Research on remote islands – Where your closest neighbor is an astronaut

While working on tiny plant fossils from the sediment cores I am studying, I was suddenly hit by a thought. Isn’t it amazing that I can be working here in Bergen, using material that comes from a place on the other side of the world? My samples were retrieved from the far-off islands of South Georgia and Kerguelen, both located in the vast Southern Ocean. I am one of the relatively few people that has been studying these places. Because even though we have been studying the world for centuries, there is still a large bias towards where most of this research is being undertaken. The cause of this bias can be traced back to ‘the age of exploration’.

It all started in the 15th century, when several European nations turned their eyes to the sea. After some over-land trade routes became blocked by the Ottoman Empire, merchants started looking for new ways to trade silks and spices from the Far East. Demands for precious metals and increased knowledge drove explorers even further. The voyages contributed greatly to a rapid mapping of the world. Most commercial routes were settled in the 17th century, including permanent settlements on islands and shores along the way. Scientific journeys kept going on a little longer, for many regions were still unexplored.

The Antarctic islands were explored in the 18th and 19th century.  Captain James Cook made the first landing on South Georgia in 1775 and named it after British King George III. Less than 20 years afterwards whalers paid their first visits to the island. They established a permanent whaling station in 1902. This base is over 600 km away from the nearest inhabited land; the Falkland Islands. The even more remote Kerguelen – over 3300 km to Madagascar! – was officially discovered by the French in 1772. Nowadays there is a permanent settlement for French military personnel.

Scientist often use existing infrastructures in their field trips and these resources serve an important factor in deciding where to go. Military bases and trading outposts are among the most used facilities when visiting far-off places. Unfortunately, the number of these bases is limited, and it can still take weeks to reach a field site – with often very harsh traveling conditions and difficulties for bringing equipment. Not surprisingly, this leads to a large bias. Consequently, a gap in our scientific knowledge of the more unreachable areas on Earth is created.

And while some regions on the planet are still barely visited by scientist, we are already continuing our explorations further. Space exploration has brought humans further than ever before. The world is being covered by a layer of artificial satellites, orbiting the planet outside the edges of Earth’s atmosphere. Among these objects is the International Space Station. Ever since the year 2000 it has been permanently occupied by astronauts, operating at a height of only ~400 km above the Earth surface. Thinking back to our remote islands, a scientist working on the ground can actually be closer to the astronauts in the sky than any other human being on the Earth’s surface. Sometimes you might just need to look up to find your closest neighbor.

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Maaike Zwier

I am a PhD student working on paleoecology and paleoclimate at the University of Bergen. My current research focuses on vegetation and climate reconstructions of islands in the sub-Antarctic.
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