Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Whales, drones and ice: Six bold new Kiwi studies

An emperor penguin dives under the frozen sea ice in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Photo / File
An emperor penguin dives under the frozen sea ice in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Photo / File

Whales, toothfish and the enigma that is Antarctica's sea ice will be targeted in six urgent Kiwi studies on the frozen continent and in the Southern Ocean.

The projects, funded by the Christchurch-based New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI), aim to gather fresh insights into the effects of climate change on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

"The degree of potential disruption to the coastal and near-shore regions of Antarctica from ocean and climate warming is an overarching theme of the research," NZARI director Professor Gary Wilson said.

"From algae to toothfish, there is a clear focus on the potential for living species to resist the changes in ocean conditions brought about by global warming."

One study, led by Otago University researchers Professor Stephen Dawson and Dr William Rayment, focuses on southern right whales.

Mothers give birth to calves weighing about 1500kg, yet they do not feed for the several weeks they are on the breeding grounds.

This extraordinary demand for energy was met from reserves accumulated in foraging areas, where they fed on copepod crustaceans and small krill, which in turn fed on phytoplankton, the base of the Southern Ocean food web.

Primary productivity was driven by oceanic conditions, which were profoundly influenced by climate change.

Dawson and Rayment will study how climate-driven variations in productivity affects the condition and breeding success of right whales, measured using specially equipped drones, in the sub-antarctic Auckland Islands.

Meanwhile, associate professor Ken Ryan of Victoria University and Dr Andrew Martin of the University of Tasmania will try to survey microbial communities around Antarctica's sea ice.

New studies will help scientists better understand Antarctica's enigmatic sea ice. Photo / File
New studies will help scientists better understand Antarctica's enigmatic sea ice. Photo / File

The predicted loss of annual Antarctic sea ice, estimated at between 17 and 31 per cent within the next century, is expected to have a major influence on Southern Ocean ecosystems.

This was because the sea ice supported a unique assembly of micro-organisms that formed the basic food supply for Antarctic coastal food webs.

Reduced ice thickness, coupled with increased snow cover, would change energy flow through the food web in ways that were still difficult for scientists to predict.

Ryan and Martin's project would deploy state-of-the-art biological sensors to track the abundance and physiological stress levels in the sea-ice microbial community.

This new surveillance system would enable a much better understanding of the distribution and cell health of these primary producers and provide baseline data against which future changes in ecosystem structure and function can be measured.

A third project centred around ecosystems would collect samples from McMurdo Sound toothfish during the spawning season; something that might better focus efforts to conserve the species.

Other studies would look at patterns in the ice itself.

Recently observed expansion of Antarctic sea ice in a warming ocean has puzzled climate scientists for decades and solving the problem is complex, because sea ice forms in winter, when it's very difficult to measure.

But a project led by Otago University's Dr Greg Leonard offers a unique step towards developing an autonomous system to monitor how ocean circulation, melting ice sheets, snow fall and air temperatures combine to influence the sea ice near the Antarctic coast.

A general view looking over the sea ice in front of New Zealand's Scott Base on Ross Island in Antarctica. Photo / File
A general view looking over the sea ice in front of New Zealand's Scott Base on Ross Island in Antarctica. Photo / File

By sending data back to New Zealand in real-time, Leonard and his team will develop the capability to do the work remotely, across a range of critical locations throughout the harsh Antarctic winter.

The funds were part of NZARI's broader effort to accelerate the answers to climate-change questions facing the globe, and in partnership with Antarctica New Zealand to advance the New Zealand science strategy in Antarctica.

"These new projects will help us to understand whether the Antarctic environment and ecosystems will be able to cope with warming temperatures and changing conditions, including possible tipping points that may result in accelerated change."

The work was urgent as the planet faced exceptional rates of warming.

"The polar regions and their ice sheets and oceans are particularly vulnerable," Wilson said.

"Some of the projects will also help with the implementation of the newly created Ross Sea Marine Protected Area."

NZARI would be investing $500,000 in the new projects, and collaborate with other Antarctic research institutions for substantial co-funding.

- NZ Herald

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