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Science in Antarctica
Antarctica is a huge continent, covering 14 million square kilometres or 10 percent of the Earth's land area.
It influences an even greater area - extending beyond the equator - in the form of cold air, water currents and migratory sea birds and marine mammals.
With an average elevation of 2300 metres, Antarctica is the highest and driest of all continents. It is also the coldest - the average annual temperature at the South Pole is -49° Celsius.
The continent is almost completely covered by ice with an average thickness of over 2000 metres. This is the storehouse for 70 percent of the world's fresh water.
Antarctica plays a vital role in the functioning of the global ecosystem.
It should be little surprise then that Antarctica is an important
place for science - the pursuit of knowledge about the physical
and natural world.
Because Antarctica is so large it is important that scientists
from the different countries work together to share information.
New Zealand has carried out research in Antarctica since 1957 and often scientists from other countries work alongside New Zealanders at Scott Base.
This country's links with Antarctic science go even further back, as it was one of the staging posts for Captain James Cook's circumnavigation of the continent in 1772 and Sir James Clark Ross's exploration of the Ross Sea in 1841. Captain Robert Scott's and Ernest Shackleton's expeditions left from New Zealand ports early this century (see History of the Ross Dependency). All carried out important scientific observations.
The focus and continuity of New Zealand's research efforts since 1957/58, when Scott Base opened, has been provided by the Ross Dependency Research Committee.
Early research focussed on atmospheric and physical sciences,
and on exploration and mapping of large chunks of the Ross Dependency,
established as New Zealand territory by a British Order-in-Council
in 1923. A broad-based science programme gradually developed,
co-ordinated by the Department of Scientific and Industrial
Research (DSIR), and peaked in the late 1980s with over 100
scientists and a similar number of support staff visiting the
There are geological links between New Zealand and the Ross Dependency that can be traced back to Gondwana. Antarctica formed the central portion of this super-continent which broke apart over 100 million years ago.
The atmosphere above Antarctica provides unique opportunities to study processes that are crucial from both a national and global perspective. The most topical of these are ozone depletion and climate change and New Zealand scientists play an important part in understanding these process.
Antarctic biological research is concerned with the study of organisms and ecosystems that are subject to extreme environmental conditions and the ways they have adapted to these conditions. How, for example, do Antarctic fish survive in temperatures of -2° Celsius and how can mosses and lichens survive when water is frozen for much of the year (see Adaptation to Cold).
Often research projects span several seasons and involve different
scientific disciplines. The study of sea ice, for instance,
involves work on physical and mechanical properties, the transmission
of wave energy, and the pattern of formation and break-up using
2000/2001 New Zealand research season.
Current Trends Top
Like all areas of science in New Zealand, Antarctic research has to look carefully at its costs and relevance. Research is done in Antarctica only when it cannot be performed elsewhere. The science is carried out by New Zealand universities, Crown research institutes and private research organisations.
In some fields the introduction of new technologies, such as data loggers and satellites, have enabled scientists to monitor processes automatically and therefore spend less time in the field. Science technicians at Scott Base are also able to make measurements throughout the year on behalf of New Zealand-based scientists .
The Environmental Protocol has caused scientific programmes to consider the impacts of their activities on the Antarctic environment and to monitor and study these effects
Environmental research is becoming increasingly important and recent projects have looked at the effects of disturbance and oil spills on permafrost soils, the local wind patterns and air-born emissions from Scott Base and the effects of sewage discharge on the marine community.
New Zealand scientists are increasingly looking to strengthen international links. In the Dry Valleys their work will complement that of America researchers working on a long term ecological research programme.
Case Study 1 Top
The Ozone Hole
In 1985 British researchers published their discovery that a vast amount of ozone was being lost from the atmosphere above Antarctica each spring.
Ozone is a gas that absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Ozone is mainly found in the stratosphere, at 15 to 50 km above the earth's surface. The level of ozone in the stratosphere is determined by a balance between the rate of production and destruction.
The conditions in the stratosphere above Antarctica in spring accelerate the rate of ozone destruction. In winter strong westerly winds confine air to the sunless polar region where ice clouds form and temperatures drop to as low as -90° Celsius. These conditions allow chlorine from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to destroy ozone when the sun returns in spring.
CFCs are used in plastics production, refrigerators, and as solvents. An international agreement , called the Montreal Protocol, has been signed to phase out the use of CFCs during the 1990s. Since 1985 the ozone hole has become bigger and longer lasting. In recent years it has covered an area of about 25 square kilometres, and about 70 percent of Antarctic ozone has been by early October. Enough CFCs are already in the atmosphere to create similar size holes for at least another 20 years.
As the polar vortex subsides in early summer the hole breaks up, restoring ozone over the Antarctic to more normal levels. However it does contribute to a very gradual thinning of the ozone layer around the earth.
New Zealand scientists are involved in studying the size of
the ozone hole, the chemical reactions which cause it, and its
effect on plants and the Antarctic food chain.
Scientists believe the release of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere has the potential to raise the earth's average temperature. They also see Antarctica as an ideal place to study the extent to which this is happening and its likely effects.
A valuable continuous record of weather has been made at Scott Base since 1957, but the ice and rocks of Antarctica hold clues about much more ancient climates.
The Cape Roberts Project - a five nation, multi million dollar drilling project - is designed to core rock laid down as seabed sediments more than 30 and maybe as old as 100 million years ago.
It was during this period that New Zealand split away from the ancient super-continent Gondwana and the core may provide valuable clues about the timing and rifting process.
It may also help resolve the debate over the history of the polar ice caps. Did they form during this period or was the planet too warm for ice sheets? Information about past climates can help scientists predict what will happen if global warming occurs. There is enough water tied up in Antarctica's ice cap to raise sea levels by 60 metres!
New Zealand scientists have also been involved in the study of glaciers and the calving of icebergs. On the Antarctic Peninsula the break up of small ice shelves and the spread of some plants suggests regional warming is occurring. Researchers are also keeping a close eye of the lakes of the Dry Valleys which have risen steadily in the last decade due to increased melt water from glaciers.
Antarctica is not only a storehouse of information about the
planet but offers early warning signals of the changes we could
cause to it.
New Zealand and Antarctica Scientific Strategy. Ross Dependency Research Committee. 1993
Ozone Depletion and the Antarctic Ozone Hole. National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research information leaflet.
Antarctica, the Ross Sea Region. Trevor Hatherton (Ed). DSIR Publishing, Wellington. 1990.
Annual Reports - 1992/93, 1993/94, 1994/95, 1995/96, 1996/97, 1997/98, 1998/99, 1999/2000
Antarctica: The lonely planet guide to Antarctica. Jeff Rubin. 2000