Scientists aim to unlock secrets of sprawling West Antarctic Ice Sheet

For decades, scientists have observed how giant ice streams have flowed out of West Antarctica, eventually feeding the frozen continent's largest ice shelf.

But dramatic changes seen in some areas of Antarctica have given scientists cause for concern as they try to gauge what role climate change could play in these processes.

A Victoria University study, which has received $300,000 of this year's Marsden Fund, will examine ice sheet stability in Antarctica, and its wider implications for the rest of the world under climate change.

The most comprehensive report on climate change, released last month, predicted a sea level rise of 1m this century under the warmest scenario.


The only factor that could push that level up was if something unpredictable happened to the sprawling West Antarctic Ice Sheet - an area far less understood than the Greenland Ice Sheet.

"That's the bogeyman, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, because we still don't understand it," said Professor Tim Naish, director of Victoria's Director Antarctic Research Centre.

Scientists have used several decades of satellite records to understand how the ice streams that feed the Ross Ice Shelf have behaved over the past century.

Some had simply "switched off", stopping and stabilising, while other streams in nearby valleys continued flowing into the shelf. The research, led by Victoria University scientist Dr Hugh Horgan, would look at the stability of these processes, and whether ice sheets were capable of stabilising themselves.

"What the project is all about is trying to understand what the processes are that affect the stabilities of these ice streams - and the backdrop is, if you hit the system and warmed the ocean, what will happen?" Professor Naish said.

"It's around trying to identify what you would call the natural processes of these things, and when perhaps that natural stability will get over-ridden, because the forcing of the influence of a warming ocean in a warming world will be greater."

A major concern was whether the edges of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could be melted back to the point where it exposed a huge, ice-filled basin as deep as 2km below sea level.

If this happened, as had been seen in another area of Antarctica, rapid melting would quickly follow, causing the sea level to rise.

"So we know that the process is happening on a regional scale, on a continental scale, but based on what we think, this process could be more widespread," he said.

The study is one of several projects focused on Antarctica, among 109 successful Marsden Fund projects selected from a pool of 1157 proposals submitted to the Marsden Fund Council.

The Marsden Fund, administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand, aimed to enhance the quality of research, support the advancement of scientific knowledge in New Zealand, and contribute to the global knowledge base.

A further $20 million had been allocated over four years in this year's Budget, which allowed the Marsden Fund Council to recommend an extra 22 proposals for funding this year.

Five projects funded by Marsden grants
The laws of attraction - According to the love-at-first-sight cliche, time is supposed to slow down or even stop when we first feel drawn to another person. University of Canterbury researcher Dr Joana Arantes is leading the first systematic investigation of how time perception actually changes during attraction. This work builds on a study in which females were briefly shown images of men. They perceived they were viewing the photos of attractive males for longer than the photos of unattractive males, whereas there was no difference for photos of attractive versus unattractive females. The proposed studies, receiving a $300,000 fast-start grant, will explore how subjective time changes relate to interpersonal attraction - and whether they predict attraction in real life.

Catching quakes - Using a network of golf ball-sized instruments placed in Canterbury homes, a new study by GNS scientist Dr Anna Kaiser aims to better predict how strongly the ground will shake during future quakes in the region. Working with Stanford University, GNS Science deployed about 180 miniature seismometers in private homes throughout Canterbury immediately after the 7.1 Darfield quake in September 2010. These instruments, which have since recorded thousands of aftershocks, are attached to home computers with broadband. Dr Kaiser's team plans to investigate how seismic waves travel in geological layers under the surface, which could help explain local variations in ground shaking.

Tracking infection - Combining maths and cutting-edge genetic research may better predict the spread of infectious diseases like bird flu and swine flu. Specialist mathematicians can model the spread of infectious diseases, but their models are limited by the amount of data available, especially at the start of an outbreak. A new way of modelling infection will now be looked at by Professor Alexei Drummond and Dr David Welch of the University of Auckland. Fast, accurate, cheap genome-sequencing technologies could provide much information about the spread of disease through populations. In theory, this means it should be possible to construct transmission chains describing the path of an epidemic through a population, and determine factors important in the rate at which an epidemic spreads.

Sun-smart plants - A study by Plant and Food Research will explore how ancient plant ancestors may have adapted to an environment with high UV radiation, providing better understanding of how plants may respond to future climate change. "The emergence of plants onto land was one of earth's major evolutionary events, but at that time the environment had a number of challenges, including high levels of damaging UV radiation," said Dr Kevin Davies, who is leading the research. The study will look at liverworts, the closest living relative of the first land plants, and study how these plants adapt the production of pigment molecules to counteract effects of UV.

A fresh look at the Crown - It's been at the heart of New Zealand's constitutional order and the Treaty of Waitangi since 1840, but how relevant is the Crown to us today? Despite its importance and the range of views surrounding it, there is still a lack of comprehensive research on this constitutional area. Professor Cris Shore at the University of Auckland and a research team will investigate the changing nature of the state in New Zealand and other post-colonial settler societies. It is hoped the results will lead to new understandings of the Crown as a socio-political institution and cultural entity.

Marsden Fund

• 1,155 preliminary proposals
• 229 full proposals
• 109 proposals funded
• $58,965,217 total amount of funding

Biggest recipients
1. University of Auckland: $17,773,913
2. University of Otago: $13,026,087
3. Victoria University of Wellington: 11,234,783
4. University of Canterbury: 5,513,043
5. Massey University: $2,986,957