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Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean

Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean

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Published by: earthandlife on Sep 09, 2011
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Future Science Opportunities inAntarctica and the Southern Ocean
Although the icy landscape of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean may seem distant, scienticresearch in this region can yield insights on changes that are important to the entire planet. TheAntarctic region also holds the promise of novel discovery: ice and sediment records containclues to Earth’s history, the region’s living organisms may hold genetic secrets to surviving inextreme environments, and the Antarctic plateau offers an unparalleled platform for observingthe solar system and the Universe beyond. Looking out over the next couple of decades, thisreport identies key questions that will drive scientic research in Antarctica and the SouthernOcean, and presents opportunities to be leveraged to sustain and improve the science program.The development of a large-scale observing network and a new generation of models has thepotential to expand scientic understanding and ensure the continuing success of research inthe Antarctic region.
he Antarctic regionis like no other  place on Earth.Covering nearly 14 millionsquare kilometers— approximately 1.4 timesthe size of the UnitedStates—Antarctica is the planet’s coldest, windiest,and driest continent. Thisextreme environment provides great opportu-nities for advancingscientic understandingof the planet: the climateand geography of theregion are important players in many of Earth’sglobal processes, includingthe circulation of theoceans and atmosphere,and the cycling of carbondioxide through the ocean. A more completeunderstanding of the Antarctic region will allowscientists to better predict how these processesmight change as Earth continues to warm, andhow this change will affect the rest of the planet.In addition to providing informationon global change thatis already occurring,Antarctica and theSouthern Ocean alsooffer opportunities for novel discoveries. Theremarkable clarity andrelative stability of theatmosphere above thecontinent allows scien-tists to examine theupper atmosphere and beyond, observationsthat could help answer fundamental questionsabout the origins of theUniverse and the natureof the solar system.In the United States,the U.S. AntarcticProgram of the National Science Foundation(NSF) holds the primary responsibility for supporting science in Antarctica and theSouthern Ocean. At the request of the NSFOfce of Polar Programs and the Ofce of 
 – 2 – 
Science and Technology Policy in the White House,the National Research Council convened acommittee of experts to identify the major sciencequestions that will drive research in Antarctica andthe Southern Ocean over the next 10 to 20 years.The Committee identied key scientic questionsthat fall within two broad themes: those related toglobal change, and those related to fundamentaldiscoveries. In addition, the Committee identiedseveral opportunities to broadly advance Antarcticand Southern Ocean research in the process of answering these questions. The information in thereport is intended to inform a subsequent NSF BlueRibbon Panel that will examine logistical operationsin Antarctica and the Southern Ocean to ensure theyare capable of supporting vital research in theAntarctic region over the coming two decades.
Global Change
Over the past century, temperatures on land andin the ocean have started to increase. Sea level isrising and global weather patterns are shifting,altering the chemical and biological systems of the planet. The climate and geography of Antarctica areimportant inuences on these processes and providea unique environment in which to monitor change.The Committee highlighted several areas of sciencethat will be important in research on global changein Antarctica and the Southern Ocean over the nexttwo decades.
 How will Antarctica contribute to changes in global sea level?
Antarctica’s ice sheetsexist in a state of dynamicequilibrium. Snow and iceaccumulate over the continentand slowly ow to the coasts by movement of glaciers andice sheets; when these enor-mous ice shelves come intocontact with the warmingocean, huge chunks break off and are lost to the sea. Whenice sheets collapse, oftenexplosively, they uncork theow of glaciers behind themand accelerate the progress of these glaciers toward the sea.Rising global tempera-tures now threaten to push thesystem out of equilibrium by making the ice sheetsmelt more quickly, increasing the volume of theworld ocean and pushing global sea level higher.Antarctica’s ice sheets hold about 90 percent of theworld’s ice and fresh water, and if all this ice wereto melt, global sea levels would rise by more than60 meters. Therefore, scientists need to understandhow rapidly the world is warming, if Antarctic iceloss will accelerate, and how quickly sea level willrise. To reach this goal, increased observations of Antarctic ice sheet melting are needed, as well asimproved models to better predict the rate of icesheet loss.
What is the role of Antarctica and the SouthernOcean in the global climate system?
The ocean currents and air circulation of theAntarctic region are inextricably linked to thoseon the rest of the planet. More information onAntarctica’s inuence over globally interactingsystems will allow scientists to better understand theglobal climate system and predict how it will changein the future. A systems approach, with increasedobservations and improved modeling, is critical toimproving understanding of the climate system over the next 20 years.For example, the strong westerly winds that circlethe Antarctic continent inuence global atmosphericcirculation. To improve projections of future changesin atmospheric circulation, enhanced observationsand modeling capacity are needed—especially tounderstand the role of the Antarctic ozone hole andthe inuence of global climate change.
Figure 1.
The Larsen Ice Shelf extends along the east coast of the Antarctic Peninsula(Image A). In 2002, the Larsen B ice shelf suddenly collapsed, delivering 3,250 km
of iceinto the ocean (Image B). Better predictions of the effects of warming climate on ice shelvescould help prevent similar occurrences from being surprises in the future.
Source: Cavalieri et al., 2008, National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado, Boulder.
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Similarly, the circulation of the Southern Ocean iscentral to the global ocean circulation and plays animportant role in the absorption of carbon dioxidefrom the atmosphere, a critical step in the globalcarbon cycle. Changing patterns of annual sea ice inthe Southern Ocean could strongly affect atmo-spheric and oceanic circulation. Improved monitoringand modeling will allow scientists to better under-stand the role of the Southern Ocean in the globalocean system.
What is the response of Antarctic biota and ecosystems to change?
Although recent research has revealed a surprisingdiversity of life forms in Antarctica, even in habitatsonce considered lifeless, Antarctic ecosystems arerelatively simple compared to those in other areas of the globe. This makes it easier to detect the impactsof global climate change and other environmentalchanges in Antarctic ecosystems than it is elsewhereon the planet.Furthermore, Antarctic ecosystems are particu-larly vulnerable to change. The marine andland-based ecosystems of Antarctica and theSouthern Ocean evolved in isolation from the rest of the planet, but recent factors such as the globaltransport of pollutants, the introduction of invasivespecies, and increases in UV radiation are alteringthese communities. Increasing human presence, dueto shing, tourism, and research, has broughtconcerns abouthabitat destruction,overshing, pollu-tion, and other toxiceffects on theenvironment.Of all the humaninuences, human-induced climatechange may havethe largest impact onthe Antarctic region.On land and sea,warming and icemelt will increasethe area of surfacesexposed to theelements, providingnew habitats for colonization by organisms, and potentially alteringthe functioning and structure of ecosystems. For example the recent warming of the AntarcticPeninsula has caused changes in penguin popula-tions. As warming continues, factors such as predation, competition, and pathogens may have agreater inuence on ecosystem functioning than the physical processes that have, until now, dominatedthe region’s ecosystems. Changes in the ecosystemsof the Antarctic region may be a harbinger of thechanges to come elsewhere, and therefore monitoringAntarctic change could allow scientists to better  predict future global change.
What role has Antarctica played in changing the planet in the past?
The movement, fragmentation, and collision of Earth’s tectonic plates can have dramatic conse-quences, causing earthquakes and volcanoes,constructing new mountain ranges, opening gate-ways between oceans, and triggering global climateshifts. Evidence from Earth’s past indicates that theAntarctic continent played a central role in previouschanges in Earth’s climate and in atmospheric andoceanic circulation.About 180 million years ago, Gondwana—amassive supercontinent consisting of Antarctica,India, Australia, South America, and Africa—beganto break apart. Antarctica, which at the time wascovered with dense forests inhabited by dinosaursand mammals, started to move toward its present, polar position, opening up new ocean passages andcausing great shifts in the circulation of the ocean and
Figure 2.
An Adélie Penguin.
Source: Edward Dunlea
Figure 2.
Visiting scientists examine ongoing experimentsat the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological ResearchSite.
Source: Chris Elfring

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