December 22, 2015

Antarctic Proposals Worthy of Jules Verne

Posted by elandau

Today’s post is part of a series written by student bloggers from the AGU Fall Meeting.

By: Andrea Stevens, Graduate Student, University of Arizona

I couldn’t help wishing Jules Verne was sitting next to me this morning as the future directions of Antarctic research were laid bare in the halls of the Moscone Center at the AGU Fall meeting. From science-fiction looking gadgets and imaginative project proposals to an international cohort of characters, this session (PA32A: Looking to the Future of Antarctic and Southern Ocean Research) contained every element of that great French penman’s novels. Most importantly, it had a good plot.


Sea Ice in the Bellingshausen Sea. Image credit: NASA

Antarctica, long the nexus of biotic and geologic studies that probe deep under ancient layers of ice, now rises to an even more critical role of global science coordination in the face of a warming climate. As one observant attendee commented, “The fate of the coastal world may rest on establishing critical infrastructure to monitor the impact of climate change on Antarctic ice sheets.”

But in a landscape that makes Queen Elsa’s ice castle look like an igloo for penguins, even weather monitoring stations take years to establish. This session expressed international support from government funded agencies across the United States, Europe, and New Zealand. These agencies emphasized that decadal-scale infrastructure investments are necessary to support new polar-class icebreaking boats and sea planes, as well as high powered computing capabilities for large data analysis.

Data collection is also critical off the coast of Antarctica among the ice caps of the Southern Ocean. Floating monitors placed under the Antarctic ice shelf will monitor data gaps in an area, which Lynne Talley of Scripps Institution of Oceanography calls, “the window to the deep”. Here, deep ocean waters race to the surface more quickly than anywhere else in the world. Anthropogenically-controlled warming is likely accommodated mostly in ocean waters, suggesting that this southern window may provide some of the most rapid feedback on temperature changes in the Earth system.

Speedy implementation of the infrastructure and collaborations endorsed in this session is critical to monitoring changes that may impact the atmosphere and oceans as well as flora and fauna on the Antarctic continent. Many of the most beneficial studies require at least ten years of time-series analysis to produce robust interpretations. For this reason, advancing initiatives already in the works, such as the Cape Adare observatory station established recently by the Kiwi delegation, will prove essential to time-sensitive studies that will drive global climate policy decisions.

So while Jules Verne perhaps would have just burrowed directly from Europe to the ice covered mountains of the Antarctic interior, the creative research techniques and tools – including a giant blue pod-like field station built by the British Antarctic Survey and toted about the continent entirely on skis – will tickle the imaginations of scientists and science fiction fans alike. More importantly, these efforts will provide critical new data sets for scientists and policy makers to maintain the habitability of our planet.