Research to protect the polar regions

Wageningen Marine Research studies coast and climate not only in the Netherlands, but also overseas. A lot of research takes place in the Arctic, which is strongly influenced by climate change. Wageningen researchers contribute to interdisciplinary research, from mercury and food web analyses to marine bird and mammal counts.

The Netherlands and the Arctic have been linked for many centuries. Dutchman Willem Barentsz made history when he discovered Spitsbergen in 1596 and spent a dramatic winter with his crew on Nova Zembla, Siberia. The Dutch were also instrumental in the past northern whaling industry, which was a source of both wealth and stories.

“Today, the Dutch still feel very connected to the Arctic”, says biologist Martine van den Heuvel, who coordinates the Arctic research of Wageningen Marine Research. “The Netherlands maintains an observer status in the Arctic Council. The fact that we are considered a worthy partner in those circles is because the Netherlands has a long-standing record of quality scientific research in the Arctic. This research is an important basis for policy, for example in the field of sustainability.”

Svalbard from above
Svalbard from above


The Netherlands has a Polar Strategy, drawn up by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and described in the document Prepared for Change (2021). Research is an important part of the Strategy. Many Dutch parties participate in Arctic research, says Van den Heuvel, including the Arctic Center of the University of Groningen as well as individual researchers at other universities. “Wageningen has various polar research projects”, says the biologist, “at the interface of various disciplines. This interdisciplinarity is our strength.”

Van den Heuvel investigates the impacts of pressures in coastal areas – in the Netherlands and in the Arctic. “Topics include chemical pollution and the introduction of invasive species”, she says. “Climate change is an overarching theme. It is a common factor in all issues. And it often makes species, populations and ecosystems more vulnerable to other impacts.”

Seals depend on the sea ice edge that is melting at the North Pole.
Seals depend on the sea ice edge that is melting at the North Pole.

Changing systems

The Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the world – some parts of the Barents Sea by as much as 2 to 4°C per decade. The consequences are particularly severe in the Arctic, where plants and animals are fully adapted to cold conditions. The water temperature is increasing, species are advancing further south, sea and land ice are melting, permafrost is thawing and rivers are depositing increasing amounts of sediment in the polar sea. “We are investigating how this affects the marine plants and animals of the Arctic”, says Van den Heuvel, “and also feedback effects on climate change itself.”

One scientist studies how ecosystems at the sea ice edge change when the ice melts. An entire community depends on this ice edge, from algae, plankton and fish to seals, cetaceans and polar bears. Other researchers are mapping the impact of plastics, for example by examining the stomachs of seabirds. Teams from Wageningen Marine Research are also investigating changes in the ecology of migratory birds in Northern Scandinavia, Siberia and Greenland, and in the diet of marine mammals, for example by analysing their dung. Van den Heuvel: “We’re also strong at conducting systematic inventories at sea, for example of seabirds and marine mammals.”

We are investigating how climate change affects the marine plants and animals of the Arctic, and also feedback effects on climate change itself.
Martine van den Heuvel


Much of the research is interdisciplinary. “For example, we are working on technical innovations, such as equipment for on-site species recognition and the use of environmental DNA for species monitoring. Working together with researchers from other disciplines makes our work much more effective.”

There is collaboration within Wageningen Marine Research, but also with the rest of the polar community, both in the Netherlands and abroad. In 2015 as well as in 2022, a Wageningen research team took part in the Scientific Expedition Edgeøya Spitsbergen, organized by the Arctic Center of the University of Groningen. About fifty scientists spent ten days conducting research, using a ship as their basis. “This was great opportunity to strengthen ties and to brainstorm together about future research”, says Van den Heuvel.

Together with the Arctic Center, Van den Heuvel published a study on mercury in the Arctic. She is working with Wageningen Economic Research on the Arctic Marine Litter Project, partly financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the World Wildlife Fund. She and her colleagues also work closely with Norwegian and German research institutes, contributing to reports on the state of the Arctic environment. They also participate in a working group of the International Council for Exploration of the Sea (ICES).

Walruses as seen from the air during Expedition Svalbard 2022. Photo: Jeroen Hoekendijk.
Walruses as seen from the air during Expedition Svalbard 2022. Photo: Jeroen Hoekendijk.

Better protection

“Many of the research questions are policy-driven”, says Van den Heuvel. “One example is research into invasive species. If you want to make a policy to address this issue, you will first have to know which species it may concern, and what their potential impact is. All of this is still relatively unknown, for instance around Spitsbergen. We published a first study on this in 2021.”

Climate change will even increase these uncertainties. “It is certain that the Arctic is changing at lightning speed”, Van den Heuvel concludes. “If you want to protect the area effectively, you will first have to understand those changes. This is one of our missions at Wageningen Marine Research.”