Antarctica Rising: Science and Exploration
January 4, 2019
Photos: Josh Scarrow
Environmental Scientist Josh Scarrow is part of the Antarctica New Zealand science team, helping to support New Zealand’s Antarctic science program. He was in town recently to speak to a sold-out crowd about the world's last great wilderness, and the challenges associated with facilitating science at the end of the earth. We caught up with him to find out what the research teams have been working on, and why we should all be paying attention.
It's pretty choice. I'm one of the links between the science groups (from universities and research institutes) and our operations team - the people who plan all the nuts and bolts of getting the scientists out into the field. We make sure these incredibly clever people can get to where they need to go, to do what they need to do, safely. We coordinate about 30 different science groups – 100-odd scientists – each summer season and the ground-breaking work they do feeds into a range of activities back home, including, for example, climate modeling and providing data to support policy development.Who is currently in Antarctica?
At Scott Base itself, there are currently 12 men and women working through the winter darkness, keeping the base ticking over, collecting scientific data and maintaining various long-term scientific instruments. In a broader sense, there are quite a few research stations operated by a range of different countries - there’s a global effort going on down there. For instance, Scott Base, our permanent base in Antarctica, has close ties with the American program at McMurdo Station, just 3km away. We’ve had these ties since Sir Ed (Hillary) established the base in 1957. USAP (United States Antarctic Program) help us with air transport to and from the ice, and the icebreaker-based resupply of the base(s), and we reciprocate in other ways, such as providing power generated by our wind turbines, and NZDF (New Zealand Defence Force) personnel to help offload the supplies. That operating landscape is quite special. It's true collaboration.
“We make sure these incredibly clever people can get to where they need to go, to do what they need to do, safely.”
The biggest project currently underway is the Ross Ice Shelf Project, involving researchers from Otago, Victoria (Wellington), Canterbury, NIWA and other institutions. The Ross Ice Shelf is a big floating piece of ice the size of Spain and 300-800m+ thick, and ice from the Antarctic ice sheets flows into it. There's an ocean under the ice shelf– a whole heap of water – that we know very little about. To get at that unknown water the team need to drill through the shelf. The first study site (drilled in the 2017/18 summer) is 350km south of Scott Base, and we had to get all our gear out to the camp for the team of 10-20 people – food, tents, fuel and the drill itself. So we set up a tractor traverse to drag it all out there - a bit more high-tech than the Massey Fergusons Sir Ed used in the 50s! The drill is basically a waterblaster firing hot water down through the ice to access the water below. Once open, a variety of instruments were lowered through the borehole into the underlying ocean. The samples and data collected in the field will lead to several years of work for a lot of very clever, dedicated people.
“You form lasting bonds over simple stuff, like having a cup of tea and watching the sun rise out of the ocean or from behind the mountains. So that’s really special to me on a personal level”
We need to know more about the water underneath the ice – its temperature, saltiness, and how it’s moving. We know the oceans (globally) are warming. So what effect is the ocean having on the underside of the ice shelf? Is it nibbling away at it? If the Ross Ice Shelf destabilizes, the ice sheet sitting on the land behind it is likely to be more vulnerable as Earth’s temperature warms – and that ice will be a major contributor to future sea-level rises. Understanding key thresholds for change and how quickly things might change is crucial to knowing how fast things might change for us in a warming world. There are around 150 million people worldwide that currently live within 1m of the present sea level, including a lot in the world’s biggest cities, so you can see how important it is to understand how fast our coastlines may change over the coming decades-to-centuries. The science is big and complex, and there are a lot of people a lot smarter than me working on it. I'm working to help them get there and do what they need to do.
“Antarctica is far away from everything, but it's not isolated. What happens in Antarctica affects the rest of the planet, via the complex interconnections of ocean and atmospheric currents.”
Antarctica is far away from everything, but it's not isolated. What happens in Antarctica affects the rest of the planet, via the complex interconnections of ocean and atmospheric currents. If all of the ice in the West and East Antarctic ice sheets were to melt, global sea levels would rise by around 60m - that’s almost incomprehensibly massive. As well as that, the annual expansion and retreat of Antarctic sea ice is the biggest annual geophysical change on the planet; I like to look at it as the heartbeat of the planet, helping to drive global ocean currents. In fact, I reckon we should have Antarctica at the centre of the map, not the bottom!
As part of the Ross Ice Shelf project last year, a small team traveled further into uncharted territory to reach the other side of the shelf – the Siple Coast - more than 1,000km away from Scott Base. We did a lot of preparation for that - using satellite data and ground-penetrating radar to work out where the crevasses were and to find a safe route through/around them. This coming season, we'll drag a bunch of gear out there - and position it for the following summer, so we can fly scientists to drill holes and take another look under the ice, this time focusing on the important grounding line – where the ice on the land meets the sea, and floats on the ocean. The grounding zone is seen as one of the key vulnerabilities of the ice shelf/ice sheet system, and it’s crucial we understand as much as possible about the processes and rates of change occurring there. There’s also a whole lot of other really exciting and important science occurring down south, I could go on all day about it, but we don’t have time to do it justice.
For me, Antarctica is all about science and exploration. I first went to the ice when I was 21 – it's deeply embedded in who I am. Outside work, my main obsession is sailing, and I've found parallels between the two. In a field camp out in the mountains or sailing across the Pacific – you're in this big, vast, beautiful and quite challenging landscape or seascape with just three or four other people. And if it hits the fan, those are the only people who can help you in an immediate sense. You form lasting bonds over simple stuff, like having a cup of tea and watching the sun rise out of the ocean or from behind the mountains. So that’s really special to me on a personal level. But also the work that people are doing around me – the extent to which they’re going to figure out how Antarctica is affected by our changing climate, and how our changing climate is affecting Antarctica, makes me more aware of the environment and what we are doing to contribute to it, and the negative aspects of what we are doing. It's given me an awareness of the interconnectedness of things; what you do here affects things over there. The oceans are all connected, the atmosphere is globally connected; national boundaries and political vagaries are really irrelevant when you start thinking about this big stuff.
The models suggest that we can't keep emitting carbon dioxide at the rates we are now if we want to avoid run-away changes to our current way of life. I believe we need to start reducing emissions, and we need to do it now and in a meaningful manner. And that's tricky when you've got nations at different stages of development around the world, and they want that higher quality of living that we've enjoyed. But that quality of life has been enabled by various activities that it turns out aren't that good on a global scale. So it is tricky, but that’s no reason not to do as much as we can on a personal, individual level.