It’s vast, frozen and 4000km away at the very bottom of the world. But what’s happening there could affect us all. Science reporter Jamie Morton explains

Freezing wind storms. Temperatures plunging to -40C. Months of perpetual daylight or darkness. These brutal, barely imaginable conditions seem positively Martian.

Yet throughout the Antarctic's summer season, geologists, microbiologists, climatologists and oceanographers are out in this extreme white wilderness, sometimes hundreds of kilometres from the warmth and safety of Scott Base, going about their jobs.

One might suggest the science effort this country has operated there since the 1950s is our own Nasa, albeit without the budget and mainstream movie appeal.

Professor Gary Wilson, for his part, is the last person who'd care to be likened to an astronaut as he braves near-impossible conditions to benefit science and mankind.


But there he was last month, hunkered down in a tent for 35 straight hours, as 140km/h winds swept the ice outside and the "night-time" temperature dropped to around -20C. "It wasn't unexpected," the veteran Antarctican put it frankly, "but it was still 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. It's one of the most remote and harshest places on Earth. It's also where the action is.

Professor Wilson, an Otago University lecturer and the director of the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute, is interested in how the continent interacts with the Southern Ocean - and how human-driven changes are gradually altering the entire system.

Cape Adare affords him the perfect laboratory: the deep Robertson's Bay nearby is connected to Antarctica's outer shelf, where warmer water might be observed spilling over the shelf edge into the Ross Sea, and then into Antarctica's vulnerable under-belly beneath the floating Ross Ice Shelf.

The cape is also exposed to the cyclones that circle the continent, making it a perfect place to identify tell-tale shifts in the weather.

Add to the mix the resident species, ranging from mosses, lichens and nematodes to the world's largest rookery of adelie penguins - 500,000 breeding pairs in all - whose subtle changes are also telling.

The winds finally died down at Cape Adare, allowing just enough time to observe, take measurements and collect soil samples. The result was worth the effort.

K800: A pilot study led by Professor Gary Wilson has been carried out at Cape Adare, at the northern tip of the Ross Sea, toward a long-term ecological and monitoring programme. He is pictured lowering an instrument into a sea ice hole to measure salinity. Photo / Andrew Hefford
K800: A pilot study led by Professor Gary Wilson has been carried out at Cape Adare, at the northern tip of the Ross Sea, toward a long-term ecological and monitoring programme. He is pictured lowering an instrument into a sea ice hole to measure salinity. Photo / Andrew Hefford
K131: Scientists from Auckland University and NIWA have been camping on frozen McMurdo Sound to investigate how
K131: Scientists from Auckland University and NIWA have been camping on frozen McMurdo Sound to investigate how "supercool" seawater drives sea ice growth, and in turn, how sea ice growth affects the movement of supercooled water. Photo / Supplied

The local ecosystem appeared unique to the continent's extreme edge, while its oceanographic setting was confirmed as being connected to the Southern Ocean, enabling influences from the north to be identified.

Professor Wilson's next step will be to draft a proposal for the cape to become a "sentinel" site for regular monitoring.

It was one of 16 projects in this season's science programme, each led by different institutions and supported by Antarctica New Zealand.

They include studies of trace gases in the atmosphere, the natural resilience of the Dry Valleys' hidden but surprisingly diverse ecology and the puzzling anomaly of growing sea ice in a warming climate.

In November, an Otago University-led research team drove tracked Hagglund vehicles and snowmobiles 350km from Scott Base to a field site atop the Ross Ice Shelf where they used a heavy seismic device to carry out imaging of the seafloor.

These so-called "deep field" missions required absolute self-sufficiency, as it could take a day for help to arrive.

Most of the expeditions strive toward the same objectives: to reveal the impact we are increasingly having on this pristine environment, and what large-scale changes, past and future, mean for the rest of us thousands of kilometres away.

In the big picture of climate change, Antarctica's role is under-appreciated at our peril.

It has been called a "sleeping giant" that's being slowly roused awake by the tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by the world's power plants, factories and vehicles each year.

Roughly 93 per cent of the heat from global warming has gone into the oceans, the bulk of it into the Southern Ocean.

Put this gradually warming ocean against Antarctica, where 70 per cent of the world's freshwater lies frozen, and you have a colossal problem.

To give you an idea of how much ice that is, if all of this melted, the global sea level would rise by about 60 metres.

That is very unlikely, but parts of the ice shelf are already shrinking.

For island nations like New Zealand, filling the oceans with melted Antarctic ice will have consequences well beyond a re-drawing of mean high tide lines.

For every centimetre of sea level rise, the intensity of coastal inundations and storms will be multiplied.

Over recent times, much of the specific emphasis has been on changes under way in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which has an estimated volume of around 25.4 million square kilometres.

But in the past 12 months, more scientists have been casting their focus to the vastly bigger East Antarctic Ice Sheet after an Australian expedition found the first direct evidence that some melting was taking place there too.

Experts like Professor Wilson are now racing to better understand at what rate this melting is happening, with the latest research suggesting that Antarctica's contribution to sea level rise by 2100 will be far greater than previously assumed.

He acknowledged that our scientific grasp of the situation, as heavily studied as it is, still sits well short of where it should be, given the speed and enormity of the changes.

In Paris last month, delegates from nearly 200 nations agreed to a landmark accord that aims to limit global warming to 2C - passing beyond the milestone would have catastrophic global consequences - while aspiring to a target of 1.5C. What was now required of the scientific effort in Antarctica, he said, was to translate what that meant for the continent and its influence on the rest of the planet.

"What we know is that when we look at a time period when the world was 3C warmer, we haven't got a West Antarctic Ice Sheet," he said.

"But what we don't have is the resolution to know, does that go at 3C?

"We don't have the information at 2C, or 1.5C, so we've got a scientific community that has a big task ahead of it to tell people what those new limits mean."

The sheer size of Antarctica, and not least the logistical challenges, is one obvious hurdle to answering such huge questions.

When building models for climate and oceans around New Zealand, scientists typically work in 50sq m to 100sq m grids.

In Antarctica, the scale was 50,000sq m to 500,000sq m - hardly ideal for analysing how the system works.

"We are building the best models we've got, but the models are only validated by data we have to test them against."

The key use for data was for time series models, created either from evidence of large-scale changes to the ancient environment found in the geological record, or from modern measurements we've only just begun to collect.

"So if we develop a programme at Cape Adare, we won't get any answers next year, we'll get one in 10 to 15 years' time."

But the longer we waited, he said, the harder it would be to inform policy and management plans in the future.

Call for NZ to widen search for answers

New Zealand's scientific efforts in Antarctica have been rapidly evolving since a goal-setting blueprint was published more than a decade ago.

The New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI), a charitable trust that accesses non-government funds for research, is now well into its fifth year. Crown entity Antarctica New Zealand is set to mark its 20th anniversary with multi-million dollar upgrades at its Scott Base Hillary Field Centre and extending studies into new, hard-to-reach parts of the continent.

But a recent forecast of future priorities by leading international Antarctic scientists, policy makers and leaders, dubbed the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Science Horizon Scan, made it clear that scientists need to push further into the cold to gain the new insights the world now urgently needs.

"Our science community tell us their new science horizon extends well beyond our standard operating area," said Antarctica New Zealand's chief executive, Peter Beggs.

"This will bring us new complexities, new hazards and new challenges. But it will also provide ... incredible achievement opportunities on an international stage."

The baseline level of Crown funding Antarctica New Zealand receives, about $12.8 million annually, hasn't changed in four years - and the last big boost it got was nearly a decade ago - so what little money is available has to go a long way.

"We've had some ... clever scientists and programmes deliver some really important findings, but in typical Kiwi fashion, we've done it on a shoe-string," Professor Wilson said.

"But the scientific challenge is greater than some of the basic observations we can make at that level, so we are really at the limit of what we can achieve without some cash injection."

Professor Wilson believed there were two big reasons why Kiwis need to care about our neighbouring white continent.

Our country straddles the mid-latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, where changes in Antarctica will potentially have a greater impact than in major continental land masses like North America or Europe.

Secondly, there was the responsibility to value and protect a precious part of the planet that had no one government to speak for it on the global stage.

Kiwis have been travelling to Antarctica since the mid-19th century, initially as members of other nations' expeditions.

While there are now more than 50 countries party to the Antarctic Treaty, few hold such a place in Antarctica as New Zealand, with its 450,000sq km Ross Dependency.

Most of us will only get to experience it through documentaries like Antarctica: A Year on Ice and Frozen Planet, yet a 2011 survey by Colmar Brunton suggested two out of three New Zealanders agreed Antarctica was important to them.

Antarctica was one of the last pristine areas on the planet, they said; it was critical in our efforts to combat global warming and it was important to protect its unique biodiversity.

Those who disagreed cited a "lack of relevance" to their day-to-day lives. But, if present models prove correct, Antarctica could become much more relevant to us than we'd like.

The latest report by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright, addressing sea level rise, painted a picture of receding shorelines, erosion, and rising seas, tides, waves and storm surges reaching further inland than ever before, resulting in more frequent and extensive flooding.

"So the challenge is, how do we get people to engage in something that's not immediate to them, because by the time it becomes immediate, it's too late," says NZARI director Professor Gary Wilson.

• Jamie Morton will be in Antarctica for the next week and filing regular reports from Scott Base.