Today I’d like to welcome Prof Rein Vaikmäe, Professor Emeritus at Tallinn University of Technology, Chairman of the Estonian Polar Research Committee and Counsellor to the President at the Estonian Academy of Sciences, and Estonia’s representative on the European Polar Board. Could you tell us about yourself and your career, particularly how you came to be the Chairman of the Committee?
I graduated as an electronic engineer at the Tallinn University of Technology in 1969 and worked as an electronic engineer at the university after that. A few years later, in 1973, the Institute of Geology – part of the Estonian Academy of Sciences at the time – organised a laboratory of isotope research to study climate history. This concerned connections with the last ice age in our area and how to use modern methods of isotope geochemistry to study those connections. And they invited me to join this new group to start work on isotope geochemistry. This fieldwork in polar and Arctic areas seemed quite attractive to me, so I joined the team and started to work on isotopes in water and especially isotopes in glaciers (in glaciology).
At this time, the Institute of Geography in Moscow – part of the Soviet Academy of Sciences – organised glaciological expeditions on Svalbard and planned ice core drillings there, as we were the only laboratory at this time in the Soviet Union able to analyse stable isotope composition of ice cores. We joined this, and this was the start of my career in polar areas. In 1981, I defended my PhD on the formation of isotope composition and atmospheric precipitation in the Arctic, which is important information for work with ice cores. So, these polar topics got very interesting; we continued the work on glacial history for several years in the Arctic – especially on Svalbard – having also participated in ice core projects on Severnaya Zemlya in 1979. Then, the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in Leningrad, nowadays St Petersburg, started to work on ice coring and deep ice coring in Antarctica, so they invited us over. This is the background of how I was involved in polar topics. During Soviet times, we participated in several projects, including the deep ice core drilling project on Dome B in the Central Antarctic plateau. In the late-80s, I also started to work on permafrost in Arctic Siberia in cooperation with colleagues from Moscow University. The aim was to investigate the glacial history of Arctic Siberia, or in a wider prospect, the Eurasian Arctic, and we continued quite successfully.
In the early-90s, after regaining independence, Estonia’s policy was to try and have more connections on an international level, so we established the first Estonian Polar Research Committee to be a contact point for the European Polar Board. Our community of polar research has never been very wide, but traditions of polar research in Estonia actually go back to the nineteenth century, when our explorers, as part of Tsarist Russia, participated in Antarctic as well as Arctic expeditions. From this time, many Estonians have been active in polar research. With this in mind, we discussed with our polar research community how to organise ourselves, and they proposed that I be Chairman. The Estonian Academy accepted the establishment of an Estonian Polar Research Committee and I was elected as Chairman. Since then, the committee usually has 13-14 people, and we work with people from our polar research community here in Estonia, but we also have quite a lot of international connections. This is the background of how it all started.
How long have you actually been Chairman then?
I started in 1993, so quite a long time. Now we’re looking for a younger person to replace me, but until then I’m continuing as Chairman.
What does your role as Chairman of the Committee entail?
On the one hand, to try to keep together our, let’s say, still quite limited number of people interested in polar research, and share advice. Our Polar Research Committee also represents Estonia on the European Polar Board, and there are quite a lot of topics discussed there. To help represent Estonian opinions, we discuss among our polar research community what the Estonian position is. On the other hand, I keep our polar research community aware of what is going on in the European Polar Board and the international scale of polar research. We also try to advise our governmental offices on polar matters, especially matters related to the global climate, environment and change in polar areas. We also try to attract more young people to these topics and the Board, to find new people to continue the work of retiring polar researchers.
Could you tell us about any past or present Arctic-related research that you or other Estonian researchers are undertaking?
As I mentioned, I personally started with ice core topics to get information on past and contemporary climate and environmental changes in polar areas. Then, in the 80s, I worked on more or less the same topics on permafrost in the Siberian Arctic, and also on the Canadian Arctic, in cooperation with our Canadian colleagues. This has been my personal interest, but also my research group’s. Now, other research groups are oriented more towards environmental problems such as greenhouse gases in the Arctic – for example, methane problems.
Another topic in our polar research community has been Indigenous people in polar areas, especially in the Russian Arctic, because there are small nations who actually have the same roots as Estonians – the Finno-Ugrian people living in Siberia. Their culture, languages and life conditions are now changing, so this has been one of the most important topics and many people are working on this.
Could you outline a few more past and present connections Estonia has with the Arctic?
Yes, of course. There were people, not only Estonians, but also German Estonians, living in Estonia in the nineteenth century who got their education in St Petersburg and joined expeditions to the Arctic. People like Eduard Toll and Ferdinand von Wrangel; they inherited one of the well-known navies of Admiral Bellingshausen, who was born in Estonia and joined a Russian expedition that discovered Antarctica.
In 2020, to celebrate 200 years of this event, Estonian non-governmental institutions and officials organised an expedition to celebrate the modern yacht named after Admiral Bellingshausen. Starting from Kronstadt, they sailed the route taken by Admiral Bellingshausen with his ships and celebrated the discovery of Antarctica. This received good media coverage – they entered several harbours, had lectures. This was, on the one hand, to popularise polar science, but there were also some scientific programmes with scientists sometimes participating in the expeditions. Anyhow, in this expedition, they collected samples for our scientists to use, and this was very highly supported in Estonia. Even the President of Estonia joined this expedition.
Last summer, the same ship went to the Arctic. But of course, as everywhere, Covid restrictions made this last expedition quite difficult. They wanted to go through all of the Arctic Circle, but because of restrictions, especially in the Western hemisphere in the Canadian Arctic, they could only go to the Eurasian part. They went to Svalbard, Iceland, the Faroe Islands. Again, this was to popularise polar research, but also to fulfil some scientific topics. So, these have been the most important events that have taken place recently.
It’s great that it was even able to take place in the current context. You’ve been part of the academic sphere for a long time, but could you tell us more about the broader Arctic institutional landscape in Estonia – what are the key fields?
Maybe the Arctic is the most important, because it’s closer to us, but with polar research, we need to take into account both the northern and southern contexts. There have been quite a number of people active in Antarctic research. The one problem we have had is that, whilst we cannot say we haven’t had any financial support from the government, we still have problems with financing our research in polar areas. In 2012, the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Education and Research asked us to put together an Estonian polar research strategy and action plan. So, along with our polar research community, we put together an Estonian polar research strategy, which included Arctic research. This went through international evaluation and the project actually received high points. It was given to the Ministry of Environment for them to activate, but because of wider problems with financing in research, this has never been reactivated. Still, we try to find the possibility to continue our work and people have used many international projects and contacts to continue their research.
We can say that all our public universities and several other institutions have groups who in one way or another have an interest in polar topics. Climate change, environmental contamination problems, polar ecology, greenhouse gases and ice core studies have been the main topics. Nowadays, the humanitarian part, let’s say, soft science, is more and more important, including how the changing climate in polar areas is influencing local people. We’re also trying to use our digital knowledge in Estonia, which has been quite popular – everybody knows about Estonia’s digital success.
From a governmental part, a few years ago, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposed to put together a group of people to discuss Estonia joining the Arctic Council as Observer. Unfortunately, during the Council meeting in May last year, where they had planned to discuss the applications of new Observers, the topics they scheduled were so tight that this was postponed for the next Council meeting. But, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs continues with this and currently they have put it in the annual plan to work out an Estonian Arctic policy, following the EU’s recent Arctic policy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will rely on the competence of our universities, and they invited all the polar research community to help with this topic – I find that this is very important for the future. They even gave some money to the research council to announce an open call for grants to invite young people and educate them on polar matters, so this is a very important step forward.
Would you say this new Arctic policy is a key priority for Estonian Arctic engagement then?
Yes, I guess this was the first time I found that governmental offices are really interested and that the government accepted this topic, so this is very good news for our polar community.
Looking on a more international scale, has Estonia worked with Arctic and Nordic bodies before, and has it got any official status in such bodies?
Maybe not just for the Arctic, but, as I mentioned, the most important body in Europe is the European Polar Board. Through this, we engage in work on EU polar documents. Right now, myself and my group have actually been part of the EU Horizon programme, EU-PolarNet. A few years ago, we worked with EU-PolarNet on the white papers of EU polar research policy and strategy, and currently, EU-PolarNet 2, in the frame of the Horizon programme, is working on how to implement its strategy in Europe. In this project, there are 27 countries working together, and for Estonia this is a way that we can actually give our contribution to the EU’s polar policies.
Our main interests are, of course, Arctic directions (although polar research also includes Antarctica, and if we speak about climate change, we have to look at both of the polar areas). But in Europe, of course, the Arctic is more important because it is very close to us. So, our polar research cooperation is mostly with Nordic countries – especially Norway, Sweden and Finland – and also with Germany when looking throughout Europe. If we speak about institutions, the Arctic Council is the first institution on an international level that Estonia is officially interested in joining as Observer. But, our people are very much involved with the many colleagues, institutions and universities in Europe working on polar areas, so these connections are already very tight.
One example of collaboration with the Nordic countries is an event from just a year ago, when Estonia celebrated 100 years of diplomatic relations with many countries, including Norway. The Ambassador of Norway in Tallinn is very keen on polar research, and with the Embassy’s initiative we had a special meeting (this was a hybrid meeting because of Covid restrictions). Last year in April, our Academy of Sciences and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen, Norway (as a hub of the Academia Europaea) had this joint meeting. Their scientists and ours presented their results and discussed cooperation, so this was quite an important event and got wide media coverage from both sides – in Estonia and Norway. So again, these relations are very tight.
Do you know how far developed the Arctic strategy in Estonia is at the moment?
There is a document on Estonian Arctic strategy, although it was only initiated in January 2022, so it’s at the very beginning. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs established a special group to draft a first version. Then, our polar research community will contribute and work on this. The aim is to get this document ready for the second half of this year, because towards the end of the year, the new application for Observer status in the Arctic Council will be presented. We hope to be ready for the document to be accepted by the government by this time.
What would you say are the key fields that Estonia can cooperate on with the Arctic?
One very important topic is the conditions of Indigenous peoples in polar areas, especially in, but not limited to, the Eurasian part of the Arctic. As I mentioned, we have long traditions in this area; there are many people working on this who can contribute. But, of course, many people also work on physical geography, climate change and environmental problems. There are also economic problems; we are looking at what is going on in the Arctic with warming, and there have been far more economic activities. And for the environment, if there are more activities, there is more risk of contamination, if you are looking at the oil and gas industry, for instance. There could be contamination problems in the Arctic that are actually very severe, so these risky operations are difficult. We also have competence in these areas, so we can contribute.
Overall, our major aim is to try and work towards keeping this very fragile environment as unchanged as possible; if our knowledge is needed, we want to keep the competence in these areas. What is happening in the Arctic with climate is also influencing our areas, so our atmospheric physics are very much interested in co-operating, to get more reliable information for meteorological prognostics and weather forecasts.
How far would you say that Estonia’s approach to the Arctic has changed over the last few decades?
Our work has specialised in ice cores and glaciology, because all the changes are reflected in the Arctic very drastically. As well as our people taking part in scientific expeditions, there are also polar travellers – this is very popular in Estonia. All the information these people have got has been really alarming. So, we need to keep our Estonian community – not only polar research, but the national community – aware of what is going on in the Arctic, and how important it is to have specialists in this area. We must also advise the government about how Estonia should act, to keep the Arctic as unchanged as possible.
Finally, what do you think are the greatest challenges to the Arctic today?
Of course, it is rapid warming, which is very well known. In spite of this, there are still many people who don’t believe that this is serious! But scientists can really convince us of what we can do to keep the Arctic as unchanged as possible. This is also the same when it comes to educating young people.
One thing that is also worth mentioning is that, more than 30 years ago, we established an Estonian Polar Club. This includes people who have been working in polar areas, especially scientists but also those supporting scientists. This Polar Club has organised a polar foundation through which we support young people and schoolchildren. Several times now, we have organised a competition on polar matters which has been very popular; several hundred schoolchildren have participated, and the winners are actually taken to Arctic areas to work a little bit with scientists and see what polar research looks like. Through this event, we have now got several young people studying polar topics in different universities – in Scotland, in Svalbard – so this has been very successful in actually encouraging young people to get involved in polar research.
Let’s hope those young people can help to combat those challenges you described. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us today.
Thank you for your interest.
(This interview took place on Thursday, 3 February 2022)