On 26 April, Maarten Loonen (Dongen, 1961) was appointed Officer of the Order of Orange-Nassau. He is Associate Professor of Arctic Ecology at the Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen, and manager of the Netherlands Arctic Station on Spitsbergen. For over forty years, he has been engaged as an Arctic ecologist in top-quality research on the ecology and behaviour of barnacle geese that are breeding in the Arctic. Through this work, he gained an excellent reputation (both nationally and internationally) as a valuable Arctic researcher with an extreme amount of knowledge about this very delicate region. The detailed long-term data that he collected in the Arctic with great dedication and under complicated and often dangerous conditions are invaluable. Moreover, he has a boundless capacity for sharing his scientific passion with others, in particular with non-scientists.
In 1995, Loonen initiated the foundation of the Netherlands Arctic Station in Ny-Ålesund on Spitsbergen, the world’s most northerly village, where it is part of a small, international scientific community. From this village, researchers undertake sailing and walking expeditions to make observations and to collect data. Due to Loonen’s passionate vision and tireless efforts, researchers and students get the unique opportunity to conduct research in this extraordinary region, whereby they are involved in all aspects of the work and, consequently, gain a full understanding of the entire Arctic system.
For over thirty years, Loonen has been collecting data in the Arctic about the behaviour of barnacle geese for at least two months every year. He also supervised countless students and researchers at the Station. In addition, he participates in many other studies, whereby he is taking on a facilitating role and generously shares his impressive scientific knowledge about the region. Taken together, he stayed in this faraway wilderness, away from his family, for more than five entire years. His tireless efforts led to his data set on Spitsbergen being the longest-running annual series on the tundra that describes the major changes that are taking place here due to the very rapidly increasing rate of global warming. He is also involved in the Netherlands Polar Programme, which coordinates research in the polar regions on behalf of the NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research).
During the researchers’ brutal expeditions from the Arctic Station, Loonen is responsible for their safety because of the unique dangers, such as polar bears, extreme weather and cold. Working safely under Arctic conditions is not easy and requires correct supervision. Due to his reliable, calm and brave presence, the researchers know that they are in good hands during these expeditions through the wilderness. Furthermore, he acts as the host during visits from politicians, administrators and other dignitaries, such as Ban Ki-Moon, John Kerry, Bert Koenders (ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs) and various royal highnesses. The Station is therefore known as the Dutch embassy in the ice, headed by a unique ambassador and excellent scientist who is passionate about the Arctic region. There is a reason for him often being referred to as the Dutch mayor of Ny-Ålesund.
In 1997, Loonen was appointed Dutch representative in the Arctic Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF) working group, which focuses on the conservation of biodiversity in the Arctic. In this capacity, he has been making substantive contributions and giving advice to the Dutch ministries for almost 25 years. In doing so, he works closely with working groups that concentrate on pollution in and sustainable development of this region. Furthermore, he is committed to international collaboration with his British, German and Norwegian colleagues who also work in this region and in 2017, thanks to his record of service, he was elected president of the partnership that coordinates and facilitates the research locally. Two years later, he was re-elected for a second term. He also plays a major role in the diplomatic contacts between Norway and the Netherlands and uses his knowledge for the benefit of the Dutch private sector by giving lectures about the polar regions and climate change. Moreover, he took part in three climate expeditions with captains of industry, property tycoons and bankers, whereby he fulfilled the role of expert.
Loonen is not exactly a scientist who approaches his field from an ivory tower. He personally saw how quickly the Arctic is warming up and he is convinced that human activity worldwide is responsible for it. This realization encourages him to invest in activities that should prepare people for a behavioural change in the battle to limit climate change. He communicates in an honest and open manner, and with great enthusiasm and much power of persuasion. For example, he gives a public lecture to nature clubs or school children almost every month, whereby his account makes a great impression on everyone in the audience, time and time again. He has also created a special website about the Arctic Station, which gives a broad audience an insight into how quickly the Arctic is changing. He has given multiple journalists, writers and illustrators the opportunity to gain inspiration during a stay at the Netherlands Arctic Station. Moreover, he regularly expresses his concerns via social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, and he frequently appears in the media. During interviews for newspapers, TV and radio and in his contributions to documentaries, he comes across as an excellently informed researcher who is sometimes unable to suppress his concern and sadness about what is happening in the Arctic. It is exactly his personal involvement and passion that make his message about the beautiful, but fragile and vulnerable Arctic so impressive.
The way in which Loonen is drawing attention to the Arctic’s problems also comes out strongly in his renewed vision to link public participation to unique scientific research during the largest Dutch Arctic expedition ever: the SEES Expedition. After years of fund-raising and planning, this expedition commenced in August 2015. Fifty-five scientists, ten representatives of the press, such as weatherman Peter Kuipers Munneke and writer Ramsey Nasr, and almost sixty other interested people went on an expedition together to the uninhabited Arctic wilderness of Edgeøya. The scientists recorded what had changed since the Dutch 1968 and 1977 expeditions to the same place. It was unique, the attention that Loonen managed to generate in the Dutch media for the dramatic changes that are happening in the Arctic. For instance, he managed to build a bridge between science at top level and science at the kitchen table. He wanted to repeat this remarkable feat with an international group of people but the planned SEES 2020 Expedition with researchers from Norway and Germany has been postponed for the time being due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Scientists in focus: Maarten Loonen
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