The fossil remains of a 50 million year old bird with a 6.4 m wingspan have been found in Antarctica. That’s twice as wide as a wondering Albatross.
Antarctic ice is melting so fast that the stability of the whole continent could be at risk by 2100, scientists have warned.
One of the features of the Southern Ocean is the absence of land in the direction of its flow – the tails of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula just out as irritations but the ocean is connected, west to east. This means that waves have time to build and build as they travel around the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere. One narrow slither of land, Sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, only 34km long, suffered the consequences of its placement of its location last week when a storm of extraordinary magnitude hit. Out as sea were waves around 17m high; waves the size of a 5 story building, or a humpback whale standing on its tail.
While the island at its maximum is 5km wide, at its minimum, it’s only a few hundred metres. This narrow isthmus is the location of the Antarctic station and also where, at this time of year, elephant seal harems are assembled with new pups arriving most days.
The storm crashed across the isthmus and into the harems. Seals scrambled for slightly higher ground but many, including the big males were washed away by the pounding seas. Post-storm population counts indicate that, most have survived, (who would have thought, seals can swim) but pandemonium descended for some time, when pups were separated from mums.
Unsurprisingly waves ignored the station fences built as deterrents to seals seeking peace from the chaos of the harems and angry beachmasters patrolling their patch. The station’s main store was flooded and water washed through the central courtyard known affectionately as Market Square from the west coast to the east. (see image from a drier time )
Details and photos of the storm can be found at “This week at Macquarie Island“.
Climate change predictions are for more extreme events and more storm events world-wide. This storm illustrates impacts of pounding seas to low lying features and human settlements. It also illustrates that timing of exteme events can have long-term impacts. Though the counts say that seal numbers are ok, there inevitably would have been the loss of some very young seal pups and this dent in population numbers will carry through for the next 25 years or so.
Old growth cushion plants and mosses on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island are being decimated by recent climate change. New research that we published in the Journal of Applied Ecology reveals the cushion plants, Azorella macquariensis, estimated to be hundreds of years old, are dying due to windier and drier conditions.
The dieback of the cushion plants and mosses is rapid, progressive and widespread across the island.
Cushion plants have survived for thousands of years on the island but are now struggling to cope with the rapid changes occurring on the Island. Over the past four decades the environment has altered dramatically from wet and misty to one subject to periods of drying.
Our study, undertaken by 18 scientists from 10 institutions, looked at 115 sites across the Macquarie Island alpine tundra. Between 2008 and 2013 we found that 88% of the study areas had dieback present, often leaving a desert-like landscape. The extent of the death of this keystone endemic cushion plant is so severe that it has been declared critically endangered.
We have concluded that the primary cause of the species’ collapse is most likely failure of cushion plants and mosses to withstand changes in summer water availability. For 17 years in a row there was not enough water available to the plants during their summer growing conditions. Additionally, between 1967 and 2011, there has been increases in sunshine hours, wind speed and water loss from the leaves of the plants and soil and this is despite an overall increases in rainfall from storm events. Also some water stressed plants appear to be getting sick with disease.
This rapid ecosystem collapse on Macquarie Island is giving us a window into the potential impact of climate-induced environmental change on vulnerable ecosystems elsewhere.
Healthy plants (above), dying plants (below)
Macquarie Island is a Sub-Antarctic island located in the Southern Ocean, approximately half way between Australia and Antarctica.
It is a Tasmanian State Reserve managed by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service and was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997.
A more detailed account can be read
By combining satellite tracking data from a range of Antarctic species (Adélie and emperor penguins, light-mantled albatross, Antarctic fur seals, southern elephant seals and Weddell seals) Australian and French scientists have been able to find overlapping areas of importance for these species in Antarctica.
Check out the amazing animated map on the link below and you can see, in particular, how elephant seals and fur seals swim all the way from their breeding grounds on the Sub-Antarctic islands to feed in the rich waters off the coast of Antarctica with the more local species.
The Australian Antarctic Division issues a magazine twice a year on the Australian Antarctic Program. The current issue is just out and is available on-line and features great stories including the successful eradication of rabbits, rats and mice from World Heritage, Sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island and new science on volcanos being ice-age refuges for life in Antarctica. Follow the link above for a good read.
Increased wind speeds around Antarctica are contributing to increased winter sea ice. It is a complicated story but nicely explained in this article by Guy Williams from the ACECRC in Tasmania.
Here is a discussion on the issue of the potential for mining in Antarctica from ABC radio.
I truly hope that Antarctica remains set aside for peace and science into the future. The ABC article assumes that the Madrid Protocol (the environmental protection protocol which prohibits mining) will be reviewed in 2048. However the ban on mining is indefinite.
This is what the Australian Antarctic Division states on their web site:
“The Madrid Protocol prohibits mining. The ban is of indefinite duration and strict rules for modifying the ban are provided. In brief, the prohibition can be modified at any time if all parties agree. If requested, after 50 years a review conference may decide to modify the mining prohibition, provided that at least three quarters of the current Consultative Parties agree, a legal regime for controlling mining is in force, and the sovereign interests of parties are safeguarded.“
You can what read my colleagues and I believe are major the conservation issues facing Antarctica in our Science policy forum piece here.
Pine Island Glacier is one of the most studied glaciers in Antarctica. It is retreating rapidly and the link above shows the progress of a major iceberg that broke off it a few years ago.
Recent research from the UK reports on short term climate variability. The press release from the British Antarctic Survey is below:
A 308-year record of climate variability in West Antarctica
The Antarctic Peninsula and West Antarctica have warmed dramatically in recent decades, with some records suggesting that these are among the most rapidly warming regions on Earth. However, the lack of long-term instrumental records from this data-sparse region is hindering our ability to place these recent changes in a longer-term context. In this paper we present a new ice-core record from Ellsworth Land, which provides a valuable 308-year record (1702-2009) of climate variability from coastal West Antarctica. The new ice core was drilled on the ice divide between Pine Island Glacier and Ferrigno Glacier, two of the fastest flowing outlet glaciers in West Antarctica. The study analysed stable water isotopes in the ice core, which provide a record of past temperatures, to show that climate variability in this region is strongly driven by sea-surface temperatures and atmospheric pressure in the tropical Pacific.
The record shows that this region has warmed since the late 1950s, at a similar magnitude to that observed in the Antarctic Peninsula and central West Antarctica, however, this warming trend is not unique. More dramatic isotopic warming (and cooling) trends occurred in the mid-19th and 18th centuries, suggesting that at present the effect of anthropogenic climate drivers at this location has not exceeded the natural range of climate variability in the context of the past ~300 years.
Link to the full paper in the NERC Open Research Archive
Elizabeth R. Thomas, Thomas J. Bracegirdle, John Turner, Eric W. Wolff
Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2013GL057782, 2013
“Two research teams report that the Thwaites Glacier, a keystone holding the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet together, is starting to collapse. In the long run, they predict that the entire ice sheet is doomed, which would release enough meltwater to raise sea levels by 3 – 4 meters.”
The Pure Antarctic Foundation is responsible for assembling all the scientific papers that will form the basis of most of the content in Pure Antarctic. We will have links to all these works as well as simpler guides to the information in these papers. But that doesn’t mean that readers can’t examine the original papers themselves. Pure Antarctic is about going on a journey of discovery and that journey for some, may be an exciting arm chair ride into the scientific literature .
As such I found this article that explains how to read these some what prosaic works…
Welcome to my first ever blog
On the post pages I will feature Antarctic updates, hot science and news about building the Pure Antarctic event.
For my first post I thought I would write about why I am drawn to Antarctica .
What I love about working in Antarctica
I like living and working in an environment where nature rules. The greatest challenge is always to do the very best science you can in such a difficult place, where instruments freeze up, blow away or a stolen by penguins, your fingers are always cold, your boots are always wet and your nose is always dripping.
As an applied ecologist, the end goal is always ‘How does new knowledge translate into something useful?‘, such as better understanding of how the planet functions or the delivery of practical, improved ways of doing things that reduce our impact on rare Antarctic ecosystems.
I feel very privileged that my career has allowed access to a great wilderness and I know that with 7 billion people on the planet only a fraction of the world’s population will ever have the chances that I have had. By creating the closest thing to real that modern technology can deliver, I hope that Pure Antarctic will help protect the fragile ecosystems on and around this continent that I love.