Sledging songs, penguins and melting ice: how Antarctica has inspired Australian composers

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Most people will never visit Antarctica but music can evoke the continent in myriad ways.
Photo: Meredith Nash

Carolyn Philpott, University of Tasmania

When Douglas Mawson led Australasia’s first expedition to Antarctica in 1911–14, his crew took along a folding organ, a concertina, a flute, a piccolo and a mouth organ, as well as a gramophone, records and a hymn book.

Program for The Washerwoman’s Secret: the first ‘opera’ on the continent.
Courtesy of The Mawson Centre, South Australian Museum. Used with permission.

His men’s diaries detail numerous musical activities that took place on board the Aurora and in the huts they built on the ice. Their band – the “Adélie Land Band” – was such a hit that, as Mawson wrote, “Men crawled out of their beds all eager to be in it”.

They even staged the first “opera” on the continent: an original production titled The Washerwoman’s Secret, billed as a “Grand Opera in Five Acts” and performed at Cape Denison, Commonwealth Bay, on 12 October 1912. As biological collector Charles Laseron recalled, it had a “complicated and highly dramatic plot”. The expedition doctor, Archibald McLean, reportedly stole the show by dressing like a woman, singing in a contralto register and acting out several awkward “love” scenes. The “arias” sung were original creations, accompanied by geologist Frank Stillwell on the organ.

Mawson’s men also wrote new lyrics for existing tunes to sing for both leisure and while at work (such as “sledging songs”). These both entertained and boosted morale.

Frank Hurley: ‘A winter evening at the hut’ (1911).
National Library of Australia,

In the past 30 years, a spate of professional Australian composers and musicians have also engaged with Antarctica creatively. Interest has no doubt been spurred by the celebration of centenaries relating to the Heroic Age, support for arts residencies as part of Australia’s Antarctic science program, and increased media focus on the continent due to climate change.

Read more:
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The most widely known Australian composition about Antarctica is perhaps Nigel Westlake’s Antarctica suite for guitar and orchestra (1992). Derived from his film score for John Weiley’s 1991 IMAX documentary Antarctica: An Adventure of a Different Nature, the four-movement suite explores some of the film’s primary themes.

The opening movement (“The Last Place on Earth”) employs sparse, static textures and dramatic gestures to represent the desolation and grandeur of the ice sheet.

The second (“Wooden Ships”) is a nostalgic tribute to the pioneering Antarctic explorers. The penultimate movement (“Penguin Ballet”) vividly evokes the fluid, playful movements of penguins underwater.

The final one opens with a slow, static section titled “The Ice Core” and ends with an uplifting “Finale”, inspired by the optimism surrounding the signing of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (“Madrid Protocol”) in 1991. Through performances, recordings and broadcasts, Westlake’s suite has encouraged audiences to reflect on Antarctica’s unique environment, the history of human presence there, Antarctic science and the importance of protecting the continent.

Love, death and serious science

More recently, Hobart-based composers Scott McIntyre and Joe Bugden produced a chamber opera each to commemorate the centenary of the Terra Nova and Aurora expeditions, respectively.

Read more:
Antarctica has lost 3 trillion tonnes of ice in 25 years. Time is running out for the frozen continent

McIntyre’s Fire on the Snow is based on Douglas Stewart’s 1941 radio play of the same name about Robert Falcon Scott’s final, ill-fated expedition. The chamber opera features, in the composer’s words, “Music devoid of warmth, music that [is] brittle, like ice, the howl of the wind, the slow onset of death”.

Similarly, Bugden’s The Call of Aurora is serious in tone. Based on his own libretto, it explores themes of love, death, madness and isolation by focusing on Mawson’s longing for his fiancee, Paquita, his experience of the deaths of Belgrave Ninnis and Xavier Mertz, and his management of the mad wireless operator, Sidney Jeffryes.

McIntyre has also produced a series of shorter compositions, including a song cycle, Songs of the South (2014), based on those originally written during the Terra Nova and Aurora expeditions. Two of McIntyre’s songs were inspired by “sledging songs”, while others were derived from songs written by Mawson’s men about Christmas Day and one of the team’s dogs, Basilisk.

The Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship scheme has supported classical harpist Alice Giles and sound artist Philip Samartzis on residencies in Antarctica. Giles performed harp music there in 2011 to commemorate the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (her grandfather, Cecil Thomas Madigan, was the expedition’s meteorologist).

Philip Samartzis in Iceberg Alley (Antarctic Sound), Antarctica, in March 2010.
Photograph by Ian
Aitkinson, used with permission

The sound of ice cracking

Samartzis’s two fellowships (2009 and 2015) enabled him to document in sound the impact of extreme climate and weather events on Australian research stations in Antarctica and on Macquarie Island, as well as on the icebreaker Aurora Australis.

His suite of compositions “Antarctica: An Absent Presence” (2016) captures a rich variety of sounds including those made by seals, wind, blizzards, ice when it cracks and calves, helicopters, trucks and generators.

Scientific research has proven fertile ground for composers.
Stuart Greenbaum’s choral work Antarctica (2002) uses a text by Melbourne poet Ross Baglin about sea level rise due to the melting Antarctic ice sheet. The music, written for treble choir, two violins and organ, is a poignant elegy to a place (and world) under threat.

Read more:
How an alien seaweed invasion spawned an Antarctic mystery

Matthew Dewey’s symphony ex Oceano (2013) was written in response to research on the Southern Ocean undertaken by scientists at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the CSIRO. The music takes the listener on a journey, exploring not only the strength of the ocean’s currents and enormity of its scale and influence, but also the microscopic life that lives within it.

The second movement, for instance, is dedicated to phytoplankton – microscopic organisms that produce over half the world’s oxygen. Invisible to the naked eye, they are visible in vast blooms from space.

Antarctica: The Musical, which premiered in Hobart in 2016, features music and lyrics by songwriter Dugald McLaren and a book by ecologist Dana Bergstrom (both of whom have spent time there). Focusing on the experiences of a group of scientists living on the continent for a year and the challenges they face, it conveys a strong message of concern for the region’s changing environment.

Most people will never visit Antarctica. It is an inhospitable place at the margins of our world. But music enables audiences to come to know the continent as a place of both the imaginary and of urgent, practical scientific work.The Conversation

Carolyn Philpott, Senior Lecturer in Musicology, Conservatorium of Music; Associate Head – Research, School of Creative Arts; Adjunct Researcher, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Antarctic seas host a surprising mix of lifeforms – and now we can map them

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In contrast to common perceptions, Antarctic seafloor communities are highly diverse. This image shows a deep East Antarctic reef with plenty of corals, sponges and brittlestars. Can you spot the octopus?
Australian Antarctic Division

Jan Jansen, University of Tasmania; Craig Johnson, University of Tasmania, and Nicole Hill, University of Tasmania

What sort of life do you associate with Antarctica? Penguins? Seals? Whales?

Actually, life in Antarctic waters is much broader than this, and surprisingly diverse. Hidden under the cover of sea-ice for most of the year, and living in cold water near the seafloor, are thousands of unique and colourful species.

A diverse seafloor community living under the ice near Casey station in East Antarctica.

Our research has generated new techniques to map where these species live, and predict how this might change in the future.

Biodiversity is nature’s most valuable resource, and mapping how it is distributed is a crucial step in conserving life and ecosystems in Antarctica.

Read more:
Explainer: what is biodiversity and why does it matter?

Surprises on the seafloor

The ocean surrounding the Antarctic continent is an unusual place. Here, water temperatures reach below freezing-point, and the ocean is covered in ice for most of the year.

While commonly known for its massive icebergs and iconic penguins, Antarctica’s best-kept secret lies on the seafloor far below the ocean surface. In this remote and isolated environment, a unique and diverse community of animals has evolved, half of which aren’t found anywhere else on the planet.

These solitary sea squirts stand up to half a metre tall at 220m depth in the dark, cold waters of East-Antarctica. Images such as this one were taken with cameras towed behind the Australian Icebreaker Aurora Australis.
Australian Antarctic Division

Colourful corals and sponges cover the seafloor, where rocks provide hard substrate for attachment. These creatures filter the water for microscopic algae that sink from the ocean surface during the highly productive summer season between December and March.

In turn, these habitat-forming animals provide the structure for all sorts of mobile animals, such as featherstars, seastars, crustaceans, sea spiders and giant isopods (marine equivalents of “slaters” or “woodlice”).

The Antarctic seafloor is also home to a unique group of fish that have evolved proteins to stop their blood from freezing.

Most Antarctic fish have evolved ‘anti-freeze blood’ allowing them to survive in water temperature below zero degrees C.
Australian Antarctic Division

Mapping biodiversity is hard

Biodiversity is a term that describes the variety of all life forms on Earth. The unprecedented rate of biodiversity loss is one of the biggest challenges of our time. And despite its remoteness, Antarctica’s biodiversity is not protected from human impact through climate change, pollution and fisheries.

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Although scientists have broadly known about Antarctica’s unique marine biodiversity for some time, we still lack knowledge of where each species lives and where important hotspots of biodiversity are located. This is an issue because it hinders us from understanding how the ecosystem functions – and makes it hard to assess potential threats.

Why don’t we know more about the distribution of Antarctic marine species? Primarily, because sampling at the seafloor a few thousand metres below the surface is difficult and expensive, and the Antarctic continental shelf is vast and remote. It usually takes the Australian Icebreaker Aurora Australis ten days to reach the icy continent.

A selection of the diverse and colourful species found on the Antarctic seafloor.
Huw Griffiths/British Antarctic Survey

To make the most of the sparse and patchy biological data that we do have, in our research we take advantage of the fact that species usually have a set of preferred environmental conditions. We use the species’ relationship with their environment to build statistical models that predict where species are most likely to occur.

This allows us to map their distribution in places where we have no biological samples and only environmental data. Critically, until now important environmental factors that influence the distribution of seafloor species have been missing.

Read more:
Antarctica has lost 3 trillion tonnes of ice in 25 years. Time is running out for the frozen continent

Using predictions to make a map

In a recent study, we were able to predictively map how much food from the ocean-surface was available for consumption by corals, sponges and other suspension feeders at the seafloor.

The science behind linking food-particles from the ocean surface to the biodiversity of Antarctic seafloor fauna. Satellites (1) can detect the amount of algae at the ocean-surface. Algae-production is particularly high in ice-free areas (2) compared to under the sea-ice (3). Algae sink from the surface (4) and reach the seafloor. Where ocean-currents are high (5), many corals feed from the suspended particles. In areas with slow currents (6), particles settle onto the seafloor and feed deposit-feeding animals such as seacucumbers.
Jansen et al. (2018), Nature Ecology & Evolution 2, 71-80.

Although biological samples are still scarce, this allowed us to map the distribution of seafloor biodiversity in a region in East Antarctica with high accuracy.

Further, estimates of how and where the supply of food increased after the tip of a massive glacier broke off and changed ocean conditions in the region allowed us to predict where abundances of habitat forming fauna such as corals and sponges will increase in the future.

Colourful and diverse communities are also found living in shallow waters.
Australian Antarctic Division

Antarctica is one of the few regions where the total biomass of seafloor animals is likely to increase in the future. Retreating ice-shelves increase the amount of suitable habitat available and allow more food to reach the seafloor.

For the first time in history, we now have the information, computational power and research capacity to map the distribution of life on the entire continental shelf around Antarctica, identify previously unknown hotspots of biodiversity, and assess how the unique biodiversity of the Antarctic will change into the future.

The Conversation

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Jan Jansen, Quantitative Marine Ecologist, University of Tasmania; Craig Johnson, Professor, University of Tasmania, and Nicole Hill, Research fellow, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How an alien seaweed invasion spawned an Antarctic mystery

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Southern bull kelp can drift huge distances before washing ashore.
Ceridwen Fraser, Author provided

Adele Morrison, Australian National University; Andy Hogg, Australian National University; Ceridwen Fraser, Australian National University, and Erik van Sebille, Utrecht University

Two small pieces of seaweed found by a Chilean scientist on an Antarctic beach set in train research that may transform our understanding of ocean drift and reveal what the future holds for Antarctic ecosystems affected by climate change.

It all started in January 2017, when sharp-eyed marine biologist Erasmo Macaya spotted two clumps of southern bull kelp washed up on the tide line of an Antarctic beach.

Most of us would have walked right on by, but it stopped Macaya in his tracks. To him it was as if an alien had just landed – and in many ways that was exactly what had happened.

The kelp that washed up on Antarctica’s Prince George Island.
Erasmo Macaya, Author provided

Every piece of science he knew said that this species of kelp should never have ended up in Antarctica. Its home was the regions around New Zealand, Chile and the sub-Antarctic islands. Indeed, a genetic test later confirmed that the pieces he found had travelled tens of thousands of kilometres from the Kerguelen and South Georgia islands.

So how did the kelp get to Antarctica?

The ocean barrier

Many scientists considered such a journey impossible, because of the fierce barrier of winds and currents that encircle Antarctica. These winds – known to sailors as the Roaring Forties – combine with the world’s strongest ocean current, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, and the Coriolis force generated by Earth’s rotation.

Together, these forces push floating objects east and north, away from Antarctica. Before Macaya’s discovery, this barrier was thought to be impenetrable to floating debris.

Ocean currents in the Southern Ocean push floating objects east and north away from Antarctica.
Author provided

But if kelp and other organisms could make it to Antarctica, this would have profound consequences for Antarctic ecosystems. So was there a way for the kelp to drift through that barrier?

Read more:
Why I’m spending three months sailing right around Antarctica for science

Surfing kelp

We took up the challenge, using our ocean models. The mystery deepened when our first modelling attempts suggested that the Southern Ocean was indeed uncrossable by floating kelp. Even ocean eddies – the “weather” of the ocean – were not able to push floating objects southward away from the main ocean currents.

Yet the kelp had undeniably made the crossing. This led us to think about other influences on ocean drift that could play a role. We decided to add a very small effect known as Stokes drift to our models.

You can think of Stokes drift as deep ocean surfing. Waves can push floating objects in unusual directions. In the kelp’s case, each time a wave passes, the kelp will move a short distance with the wave. This drift is slow when waves are small, but in regions with large waves (such as the Southern Ocean) it can be much faster.

During storms around Antarctica, waves are typically 10-15m high. The largest wave ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, more than 23m, was in the Southern Ocean off New Zealand. Stokes drift must be large here.

When we added this factor to our ocean models, the change was instant. The massive waves generated by Antarctic storms pushed a small proportion of floating objects southwards. As we report in Nature Climate Change today, this conceivably explains the kelp’s voyage to Antarctica.

Modelling virtual kelp pathways with surface ocean currents and wave motion.

We calculated that the kelp specimens must have drifted at least 20,000km to reach Antarctica – the longest biological rafting events ever recorded.

Our results will also change the way that drift pathways for floating objects – such as plastics, aeroplane crash debris, pumice from volcanoes, driftwood, seaweeds, and messages in bottles – will be calculated, particularly in stormy oceans.

What this means for Antarctica

The implications don’t stop there. Until now, Antarctica was thought to be an isolated ecosystem, largely insulated from environmental change. This is not in fact true.

Southern bull kelp can carry many other species of plants and animals when it detaches and floats out to sea. The discovery that this kelp can raft to Antarctica means we could see major ecological changes in Antarctic marine ecosystems as the climate warms.

So far there is almost no evidence of natural colonisations of Antarctica from northern regions in the past few tens of thousands of years. Many Antarctic plants and animals are distinct from those found on other continents and sub-Antarctic islands.

In fact, the kelp strands Macaya found are the first recorded foreign organisms to have drifted across the Southern Ocean. But our models suggest these are unlikely to be the only ones to have made the trip.

This means that Antarctica’s ecological differences are not really due to physical isolation. It is more likely that the harsh Antarctic climate prevents new plants and animals from establishing themselves.

But Antarctica is changing. Parts of the frozen continent are among the fastest-warming regions on Earth. As Antarctica and the ocean around it warms, the kelp rafts – and other floating organisms, including invertebrates hanging onto the kelp, seeds, driftwood that could harbour insects, and larvae – may one day be able to colonise.

By the end of this century, when parts of Antarctica are expected to be similar to current sub-Antarctic environments, we might see many new species colonising Antarctica, bringing dramatic ecosystem change.

Other human-caused influences may also be felt. If kelp can break through the barrier, then floating plastic debris from the large garbage patches in the South Atlantic and South Pacific, just north of the Southern Ocean, could conceivably make a similar journey.

Read more:
The winners and losers of Antarctica’s great thaw

Plastic litter is still very rare in the waters around Antarctica. But with ever-growing amounts of plastic entering our oceans and the new drift pathways we have discovered, more plastic will likely find its way south to pollute one of our last near-pristine environments.

The ConversationAnd all of this has been revealed through the discovery of two small pieces of kelp on a distant beach, and the application of a relatively insignificant piece of ocean physics. From these small beginnings we now know that one of the world’s last great wildernesses might not escape our influence.

Adele Morrison, Research Fellow, Australian National University; Andy Hogg, Associate Professor, Australian National University; Ceridwen Fraser, Senior lecturer, Australian National University, and Erik van Sebille, Associate Professor in Oceanography and Climate Change, Utrecht University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Polar invasion: how plants and animals would colonise an ice-free Antarctica

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Tom Hart, Author provided

Peter Convey, British Antarctic Survey and Tom Hart, University of Oxford

Antarctica’s ice sheets could totally collapse if the world’s fossil fuels are burnt off, according to a recent climate change simulation. While we are unlikely to see such a dramatic event any time soon, we are already observing big changes and it’s worth considering what the worst case scenario might look like for the continent’s ecosystems. How long before Antarctica turns into grassy tundra?

For now, life thrives mostly at the very edge of the continent – it’s driven by the plankton-rich Southern Ocean and clustered around seasonally ice-free areas of coastal land. The interior might be sparsely inhabited, but the continent is not as barren as many think. There are around 110 native species of moss and two flowering plants, the Antarctic hairgrass and pearlwort. These plants have flourished along the relatively mild Antarctic Peninsula in recent decades. However they can’t go much further – they already occur at almost the most southern suitable ice-free ground.

With ice-caps and glaciers receding already in the Peninsula region, native land plants and animals are benefiting from more easily available liquid water. Already we are starting to see increased populations, greater areas occupied and faster growth rates, consequences only expected to increase – everything is currently limited by the extreme physical environment.

The world’s most southerly flower, the Antarctic hairgrass (Deschampsia Antarctica)
British Antarctic Survey, Author provided

It may eventually prove too warm for some native species, but the bigger issue in upcoming decades and centuries will be whether new and currently “non-native” species will arrive that are stronger competitors than the native organisms.

Antarctic invasions

Native polar species are inherently weak competitors, as they have evolved in an environment where surviving the cold, dry conditions is the overriding selective pressure rather than competition from other biological sources. If humans (or other wildlife expanding their range southwards) bring new competitors and diseases to Antarctica, that may pose a very grave risk to the existing biodiversity. Some native species would likely be pushed into the remaining more extreme regions where they can avoid competition and continue to rely on their inherent stress tolerance abilities.

Tom Hart with two million chinstrap penguins. Isolation has made Antarctic species vulnerable to introduced competition.
Richard White, Author provided

We usually split the process of natural colonisation – which applies even today in Antarctica – and that of movement of “alien” species by human agency. The best available data for the Antarctic region come from some sub-Antarctic islands, where it appears humans have been responsible for many more successful colonisations than nature. In fact, over the recent centuries of human contact with the region we have introduced 200-300 species compared to just two or three known natural colonisations.

Penguins, seals and flying seabirds move between islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, so there is potential for some natural colonisation. Vagrant birds are regularly observed across the sub-Antarctic and even along the Peninsula, some of which have colonised successfully (such as the starlings, redpolls and mallard ducks on Macquarie Island).

Migrants such as skuas and gulls, which spend time on land at both ends of their migration, could be important natural vectors of transfer for invertebrates, plant seeds and spores, and microbes into an ice-free Antarctica. Importantly, bird colonies also fertilise surrounding rock and soil with faeces, eggshells and carcasses. Plant and animal life flourishes near seabird colonies, encouraged by this enrichment.

What’s hitching a ride on this skua?
Tom Hart, Author provided

However it can be tough to predict what Antarctic melt would mean for individual species, never mind entire ecosystems. Take penguins, for instance – they have already survived previous inter-glacial retreats, but at reduced population sizes. This time round it is likely that Adélie and emperor penguins who are more dependent upon sea ice would decline, while less ice-dependent species such as gentoos and chinstraps might benefit. Indeed, there is already some evidence that emperors are struggling (although also that they may be adapting and learning to emigrate).

However the fact fish-eating gentoo penguins are increasing on the Peninsula while Adélies and chinstraps (both krill eaters) aren’t doing so well suggests prey availability can be more to blame than ice cover. Figuring out the impact of large-scale environmental change at ecosystem or food-web level is hard – it’s a complex process that will no doubt throw up some unexpected results.

This flightless midge comes from South Georgia but has been introduced further south.
British Antarctic Survey, Author provided

The sub-Antarctic islands are full of examples of such unexpected impacts. Pigs, dogs, cats, sheep, reindeer and rabbits have all been intentionally introduced in the past, with often devastating effects. Rats and mice were introduced to South Georgia and other islands accidentally by sealers and whalers, for instance, and have decimated seabird populations. A recent eradication campaign appears to have been successful and pipits, ducks and small seabirds are showing some immediate signs of recovery.

The removal of non-native cats from Macquarie and Marion Islands has similarly helped native burrowing seabirds, although responses in such ecosystems can be far more complex and unpredictable – the removal of cats from Macquarie also led to increase in the introduced rabbit population, and considerably increased damage to sensitive native vegetation.

Antarctic biodiversity is far more complex than widely assumed, with up to 15 distinct biogeographic regions that have been evolutionarily isolated for many millions of years. Humans present the greatest threat, not only of introducing new species, but also of moving “native” species between regions within Antarctica. This could be even more damaging, as these native species would already be pre-adapted to polar life.

Visitors to Antarctica are subject to increasingly strict biosecurity measures but accidental introductions continue to occur, often through food shipments for scientists. Changes in sea and land ice affect access to new areas, so we can only expect plant and invertebrate invasions to increase unless biosecurity becomes more effective.

The ConversationWhile cost issues may be raised, it is worth remembering that prevention will always be better – and cheaper – than subsequent control and eradication, even if such action is possible.

Peter Convey, Terrestrial Ecologist, British Antarctic Survey and Tom Hart, Penguinologist, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Antarctica has lost 3 trillion tonnes of ice in 25 years. Time is running out for the frozen continent

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As the world prevaricates over climate action, Antarctica’s future is shrouded in uncertainty.
Hamish Pritchard/British Antarctic Survey

Steve Rintoul, CSIRO and Steven Chown, Monash University

Antarctica lost 3 trillion tonnes of ice between 1992 and 2017, according to a new analysis of satellite observations. In vulnerable West Antarctica, the annual rate of ice loss has tripled during that period, reaching 159 billion tonnes a year. Overall, enough ice has been lost from Antarctica over the past quarter-century to raise global seas by 8 millimetres.

What will Antarctica look like in the year 2070, and how will changes in Antarctica impact the rest of the globe? The answer to these questions depends on choices we make in the next decade, as outlined in our accompanying paper, also published today in Nature.

Read more:
Ocean waves and lack of sea ice can trigger Antarctic ice shelves to disintegrate

Our research contrasts two potential narratives for Antarctica over the coming half-century – a story that will play out within the lifetimes of today’s children and young adults.

While the two scenarios are necessarily speculative, two things are certain. The first is that once significant changes occur in Antarctica, we are committed to centuries of further, irreversible change on global scales. The second is that we don’t have much time – the narrative that eventually plays out will depend on choices made in the coming decade.

Change in Antarctica has global impacts

Despite being the most remote region on Earth, changes in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean will have global consequences for the planet and humanity.

For example, the rate of sea-level rise depends on the response of the Antarctic ice sheet to warming of the atmosphere and ocean, while the speed of climate change depends on how much heat and carbon dioxide is taken up by the Southern Ocean. What’s more, marine ecosystems all over the world are sustained by the nutrients exported from the Southern Ocean to lower latitudes.

From a political perspective, Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are among the largest shared spaces on Earth, regulated by a unique governance regime known as the Antarctic Treaty System. So far this regime has been successful at managing the environment and avoiding discord.

However, just as the physical and biological systems of Antarctica face challenges from rapid environmental change driven by human activities, so too does the management of the continent.

Antarctica in 2070

We considered two narratives of the next 50 years for Antarctica, each describing a plausible future based on the latest science.

In the first scenario, global greenhouse gas emissions remain unchecked, the climate continues to warm, and little policy action is taken to respond to environmental factors and human activities that affect the Antarctic.

Under this scenario, Antarctica and the Southern Ocean undergo widespread and rapid change, with global consequences. Warming of the ocean and atmosphere result in dramatic loss of major ice shelves. This causes increased loss of ice from the Antarctic ice sheet and acceleration of sea-level rise to rates not seen since the end of the last glacial period more than 10,000 years ago.

Warming, sea-ice retreat and ocean acidification significantly change marine ecosystems. And unrestricted growth in human use of Antarctica degrades the environment and results in the establishment of invasive species.

Under the high-emissions scenario, widespread changes occur by 2070 in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, with global impacts.
Rintoul et al. 2018. Click image to enlarge.

In the second scenario, ambitious action is taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to establish policies that reduce human pressure on Antarctica’s environment.

Under this scenario, Antarctica in 2070 looks much like it does today. The ice shelves remain largely intact, reducing loss of ice from the Antarctic ice sheet and therefore limiting sea-level rise.

An increasingly collaborative and effective governance regime helps to alleviate human pressures on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Marine ecosystems remain largely intact as warming and acidification are held in check. On land, biological invasions remain rare. Antarctica’s unique invertebrates and microbes continue to flourish.

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in 2070, under the low-emissions (left) and high-emissions (right) scenarios. Each of these systems will continue to change after 2070, with the magnitude of the change to which we are committed being generally much larger than the change realised by 2070.
Rintoul et al. 2018. Click image to enlarge.

The choice is ours

We can choose which of these trajectories we follow over the coming half-century. But the window of opportunity is closing fast.

Global warming is determined by global greenhouse emissions, which continue to grow. This will commit us to further unavoidable climate impacts, some of which will take decades or centuries to play out. Greenhouse gas emissions must peak and start falling within the coming decade if our second narrative is to stand a chance of coming true.

If our more optimistic scenario for Antarctica plays out, there is a good chance that the continent’s buttressing ice shelves will survive and that Antarctica’s contribution to sea-level rise will remain below 1 metre. A rise of 1m or more would displace millions of people and cause substantial economic hardship.

Under the more damaging of our potential scenarios, many Antarctic ice shelves will likely be lost and the Antarctic ice sheet will contribute as much as 3m of sea level rise by 2300, with an irreversible commitment of 5-15m in the coming millennia.

The ConversationWhile challenging, we can take action now to prevent Antarctica and the world from suffering out-of-control climate consequences. Success will demonstrate the power of peaceful international collaboration and show that, when it comes to the crunch, we can use scientific evidence to take decisions that are in our long-term best interest.

The choice is ours.

Steve Rintoul, Research Team Leader, Marine & Atmospheric Research, CSIRO and Steven Chown, Professor of Biological Sciences, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ocean waves and lack of sea ice can trigger Antarctic ice shelves to disintegrate

Luke Bennetts, University of Adelaide; Rob Massom, and Vernon Squire

Large waves after the loss of sea ice can trigger Antarctic ice shelf disintegration over a period of just days, according to our new research.

With other research also published today in Nature showing that the rate of annual ice loss from the vulnerable Antarctic Peninsula has quadrupled since 1992, our study of catastrophic ice shelf collapses during that time shows how the lack of a protective buffer of sea ice can leave ice shelves, already weakened by climate warming, wide open to attack by waves.

Read more:
Antarctica has lost 3 trillion tonnes of ice in 25 years. Time is running out for the frozen continent

Antarctica is covered by an ice sheet that is several kilometres thick in places. It covers an area of 14 million square kilometres – roughly twice the size of Australia. This ice sheet holds more than 90% of the world’s ice, which is enough to raise global mean sea level by 57 metres.

As snow falls and compacts on the ice sheet, the sheet thickens and flows out towards the coast, and then onto the ocean surface. The resulting “ice shelves” (and glacier tongues) buttress three-quarters of the Antarctic coastline. Ice shelves act as a crucial braking system for fast-flowing glaciers on the land, and thus moderate the ice sheet’s contribution to sea-level rise.

In the southern summer of 2002, scientists monitoring the Antarctic Peninsula (the northernmost part of mainland Antarctica) by satellite witnessed a dramatic ice shelf disintegration that was stunning in its abruptness and scale. In just 35 days, 3,250 square km of the Larsen B Ice Shelf (twice the size of Queensland’s Fraser Island) shattered, releasing an estimated 720 billion tonnes of icebergs into the Weddell Sea.

This wasn’t the first such recorded event. In January 1995, roughly 1,500 square km of the nearby Larsen A Ice Shelf suddenly disintegrated after several decades of warming and years of gradual retreat. To the southwest, the Wilkins Ice Shelf suffered a series of strikingly similar disintegration events in 1998, 2008 and 2009 — not only in summer but also in two of the Southern Hemisphere’s coldest months, May and July.

These sudden, large-scale fracturing events removed features that had been stable for centuries – up to 11,500 years in the case of Larsen B. While ice shelf disintegrations don’t directly raise sea level (because the ice shelves are already floating), the removal of shelf ice allows the glaciers behind them to accelerate their discharge of land-based ice into the ocean – and this does raise sea levels. Previous research has shown that the removal of Larsen B caused its tributary glaciers to flow eight times faster in the year following its disintegration.

Read more:
Cold and calculating: what the two different types of ice do to sea levels

The ocean around ice shelves is typically covered by a very different (but equally important) type of ice, called sea ice. This is formed from frozen seawater and is generally no more than a few metres thick. But it stretches far out into the ocean, doubling the area of the Antarctic ice cap when at its maximum extent in winter, and varying in extent throughout the year.

The response of Antarctic sea ice to climate change and variability is complex, and differs between regions. Around the Antarctic Peninsula, in the Bellingshausen and northwestern Weddell seas, it has clearly declined in extent and annual duration since satellite monitoring began in 1979, at a similar rate to the Arctic’s rapidly receding sea ice.

The Southern Ocean is also host to the largest waves on the planet, and these waves are becoming more extreme. Our new study focuses on “long-period” swell waves (with swells that last up to about 20 seconds). These are generated by distant storms and carry huge amounts of energy across the oceans, and can potentially flex the vulnerable outer margins of ice shelves.

The earliest whalers and polar pioneers knew that sea ice can damp these waves — Sir Ernest Shackleton reported it in his iconic book South!. Sea ice thus acts as a “buffer” that protects the Antarctic coastline, and its ice shelves, from destructive ocean swells.

Strikingly, all five of the sudden major ice shelf disintegrations listed above happened during periods when sea ice was abnormally low or even absent in these regions. This means that intense swell waves crashed directly onto the vulnerable ice shelf fronts.

The straw that broke the camel’s back

The Antarctic Peninsula has experienced particularly strong climate warming (roughly 0.5℃ per decade since the late 1940s), which has caused intense surface melting on its ice shelves and exacerbated their structural weaknesses such as fractures. These destabilising processes are the underlying drivers of ice shelf collapse. But they do not explain why the observed disintegrations were so abrupt.

Our new study suggests that the trigger mechanism was swell waves flexing and working weaknesses at the shelf fronts in the absence of sea ice, to the point where they calved away the shelf fronts in the form of long, thin “sliver-bergs”. The removal of these “keystone blocks” in turn led to the catastrophic breakup of the ice shelf interior, which was weakened by years of melt.

Our research thus underlines the complex and interdependent nature of the various types of Antarctic ice – particularly the important role of sea ice in forming a protective “buffer” for shelf ice. While much of the focus so far has been on the possibility of ice shelves melting from below as the sea beneath them warms, our research suggests an important role for sea ice and ocean swells too.

The edge of an ice shelf off the Antarctic Peninsula, with floating sea ice beyond (to the left in this image).
NASA/Maria Jose Vinas

In July 2017 an immense iceberg broke away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf, just south of Larsen B, prompting fears that it could disintegrate like its neighbours.

Our research suggests that four key factors will determine whether it does: extensive flooding and fracturing across the ice shelf; reduced sea ice coverage offshore; extensive fracturing of the ice shelf front; and calving of sliver-bergs.

Read more:
Don’t worry about the huge Antarctic iceberg – worry about the glaciers behind it

If temperatures continue to rise around the Antarctic, ice shelves will become weaker and sea ice less extensive, which would imply an increased likelihood of future disintegrations.

However, the picture is not that clear-cut, as not all remaining ice shelves are likely to respond in the same way to sea ice loss and swell wave impacts. Their response will also depend on their glaciological characteristics, physical setting, and the degree and nature of surface flooding. Some ice shelves may well be capable of surviving prolonged absences of sea ice.

The ConversationIrrespective of these differences, we need to include sea ice and ocean waves in our models of ice sheet behaviour. This will be a key step towards better forecasting the fate of Antarctica’s remaining ice shelves, and how much our seas will rise in response to projected climate change over coming decades. In parallel, our new findings underline the need to better understand and model the mechanisms responsible for recent sea ice trends around Antarctica, to enable prediction of likely future change in the exposure of ice shelves to ocean swells.

Luke Bennetts, Lecturer in applied mathematics, University of Adelaide; Rob Massom, Leader, Sea Ice Group, Antarctica & the Global System program, Australian Antarctic Division and Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, and Vernon Squire, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, Professor of Applied Mathematics

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why remote Antarctica is so important in a warming world

Chris Fogwill, Keele University; Chris Turney, UNSW, and Zoe Robinson, Keele University

Ever since the ancient Greeks speculated a continent must exist in the south polar regions to balance those in the north, Antarctica has been popularly described as remote and extreme. Over the past two centuries, these factors have combined to create, in the human psyche, an almost mythical land – an idea reinforced by tales of heroism and adventure from the Edwardian golden age of “heroic exploration” and pioneers such as Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton.

Recent research, however, is casting new light on the importance of the southernmost continent, overturning centuries of misunderstanding and highlighting the role of Antarctica in how our planet works and the role it may play in a future, warmer world.

Heroic exploration, 1913.

What was once thought to be a largely unchanging mass of snow and ice is anything but. Antarctica holds a staggering amount of water. The three ice sheets that cover the continent contain around 70% of our planet’s fresh water, all of which we now know to be vulnerable to warming air and oceans. If all the ice sheets were to melt, Antarctica would raise global sea levels by at least 56m.

Where, when, and how quickly they might melt is a major focus of research. No one is suggesting all the ice sheets will melt over the next century but, given their size, even small losses could have global repercussions. Possible scenarios are deeply concerning: in addition to rising sea levels, meltwater would slow down the world’s ocean circulation, while shifting wind belts may affect the climate in the southern hemisphere.

In 2014, NASA reported that several major Antarctic ice streams, which hold enough water to trigger the equivalent of a one-and-a-half metre sea level rise, are now irreversibly in retreat. With more than 150m people exposed to the threat of sea level rise and sea levels now rising at a faster rate globally than any time in the past 3,000 years, these are sobering statistics for island nations and coastal cities worldwide.

An immediate and acute threat

Recent storm surges following hurricanes have demonstrated that rising sea levels are a future threat for densely populated regions such as Florida and New York. Meanwhile the threat for low-lying islands in areas such as the Pacific is immediate and acute.

Much of the continent’s ice is slowly sliding towards the sea.
R Bindschadler / wiki

Multiple factors mean that the vulnerability to global sea level rise is geographically variable and unequal, while there are also regional differences in the extremity of sea level rise itself. At present, the consensus of the IPPC 2013 report suggests a rise of between 40 and 80cm over the next century, with Antarctica only contributing around 5cm of this. Recent projections, however, suggest that Antarctic contributions may be up to ten times higher.

Studies also suggest that in a world 1.5-2°C warmer than today we will be locked into millennia of irreversible sea level rise, due to the slow response time of the Antarctic ice sheets to atmospheric and ocean warming.

We may already be living in such a world. Recent evidence shows global temperatures are close to 1.5°C warmer than pre-industrial times and, after the COP23 meeting in Bonn in November, it is apparent that keeping temperature rise within 2°C is unlikely.

So we now need to reconsider future sea level projections given the potential global impact from Antarctica. Given that 93% of the heat from anthropogenic global warming has gone into the ocean, and these warming ocean waters are now meeting the floating margins of the Antarctic ice sheet, the potential for rapid ice sheet melt in a 2°C world is high.

In polar regions, surface temperatures are projected to rise twice as fast as the global average, due to a phenomenon known as polar amplification. However, there is still hope to avoid this sword of Damocles, as studies suggest that a major reduction in greenhouse gases over the next decade would mean that irreversible sea level rise could be avoided. It is therefore crucial to reduce CO₂ levels now for the benefit of future generations, or adapt to a world in which more of our shorelines are significantly redrawn.

This is both a scientific and societal issue. We have choices: technological innovations are providing new ways to reduce CO₂ emissions, and offer the reality of a low-carbon future. This may help minimise sea level rise from Antarctica and make mitigation a viable possibility.

The ConversationGiven what rising sea levels could mean for human societies across the world, we must maintain our longstanding view of Antarctica as the most remote and isolated continent.

Chris Fogwill, Professor of Glaciology and Palaeoclimatology, Keele University; Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Sciences and Climate Change, UNSW, and Zoe Robinson, Reader in Physical Geography and Sustainability/Director of Education for Sustainability, Keele University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.