32: Research Stations

On a bit of a different line this week, we will be taking a look at some of the practicalities of doing scientific research, rather than what the research itself has discovered. It’s easy to think of scientific research being done in two ways- one in a high tech lab with fancy instruments and lots of test tubes, or the other out in the wilderness far away from civilisation, as people sit jotting notes in a notebook and staring at nature. But what if you need to do the high techy work out in the wilderness?? Well, this is where research stations come in!

This week we will be looking at what research stations are, why they are so important, but also why they might cause some problems when doing science. Hope you enjoy!

Map of research Stations in the Arctic. (Picture: Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal)

Why they are great

In many places across the world, often in rural or remote settings, you will find research stations. They can vary from a lone wooden or metal shack to a huge network of buildings including gyms, cafeterias and much more. Their basic role is to allow scientific research to happen, and they do this in a number of ways.

First and most basic is that they give you a space to sleep. Often research takes more than a day, and especially in remote areas where you’re studying the environment, you may not want to sleep in a tent. Research stations give you a place to sleep and store your stuff in safety away from the elements and wildlife, as well as in lockable locations if your equipment is especially valuable and there are people wandering nearby. For some stations, i.e shacks, this is where it ends. Most station however have an extra suuuuuuper valuable asset- electricity. This is not only useful for turning on the lights in the evening to read a good book. It may be essential for even many basic pieces of equipment. Diesel generators have their place, but having to drag both that and all the fuel you need for it, maybe even for a few months, out to your field sites means a lot of extra hassle, and if each researcher that visits needs to do this themselves, it’s a lot of extra cost.

In the slightly more high end research stations you may even get proper lab space, with freezers to store samples, machines to sterilise equipment, deionised water for experiments, ovens for drying out samples and a general stash of research equipment and workspace that you can use for your experiments. With some research projects you can go out into the field, collect samples and then analyse them when you get back home, but that can be inconvenient. For example say you need to pick out a certain species of microscopic animal out of water, it’s easier to collect 20 litres of water a day for 10 days and pick out the creatures to take home, than to take 200L of water home.

Not being able to do the lab part of experiments on site can also literally ruin your study. Some substances have chemical reactions happening within them, e.g. plants will continue to respire even after you uproot them, so to sample them ‘fresh’ they either need to be frozen to stop the respiration, or tested and scientifically prodded straight away before things like carbon are lost or transformed through ongoing processes like respiration.

Finally, research stations can be a great space for scientists to run into one another, see what each other are working on and find opportunities to collaborate. Scientists from opposite sides of the globe who may never have met may be doing complementary work in an area, and working at the same research station may bring them together to create even better work.

The gyms and stuff mentioned earlier are not really a usual research station feature, that’s more for places like Antarctica which can house researchers for long periods of time e.g months to years, so needs to provide them with more than just the bare basics. After all good science requires people not going stir crazy. Well it should… sometimes a field season can be tough…

Abisko research station in northern Sweden, with some scientists sciencing in the foreground

Why it’s a bit of a problem

Of course, there’s always a but. Clearly, research stations are very useful and important, but a couple of downsides to them have been noted recently.

For example in the Arctic there are a limited number of research stations. When people do research in the Arctic they usually want to be at a research station because of accommodation, electricity etc… so this means that a lot of research is done in the same places. This can be good, e.g. it is easier and more reliable to compare your experimental results to someone else’s if you have both done it in the same place. However, it also means that the parts of the Arctic that have been sampled can be quite limited.

A large part of Arctic field research is done in either Toolik Lake in Alaska, or Abisko in Sweden as they have facilities and are well established places, but they will only give you a perspective of how the environment works in these two places. It may be different in Northern Greenland or central Siberia, meaning that our scientific data for the Arctic can be a little biased (for more info on data gaps see plog 17: Data gaps and the MOSAiC Expedition).

It also means there’s a small risk that when you go out to test the environment, you may be testing in an area where someone has done a test before that you don’t know about, which could mess up your results. Say you want to see how much nitrogen is in the soil, but you don’t know that 3 years ago someone came to that exact area to see what effect adding nitrogen to the soil has on other plants. Now you’re sampling in an area that has ‘unnaturally’ high levels of nitrogen, meaning that the results you get at the end are based on an incorrect assumption that the environment is ‘natural’. Of course, cases like this are rare and probably almost never happen, but it is a risk in a heavily studied landscape.

Toolik Field Station at Toolik Lake in Alaska. (Picture:Mbdfar/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Why the problem is difficult

So then using research stations are bad? Well, not necessarily. Firstly it’s a practicality thing. You can’t just build a new hut with electricity at every new location you want to do research. It’s just not possible time and money wise. If a fully functioning research station already exists it can make sense to make use of it. Also if it is already well used, it is likely to have an established travel route to it whether that is roads, boats or helicopters. Chartering this kind of stuff for a brand new location, part of which might involve extra trips out to scout out the location, can also be pricey. Finally, you have to do your research somewhere. If you do it in the middle of Siberia then you can’t assume that Norway would be the same, and vice versa.

Research in new or little used locations is also super important. It has it’s place in helping us fill in the spatial gaps in our understanding in the Arctic (and as it’s a vast and often tricky to get to place, there’s a lot of gaps!), but research stations also play an important role helping more in depth high tech research to take place and allowing us to ask more precise and involved questions about the natural world.

For more info:

Abstract of paper discussing sampling issues: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0612-5

A trailer to a documentary about life on a research station in Antarctica, the whole documentary is available on youtube:

Music: kongano.com

Cover photo: The Halley VI Antarctic Research Station on the Brunt Ice Shelf (Picture:Michal Krzysztofowicz/British Antarctic Survey)

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