What do we picture when we think of Antarctica?

Big, white, cold… and penguins probably figure in there somewhere, too.

We might also think the frozen continent, several thousand kilometres to our south, matters little to our increasingly busy lives.

Why should we care about what's happening in the coldest, driest, windiest and least-inhabited land on the planet when we're pre-occupied with trying to get the kids to school, or keep the mortgage account full?

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The simple answer: what happens down there will eventually hit home here - and our descendants will pay the cost.

If you drive to work along Auckland's Northwestern Motorway, you might be alarmed to know that a 2011 storm that put much of it under water would happen as regularly as every two years with just another 40cm of sea level rise.

Under the best projections we have at the moment, we'll likely get somewhere between 30cm and a metre by the end of the century.

So, even if we end up falling halfway on that spectrum, the big 2011 storm that we'd consider once-in-a-century event now would become a monthly occurrence.

What does this have to do with Antarctica?

The continent doesn't bear just a metre of equivalent sea level rise in its icy stores, but nearly 60m.

More alarming still: we simply don't know all that we should about how Antarctica might respond to climate change, making it something of a big white boogeyman to scientists drawing up future sea level rise models.

In fact, it barely factors into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) current projections.

Its most recent report, published five years ago and soon to be updated, concluded that only the collapse of marine-based sectors of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, if triggered, would cause global mean sea level to rise substantially above the likely range during the 21st Century.

Yet one of its authors, Professor Tim Naish, the director of Victoria University's Antarctic Research Centre and a widely-renowned glaciologist, said more recent studies suggest the ice sheet isn't as stable as once thought, and that we've hugely under-estimated its risk of collapse.

One paper co-authored by Naish's colleague, Associate Professor Nick Golledge, even indicated that the tipping point that would be crossed somewhere near another 1C of global warming.

That threshold happens to be the line that nearly 200 nations, including ours, have drawn in the sand when signing up to the Paris Agreement to limit climate change.

As Climate Change Minister James Shaw and other world leaders meet in Poland this week for another post-Paris summit, the distinct possibility that their carbon-cutting efforts might not be enough to save the polar ice sheets from collapse should be cause for unease.

Antarctica could have a massive influence on our coastlines over coming centuries. Photo / File
Antarctica could have a massive influence on our coastlines over coming centuries. Photo / File

While this wouldn't play out over coming decades, but across centuries to millennia, the world had a fast-closing window - perhaps little more than 20 years - to turn the ship around.

In the meantime, scientists are racing to answer the central question of how the 4km-thick ice sheet will behave in the future.

A big part of this is peering into the continent's past: locked in its ice is a unique record of what our planet's climate was like over the past million years.

New Zealand has played a major role in extracting these hard-won insights.

We celebrate the All Blacks, yet few Kiwis would be aware of the enormous contribution our scientists have made, often in unimaginably hostile conditions, to better understand climate change.

They're our Nasa.

Take Professor Gary Wilson: not long ago he spent 35 straight hours in one of the most remote and harshest places on Earth, hunkered down in a tent with a small team, as 140km/h winds swept the ice outside and temperatures dropped to minus 20C.

He reckoned this wasn't unexpected but "challenging at times".

That was at Cape Adare, a narrow peninsula jutting out nearly 50km into the Southern Ocean, about 750km, or two helicopter flights, away from Scott Base.

Right now, he's camping with a group of geophysicists on the Siple Coast, some 850km from base.

This is where the West Antarctic Ice Sheet lifts off the seabed, starts to float and becomes the Ross Ice Shelf, and marks the exact spot that will help determine what conditions drive the retreat of ice sheet.

They're using explosives to take a seismic survey and a portable gravity meter to measure minute changes in the Earth's gravitational field.

"With this information we should be able to map the sea floor, the shape of the water filled cavity between the sea floor and the base of the ice shelf and estimate the thickness of any sedimentary deposits on the sea floor," Wilson explains.

"We expect that warm water beneath the floating ice plays an important role through melting the ice from the bottom up.

"The sediments should record if this has happened in the past when our planet was warmer."

Wilson said the challenge for decision-makers was knowing what changes to plan for, and how long it would be before changes took effect.

"Answering these questions will allow us to plan for change or help determine what action to take to slow or arrest change."

Work by Dr Natalie Robinson and her team in Antarctica could aid the search for life in the Solar System - and answer crucial climate change questions here on Earth. Photo / Christian Haas
Work by Dr Natalie Robinson and her team in Antarctica could aid the search for life in the Solar System - and answer crucial climate change questions here on Earth. Photo / Christian Haas

Earlier this year, Dr Natalie Robinson, a Niwa marine geophysicist, touched down on the ice for a project which could help us crucially understand why Antarctica's sea ice extent has been increasing, despite a warming ocean.

Interestingly, what she discovers may even aid the search for signs of life on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, 628.3 million kilometres away.

"Antarctica is the closest Earth-based comparison to Europa," she explained.

"We can test instruments here for potential use on Europa. Looking at what happens beneath the ice and its effect on our planet may give us prior understanding of what could be discovered on Europa."

Other studies focus on the abundance of life that thrives in Antarctica, despite its brutally inhospitable conditions.

Even the tiniest of organisms – hardy microbes that cling to the wind-blasted soils of the McMurdo Dry Valleys – could give us vital signs that their environment is changing, while also yielding genetic insights that could lead to technological breakthroughs.

Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest continent on the planet - and it could also determine its fate. Photo / Phil Lyver
Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest continent on the planet - and it could also determine its fate. Photo / Phil Lyver

In Antarctica's oceans, subtle changes to the food web could also indicate ecological impacts from climate change.

Marine scientists view the Ross Sea as critically important as, aside from providing a haven to at least 10 mammal, six bird and 95 fish species, it remains largely unaffected by human activities and thus offers a control to compare our impacts elsewhere.

And far from being a great blank space at the bottom of the globe, the Antarctic also acts as a fundamental cog in the world's climate engine.

Climatologists understand it as something of a fly wheel, because the oceans and atmosphere spins around it, transporting heat around Earth.

Geopolitically, Antarctica has long stood as a model for international co-operation – the 58-year-old Antarctic Treaty designated it a "continent for peace and science" – but a number of countries are pushing for greater influence.

New Zealand's presence there – and namely our claim of the 450,000sq km Ross Dependency – has arguably never been more important.

My own enduring image of Antarctica is a place of indescribable beauty and purity.

Herald science reporter Jamie Morton is returning to Antarctica next month. Photo / Supplied
Herald science reporter Jamie Morton is returning to Antarctica next month. Photo / Supplied

Simply stepping off a US Air Force C-130 Hercules and on to the Ross Ice Shelf in the summer of 2016 was an experience overwhelming to the senses.

There was majestic Mt Discovery, set against a brilliant blue sky, and Mt Erebus, so large but seemingly so close - a trick of the pristine atmosphere.

What so many biologists adore about Antarctica came to me in an instant.

I happened to remember a scene in 1962's Lawrence of Arabia, when the titular character is asked what attracts him to the desert.

His reply: "It's clean."

Most of us will never get the privilege of seeing this extraordinary place ourselves.

But it's up to all of us to ensure Antarctica remains the way it's been for millions of years - our future generations depend on it.

Jamie Morton will be travelling to Antarctica in early January. He'll be regularly filing articles from the ice, and over coming weeks.