Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Icy continent holds climate clues

New research aims to find out how global warming in Antarctica affects the equator

Gary Wilson sees Antarctica's role in climate science as "crucial". Photo / John Weller
Gary Wilson sees Antarctica's role in climate science as "crucial". Photo / John Weller

The closest most of us will get to Antarctica is nature documentaries like Frozen Planet - but the white continent's relevance to us and our future is far greater than we think.

Many of the clues to climate change lie buried within Antarctica's ice, waiting to be discovered by scientists racing to learn what global warming at the poles might mean for nations at the equator.

Antarctica hold about 90 per cent of the planet's ice and about one-tenth of its total terrestrial surface area, and its atmosphere and water masses decide much of what happens in the rest of the world's oceans, climate and biodiversity.

A giant laboratory, preserved by its remoteness and strict international protections, the continent also gives scientists a vital window to what happened in the past under previous climate change scenarios - and therefore what's likely to happen in the future as our carbon emissions slowly transform the face of the earth.

A new series of Kiwi research projects, revealed today, will take a large step towards answering one of science's most pressing questions: how will Antarctica respond to climate change? How will the 487,000km Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica's largest, change in a warming world? And what will become of its marine and terrestrial ecosystems?

The announcement of the projects - exploring everything from effects on key predators to the stratosphere above - is also a milestone for the newly established New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI).

Within less than a year, the institute has brought together the country's best scientists in the field and started a new era in Antarctic research. Its first funding round will support Kiwi research teams from seven universities, three Crown research institutes and two independent research organisations, while also pairing them with leading international organisations.

"New Zealand has been a leader in Antarctic research for some time, and we have a very high standing," NZARI director Professor Gary Wilson said. "But what I think has been a real challenge is being able to capitalise on that, and work on some of the big questions that face New Zealanders and wider humanity."

He sees Antarctica's role in world climate science as "crucial".

"Every time you look at it, it comes back to an Antarctica component. And it's this big part of the planet - and there are aspects of it that we barely understand."

NZARI is a concept he personally long pushed for - and he is pleased at what it has achieved since its birth in August.

Crown research institute Antarctica New Zealand was investigating establishing such an initiative two years ago, but couldn't start one without funding, he said.

The initiative had started when the Government began its National Science Challenges, a concept sharing the same spirit of collaborative, mission-led science.

One of the 10 challenges exclusively focuses on Antarctic research.

When the institute made its first request for research proposals in April, the response was enough to oversubscribe the funding sought more than six times.

The outcome was a strong mix of projects, many of them linking or building on existing research efforts.

Some would have an "immediate focus" while others would run over several years as part of larger multi-institutional research programmes, Professor Wilson said.

"It's one of the first times we've asked questions about Antarctica's vulnerability and place in an integrated global system.

"But I think it's only going to get more exciting, as this is just the tip of iceberg, as to where we are headed with NZARI and other big programmes."

Research on ice: The seven projects

1) Assessing "polar amplification"

Researchers from Victoria University's Antarctic Research Centre will produce a "state-of-play" synthesis of the past, present and future polar amplification and its possible consequences. This phenomenon occurs because of processes in the climate system that amplify the amount of warming in the high latitudes compared to the global average.

It is a consistent feature of climate model projections, simulations and temperature reconstructions and is important because of the effect of the warming on ice sheet stability and, as a result, the global sea level.

2) Secrets of the past - and the future

The New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute has assembled an international team of climate experts to study environmental conditions in New Zealand's southern regions from a period in Earth's history when CO2 concentrations were similar to those in the next five years.

Led by Dr Richard Levy of GNS Science and Dr Robert McKay of the Antarctic Research Centre, the team will examine rock and sediment cores from beneath the Southern Ocean to determine how it changed as CO2 levels increased and what impact these changes had on Antarctica's ice sheets.

3) Ozone over the ice - mapping a better model

A project, led by Dr Greg Bodeker of Bodeker Scientific, will develop a new method to simulate the evolution of the Antarctic ozone layer and its coupling to the southern high latitude climate system. This will involve extending a state-of-the-art simple climate model with a novel semi-empirical module that describes the key processes governing stratospheric ozone.

4) Adapting in a changing ocean

Antarctic coastal seas will warm and acidify over the coming decades, and the capacity of polar marine species to adapt to change will determine the make up and functioning of future polar populations.

Research led by Dr Miles Lamare of Otago University's department of marine science will quantify species' capacity to adapt - and seek to understand if rates of change in polar environments are within the threshold capacity of species to adapt. Understanding both will reduce uncertainty around the fate of the Antarctic marine ecosystem.

5) Iceberg calving and the bigger picture

The relationship between large iceberg calving processes and the "grounding line" - where ice loses contact with the ground to become a floating ice shelf - will come under focus in a study looking at the eastern front of the Ross Ice Shelf, where there have been recent changes. Using a combination of observational data and mathematical models, the Otago University-led project will lead to an improved understanding of time scales and magnitudes of response in a real, three-dimensional setting - an important objective for projecting change in West Antarctica.

6) Antarctic predators: responding to change

Climate change and commercial fishing are two possible causes of change in the Ross Sea, but our ability to predict or manage effects is limited by lack of information.

Antarctica's main predators adapt to conditions affecting their food resources, which makes them ideal sentinels for assessing the state of the Ross Sea ecosystem. A study led by Dr Regina Eisert, of the University of Canterbury's Gateway Antarctica, will study the food requirements of killer whales, Weddell seals and Adelie penguins to help predict change and to identify what food resources are crucial to these predators.

7) Life on ice: biology on the white continent

Understanding how terrestrial Antarctica will respond to climate change is essential for managing the pristine continent. While several biologically driven measures of change have been identified, our knowledge on their underlying processes is lacking - and their applicability requires validation. A study led by the University of Waikato's International Centre for Terrestrial Antarctic Research will carry out experiments to address these questions. The findings will lay the foundation for an international observation network to monitor and forecast effects of climate change.

- NZ Herald

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