“We are very worried: the Polar Institute is going straight into the wall. We are even considering closing the (Franco-Italian) Concordia station, at the extreme limit. And a closure is irreversible”, warns Catherine Ritz, glaciologist and president of the board of directors of the Paul-Émile Victor Polar Institute (IPEV), based in Brest.
Logistical support for French research, the IPEV enables 320 scientists each year to carry out their work at the poles. But most of its means are absorbed by two stations in Antarctica: that of Dumont d’Urville, near the coast of Adélie Land, and that of Concordia, 1,100 km inland.
Inaugurated with the Italians in 2005, this last station is one of only three bases inside a continent the size of Europe. Scientists there observe exoplanets, study terrestrial magnetism and follow the evolution of the ice cap.
40 km from Concordia, the European “Beyond Epica” project aims, for example, to obtain a 1.5 million-year-old ice core, in order to study climate and greenhouse gas variations over the very long term. “It’s essential science,” says climatologist Jean Jouzel.
“The French scientific community is up to it but, without logistical support, we can’t do it,” he adds.
Because working in these extreme conditions (-55°C on average) requires huge resources. To prevent the polar cold from destroying its infrastructure, Concordia must be heated with fuel throughout the year. It is also supplied from the coast by tractor raids pulling caravans and food containers, all in about twenty days round trip.
“To produce a liter of drinking water at Concordia, you need a liter of fuel oil. And you need another liter of fuel oil to bring this liter of fuel oil to the station”, summarizes Catherine Ritz.
– “the miracle reaches its limits” –
The station alone absorbs half of IPEV’s 18 million euro budget. And with the explosion in the prices of fuel oil, plane tickets and maritime transport, the Institute has incurred a deficit of 3.7 million euros this year, without the State providing for an extension in the budget. 2023.
“It’s terrible,” says glaciologist Amaëlle Landais, according to whom researchers are already forced to “tinker” with “aging infrastructure”. “We saw the situation deteriorate little by little. On the ground, it becomes difficult”, she testifies.
Questioned by AFP, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research specified that “exchanges” were “planned” with the IPEV on “the subject of state support” in “the objective of preserve the research activity”.
The situation is all the more paradoxical since France adopted in April a “polar strategy” providing for a commitment of more than 400 million euros over eight years and the renovation of Antarctic stations.
Several reports have in fact pointed out in recent years the weakening of the Polar Institute compared to its German (53 million euros) and Australian (88 million euros) counterparts.
“We bring to these (polar) lands about as many scientists for missions as South Korea, with a budget two and a half times lower. We can call it a miracle. its limits”, testified in 2019 the former director of the IPEV, Jérôme Chappellaz, before the National Assembly, evoking “human resources at the end, with people who crack”.
“Breaking this tool now would be quite irresponsible and would seriously hamper our ability to know and anticipate climate change and its consequences”, criticizes Jean-Charles Larsonneur, deputy (Horizons) for Finistère, who intends to defend an amendment to the finance bill.