From September to November 2023, the Swiss Polar Institute carried out a survey to gather the views of the Swiss polar and high-altitude science community on the environmental footprint of their research and on existing best practices and measures. The results indicate that the categories with the highest footprint also have the highest potential for improvement.

Launched during the Swiss Polar Day, the annual conference of the Swiss polar and high-altitude research community, the survey collected 56 responses in total, with the terrestrial Arctic (48%) and high altitude (32%) as main fieldwork regions. The results point towards carbon emissions as being by far the main factor of environmental footprint of polar research, followed by waste management, black carbon and heavy metal emissions, invasive species, microplastics and wildlife disturbance.

The participants identified transport of personnel followed by freight and power consumption (on site and for data storage and analysis) as main categories of CO2 emissions and also mentioned these same categories as having the highest potential for improvement, through reduction and avoidance. Carbon offsetting was perceived as a measure of last resort. “Slow research” was one of the prevailing suggestions: single longer field expeditions, ground-based travel, sea-based freight, research cooperation for shared data acquisition and online scientific communication. Participants also indicated autonomous data acquisition, optimisation of infrastructure, access to second-hand equipment and instruments as well as low-carbon meals as means to reduce the environmental footprint of their research.

Remote attendance of conferences as well as limitation and optimisation of field campaigns are among the measures most of the respondents (75%) have applied in their research already since 2018, showing the readiness of the Swiss polar and high-altitude research community to implement environmental protection measures. Switzerland was also perceived as a platform of scientific and technological innovation that can contribute positively to areas such as smart logistics and coordination, renewable energy development and automation of data acquisition.

Taking the survey results into account, The Swiss Polar Institute aims to continue supporting polar and high-altitude research more sustainably. The SPI is currently assessing its existing environmental measures and metrics in consultation with its Science and Technology Advisory Board. In the upcoming months, the SPI will consolidate its core activities and devise sustainability guidelines, strengthening its foundations as a sound and resilient platform for Swiss-based scientists.

Read previous posts on this topic: Towards a reduced environmental impact of Swiss polar and high-altitude science – Swiss Polar Institute

Header photograph: Swiss Polar Day participants filling in the survey. © 2023 Swiss Polar Institute.