Istituto di Scienze Polari (ISP)

Research activities

The ISP's research activities are mainly carried out in the Antarctic and Arctic Regions where snow and ice are the dominant aspects of the landscape. These regions, more than others, are affected by climate change and because of this the work of scientists has become a real race against time to be able to learn more about the history of our planet in order to understand how human activities, from the dawn of civilization to present day, have impacted ecosystems, by interacting with and modifying the delicate balances that govern the Earth's climate system.
Water, is fundamental for life and unifies various compartments that form the Earth system; it is the only substance that it is found on our Planet that exists in three states are the same time: liquid, gaseous and solid, that is nothing than ... frozen water! Like snow, during winter, it covers the ground of vast areas at medium and high latitudes and then melts in the warmer seasons. In the colder zones, on the poles and on the higher mountains, it remains all year around, transforming over time into firn and then into ice. The soils of high-altitude alpine regions and polar areas, called permafrost, are a mixture of soil, rock and sediment bonded together by ice. Oceans, lakes and rivers are the liquid phase of water and without them life on our Planet would not be possible. Clouds are nothing more than water vapor that carries dust, ash, metals or pollen, depositing them onto the polar regions, and in doing so, revealing changes in the circulation of air masses and the occurrence of global events such as sudden volcanic eruptions.

Polar biological communities are often mute witness to the changes taking place: the manmade impact on them can be devastating so it is becoming essential to improve our knowledge about the current state of polar ecosystems so we can make better predictions for the future. Some polar habitats are also important terrestrial laboratories for astro-biological studies in preparation for future space research missions.

The history of our Planet, and its inhabitants including people, from before the rise of mankind, is enclosed and preserved in ice and sediments.

The ice is evidence of the past because every snowflake preserves the history of what our Planet was like at with every snowfall. The temperature is recorded directly in the water molecules through the different isotopic ratios of oxygen and hydrogen that make it up. Traces of dust, ash, metals or pollen reveal changes in the circulation of air masses or the occurrence of global events such as sudden volcanic eruptions. A story preserved in tiny crystals; real pages of ancient manuscripts kept in a frozen library! Information of extraordinary importance to understand not only the past but also our today, the information found can be used to implement and validate the climatic models that are essential when simulating future scenarios.

Marine sediments retain an even more distant history that allows us to see far beyond human history, allowing us to lay the foundations for understanding the whole Earth System and how humans have impacted its natural cycles. Microscopic organisms have left their witness of the climate in the epochs in which they lived in their isotopic make up and chemical composition, helping us to understand the evolution of our Planet.