Dutch research laboratory in Antarctica

Case

Dutch research laboratory in Antarctica

Dirck Gerritsz laboratory (NPP)

The Dirck Gerritsz Laboratory is a Dutch research facility in Antarctica, which has been placed near the British Rothera Research Station. The lab is named after the sixteenth-century Dutch merchant, Dirck Gerritsz, probably the discoverer of Antarctica.

Did you know? The premise of the Antarctic Treaty is that Member States minimize causing damage to the Antarctic environment.

Climate change is what binds the Netherlands and the polar regions. A low-lying country like the Netherlands is susceptible to any rise in sea level, including that caused by the melting of the ice cap in Antarctica. The consequences for people, ecology and economies are already perceptible throughout the world. A good understanding of these changes through high-level research is important to the Netherlands.

Dutch polar research

The Netherlands is a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty and has observer status on the Arctic Council. As a participant, the country undertakes to invest in research at the poles. This is the reason behind the Netherlands’ polar research programme. The South Pole is a unique research environment where the consequences of climate change can be measured in detail, without any human disruptions. The Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science therefore took the decision in 2010 to make the sum of six million euros available for research in this region.

The Dirck Gerritsz Laboratory

Lab 'Liefde' is loaded off the container shipLab 'Liefde' is loaded off the container ship

NWO and the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) developed a design for a laboratory in conjunction with BAS. An arrangement with four separate laboratories made from sea containers placed in a 'docking station' was chosen. It supplies the labs with electricity, Internet and water and protects them from the severe weather conditions. BAS built the docking station and NIOZ built the mobile laboratories, each with funding from the Netherlands Polar Programme (NPP).

Who was Dirck Gerritsz?

Five ships set off for South America in 1598 to look for a trading route to Asia. One of these ships, called the 'Blijde Boodschap' (or Annunciation) was blown south. There, Captain Dirck Gerritsz saw 'high mountainous country' that reminded him of Norway. This is cautiously assumed to be the Southern Shetland Islands, which would make him the first person to describe Antarctica.

After his discovery, Gerritsz hastily had to moor in the port of Valparaíso. There he was taken prisoner by the Spanish, with whom the Netherlands was then at war. Following five years in prison, Gerritsz regained his freedom through an exchange of prisoners. He settled in Enkhuizen as a merchant but failed to survive his next expedition: he died at sea in 1608.

The entire Dutch laboratory is named after this Dutch merchant and explorer. The four mobile laboratories are named after four of the five ships: Blijde Boodschap (Annunciation), Liefde (Love), Geloof (Faith) and Hoop (Hope). (The name of the fifth ship was Trouw (Loyalty).

 

The four laboratories

The laboratories are placed

Many changes have to be made to convert a sea container into a mini-laboratory. To test the insulation, a refrigeration company built a trial structure that mimicked the climate in Antarctica: cold (between 0 and 5 degrees in summer when the research will be conducted) and dry. The reliability and solidity of the laboratories were also extensively tested: repairing a lab on site would be very expensive.

[Sustainable]
The principle underlying the Antarctic Treaty is that Member States must do as little damage as possible to the Antarctic environment. That is why the Netherlands built the mobile lab on an existing base. In addition to other measures aimed at sustainability and energy-saving, solar panels have been placed on the roof of the docking station to ensure that diesel is used as little as possible.

The laboratories' basic equipment comprises two workbenches, a fume cupboard, a sink and store cupboards, as well as the specific requirements of the various research projects. Annunciation and Hope are fitted out as 'Dry Labs', each with a different content. Love is equipped as a 'Clean Lab' and Faith as a 'Wet Lab' or 'Cultivation Lab'. The researchers can use a number of labs for their research.

Research

The Dirck Gerritsz laboratory during the Arctic winterThe Dirck Gerritsz laboratory during the Arctic winter

The first five research projects will start using the Dirck Gerritsz laboratory in the Arctic summer of 2012-2013. They were selected by NWO after a funding round in May 2011. They are:

  • Trace metals: Iron and other trace elements in the seawater of Marguerite Bay, West Antarctica
  • Antarctic algae: Antarctic algae in a changing world and the consequences for the food chain
  • Ryder Bay: The influence of glacier meltwater on marine microbial communities in Ryder Bay, Antarctica
  • Freshwater flow: Freshwater flow and climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula
  • Greenhouse gases: Seasonal dynamics of greenhouse gases in the coastal region of Antarctica