Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Programme turns to Antarctica for climate change answers

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Sea ice, winds and invertebrates will go under the microscope in the next stage of a major science programme turning to Antarctica to answer crucial questions about how the Earth will respond to climate change.

The recently-established New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI), which brings together the best scientists in Antarctic research, this morning announced the seven projects it had selected in its second round of funding.

Last year, the effort was kicked off with research projects exploring how Antarctica's 487,000km sq Ross Ice Shelf would respond to a warming world, and what would become of its marine and terrestrial ecosystems.

Specifically, the first seven projects looked at areas including how the white continent's main predators would deal with change, the effects of large iceberg "calving" processes, and a better way to simulate the evolution of the ozone layer over Antarctica.

The new projects, funded from support NZARI received from the Robertson Foundation and Air New Zealand, will investigate a wide range of Antarctic environments, especially around the edges of the Antarctic continent where its icy margin interacts with the surrounding ocean.

Researchers will also analyse how biota fares in these extreme environments as they change.

Four of the new projects will undertake fieldwork in Antarctica this coming season as part of New Zealand's Antarctic Programme, while another will deploy to the sub-Antarctic using the University of Otago's research vessel Polaris II.

Two of the projects are collecting data by analysing existing material or by collaborating with other agencies.

A particularly exciting new collaboration will be the collection of new stratospheric data from hundreds of long-duration balloons being launched by Google to provide internet access to remote locations.

"The research programmes are using innovative new approaches to gathering data for this difficult research, from inexpensive and rapidly deployed monitoring equipment that can provide new data for climate models to tracking the stratospheric balloons to be deployed," NZARI director Professor Gary Wilson said.

In a rigorous peer-review selection process described as highly competitive, 30 expert reviewers picked the seven projects from 37 applications.

The funded projects include researchers from four New Zealand Universities (Canterbury, Victoria, Otago and Waikato) three Crown Research Institutes (GNS Science, NIWA and Landcare Research) and two private research agencies (Bodeker Scientific and Geomarine Research).

The research teams also include collaborators from Germany, USA, Great Britain, Australia, Denmark, Canada, South Korea and Switzerland.

"It's exciting to see our research efforts into understanding the potential impacts of a changing climate on Antarctica expanding to include a wide range of international collaborators as well as growing the collaborative network between New Zealand research organisations," Professor Wilson said.

Antarctica holds 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.

Each year, NZARI releases a request for proposals for short duration, high impact projects that use innovative new approaches to address pressing questions about Antarctica, its changing environment and deciphering the impacts on ecosystems and wider global processes.

The institute also provides funding for more targeted collaborative research programmes to address the major challenges facing Antarctica.

Proposals are presently being reviewed for a three year effort to investigate the vulnerability of the Ross Ice Shelf as the atmosphere above it and the ocean beneath it warms.

The Seven Projects

1) "Stratospheric transport, jets, and a better simulation of ozone's fingerprint on Antarctic climate"

Stratospheric transport, in particular barriers to transport, largely determine the distribution of radiatively active gases and their fingerprint on the warming of the atmosphere, yet these processes are often not well simulated in atmosphere-ocean global climate models.

This year, under a project led by Dr Greg Bodeker of research agency Bodeker Scientific, hundreds of long-duration stratospheric balloons will be flown by Google to provide internet access to remote locations.

Dr Bodeker and his team will use the balloon position data to reveal in unprecedented detail the transport processes and small-scale turbulent diffusion processes that are active in the southern high-latitude stratosphere.

The research would add to fundamental understanding of stratospheric dynamics and its role in the Antarctic climate.

2) "Mesoscale variability in sea ice thickness, optical properties and algal biomass"

Photo / Thinkstock

Sea ice is of global significance, playing important roles in ocean circulation and the functioning of polar ecosystems, but not being able to access it makes it hard to quantify its properties.

In a project led by Professor Ian Hawes of the University of Canterbury's Gateway Antarctica centre, new autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) technology will be developed and applied to undertake this work.

AUVs have the potential to measure horizontal variability in sea ice properties at near-centimetre resolution along kilometres of track-line, offering a fundamentally new approach to sea ice research.

The new AUV technology will be specially developed to estimate some particularly important and spatially variable properties of sea ice, namely the irradiance below and biomass of algae within the ice.

3) "Meteorological Change in the Ross Sea Region and its Link to Antarctic Sea Ice Trends"

Increases in the area of Antarctic sea ice are a puzzling trend in a warming world, especially when compared to decreases in the Arctic, and climate models have difficulty in reproducing this Antarctic trend which casts doubt on the predictions.

Changes in weather patterns over the Ross Sea that promotes ice production and pushes the sea ice away from the Antarctic coast may be poorly simulated in global models and therefore offer a potential solution to modelling this problem.

New research, led by Dr Adrian McDonald of the University of Canterbury, aims to test this possibility and determine whether small scale circulation changes are the missing piece in the sea ice puzzle.

4) "Impact of a warmer climate on Southern Ocean circulation and bioproductivity: The early Holocene"

A group of New Zealand and international researchers, led by Dr Joe Prebble and Dr Giuseppe Cortese of GNS Science and Dr Helen Bostock of NIWA, will investigate the response of the ocean between Antarctica and New Zealand to the most recent warm period of the early Holocene, 12,000-6,000 years ago.

The early Holocene is the most recent time in which southwest Pacific temperatures were within the range predicted for the coming century - between 2C and 4C warmer than present - thus is an analogue for the future climate in this region.

The study will generate new ocean temperature and primary productivity data of the ocean's surface during this warm interval and use this data to test the output of computer-generated climate models.

5) "Postglacial changes in the location and intensity of the southern westerly winds, sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands"

The strength and latitudinal position of the Southern Hemisphere westerly winds play a fundamental role in influencing New Zealand's climate and carbon dioxide exchange between the Southern Ocean and the atmosphere.

A joint research team, with scientists from the University of Otago, GNS Science and Landcare Research, plan to reconstruct past changes in the winds by applying a suite of geochemical and fossil proxy methods to peat, lake and marine sediment cores collected from the Auckland Islands at the centre of the present day wind field.

The proposed work will improve fundamental understanding of how the westerlies drive climate and carbon cycle changes in the Southern Ocean.

6) "Tidal flexure of ice shelves: the key to understanding Antarctic grounding zones"

Predicting rapid retreat of the Antarctic ice sheet and sea level rise involves fully understanding how ice flows across the transition between grounded and floating ice, an area known as the "grounding zone".

Although often inaccessible for direct measurements, continuous tidal bending of ice in this area can be precisely mapped by new satellites.

The observed bending pattern holds a key to understanding how ice sheet thickness reacts to warming oceans.

A new team of international experts, led by Dr Wolfgang Rack of University of Canterbury's Gateway Antarctica centre, will uncover important details about ice sheet bending for better prediction of ice flow at the grounding line and sea level changes.

7) "Invertebrates on the edge: Assessing the Mackay Glacier as an ecotone for tracking biological responses to climate changes"

Transitions naturally occur between one ecosystem type and another such as along shorelines of oceans or at forest edges.

These transitions are called "ecotones" and are ideal for studying the physical, chemical and biological responses to climate changes.

A new project, led by Professor Ian Hogg, of the University of Waikato's School of Science, will focus on assessing the Mackay Glacier ecotone which sits between two biogeographic regions at the northern edge of the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

The project will examine the distribution and genetic variability among populations of a range of invertebrates, and ultimately will boost scientists' ability to detect subtle biotic responses resulting from climate changes.

- NZ Herald

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