all the teams. Furthermore, one of my students, who is working on glacial lakes, will be supported by the Svalbard Science Forum this year. They offer an Arctic Field Grant for students and my student is a recipient, which is very great support from the side of the Norwegian Research Council.

Looking to the future, what do you see as the greatest challenges to the Arctic?

If you asked me that question a month ago, I would have probably focused on maintaining or creating better conditions for joint scientific cooperation, maybe involving more nations that are non-Arctic, who should have the right to develop their own scientific exploration of the Arctic. Poland could play quite an important role here because we are a non-Arctic nation very active in the Arctic, and we can lead the way for growing economies like India, Brazil or other countries in Central Europe who would like to work in Arctic environments.

But now, we are living in a different world. It looks to me like we are already in Third World War conditions. Geopoliticians would say that Ukraine is now one of the theatres of modern war. It looks like we have entered that moment where superpowers like Russia have decided it’s the moment to change the way the world has been organised in the last 50-60 years. They are challenging US supremacy in trade or as a general power securing world peace. I’m afraid that another theatre of that war is the Arctic. 

Over the last 30 years, we have experienced an amazing period of joint scientific exploration of the Arctic, where tremendous research progress has been made through the cooperation of all Arctic nations, as well as the influence of smaller nations. We made a major step towards better understanding of Arctic climate change and general environmental change. Mankind started to appreciate and understand how crucial the role of the Arctic is for the climatic systems of the whole planet. We also learnt about the many values hidden in the North, which are important for securing our civilisation. Again, I would like to mention those virtues of trust, friendship, helping the weak and respecting nature. 

However, I’m really afraid that in present-day conditions, the Arctic might be another area where violence appears, if it’s not already happening. In late February this year, when we should have been continuing our efforts to develop democracy, science and peace, we ended up making decisions to spend more on military needs. Maybe we were overwhelmed with the vision of the end of history, that after the Second World War, nothing horrible could happen again. That noone would be bombing towns, raping women and killing young children in Europe. But this is happening now in Ukraine. 

Going back to the Arctic, I think the horrible thing is that we now need to reorientate our economy, science and politics towards a new Cold War. Experts knew that the so-called Arctic research stations Russians were investing in were military stations. This militarisation has been taking place in the last decade in particular, with massive Russian military exercises in the North. They were showing their potential to countries like Norway, using their nuclear submarines to show off in the Svalbard area. There were all those signs, yet the Western world was blind.

From a scientific perspective, I am worried. Why is mankind wasting this chance? We are in the middle of a climate crisis. We need to accelerate our focus on areas like polar regions, the tropics and desert environments. Polar regions are crucial in helping us understand how the climate system interacts with the rest of the planet. We need joint international cooperation on this. And now some of it will be ruined, because of an obsessed evil man and his supporters who want to disrupt the world order and try to regain the influence they once had. This is going to kill a number of initiatives: both scientific and cultural. It’s going to slow down the world, including polar exploration. 

Who knows when we will be able to return to normal operation in the Arctic landscape that is teaching us so much. One of the things you realise when you’re in that landscape is how small you are and how powerful nature is. When you return from the Arctic to your home, for a few days you operate like a different person, because you are emanating that purity, cleanness and sensitivity of the Arctic to other people. Maybe if everyone experiences that, we would be in a better world. I think that many of the conflicts we now have in the world are due to the cutting off of modern mankind from nature. We have started living in a world of mass consumption focused on growth and exploitation of the earth to develop our economies. The Arctic is one of the few places where you can still touch that pristine landscape and nature in its purest form. Maybe the big answers for mankind are still there – if we can bring them back to Europe and the rest of the world, we can stop these horrible wars and totally unneeded violence.

(This interview took place on Monday, 28 March 2022)

Alisa Musanovic is a Global Leadership Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. She is a graduate of a History BA at the University of Oxford and a recent graduate of an International Double Master’s Degree jointly studied at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL and University of Helsinki. 
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