Antarctic dig seeks climate pointers

2013-04-05 07:28
Ross Sea in the Antarctic. (Picture: AP)

Ross Sea in the Antarctic. (Picture: AP)

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Wellington - Nancy Bertler and her team took a freezer to the coldest place on Earth, endured weeks of primitive living and risked spending the winter in Antarctic darkness, to go get ice - ice that records our climate's past and could point to its future.

They drilled out hundreds of ice cores, each slightly longer and wider than a baseball bat, from the 800m-thick ice covering Antarctica's Roosevelt Island. The cores, which may total 150 000 years of snowfall, almost didn't survive the boat ride to New Zealand because of a power outage.

Bertler hopes the material will help her estimate how long the Ross Ice Shelf would last under the current rate of climate change before falling apart.

Evidence from the last core her team hauled out needs further study, but it contains material that Bertler said appeared to be marine sediment that formed recently - at least in geological terms measured in thousands of years.

That would bolster scientists' suspicions that the shelf could collapse again if global temperatures keep rising, triggering a chain of events that could raise sea levels around the world.

Sea levels


"From a scientific point of view, that's really exciting. From a personal point of view, that's really scary," said Bertler, a senior research fellow at the Antarctic Research Centre at the Victoria University of Wellington.

The ice shelf acts as a natural barrier protecting massive amounts of ice in West Antarctica, and that ice also could fall into the ocean if the shelf fell apart. Scientists say West Antarctica holds enough ice to raise sea levels by between 2m and 6m if significant parts of it were to collapse.

Ted Scambos, the lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre at the University of Colorado, said that even under the worst case scenario he thinks it would take at least 500 years for West Antarctica's ice to melt.

However, he said a discovery of sediment would indicate a significant portion of the ice shelf is under threat of becoming unstable again, and that the implications were "huge".

Bertler hopes the material she recovered will help her to estimate by the end of this year whether it will take 50 years or 500 years for the ice shelf to collapse at the current rate of climate change. Those answers should prove important for policymakers who, she said, may need to decide whether to build sea walls or move populations to higher ground.

Bertler's project is one of scores that take place on Antarctica every Southern Hemisphere summer. To scientists, the continent's pristine habitat offers a unique record of the planet's weather and a laboratory for studying the effects of climate change.

Studies indicate that while the Arctic has suffered what scientists consider to be alarming rates of ice loss in recent years, the Antarctic ice shelf has remained relatively stable despite having have lost ice in recent decades.

- AP

Read more on:    climate change
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