Antarctic ice may hold answers
Saturday 26 Jan 2013 7:33 a.m.
A red flag blows in the wind on the McMurdo sound ice shelf with Mt Erebus and Ross Island in the background
By Dave Williams
The massive, imposing and otherworldly continent of Antarctica may appear a bleak and frozen wasteland, but scientists believe it holds the key to New Zealand's future, in science, climate change, fisheries, forestry and farming.
All they need is the money to do the work and find out how.
With enormous help from the United States and its nearby McMurdo Station, New Zealand has had a physical presence in Antarctica, with Scott Base, since 1957.
But Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Lou Sanson says the country's connections go back a lot further, even to Captain James Cook's exploration of the Southern Ocean.
The heroic early 20th Century polar bids of Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton - the astronauts of their day - called into New Zealand before the ice, making Christchurch the "Cape Canaveral of the planet" which for the first time put the country on the international stage, Mr Sanson says.
Mr Sanson's own involvement with Antarctica goes back 30 years, when the conservation ethic on the ice was not as strong as it is now. Among his first jobs in 1982 was shooting seals to feed the dogs.
With the success of the Antarctic Treaty in dealing with territorial claims, and since the 1990s closing off the continent to mining and the culling of wildlife, Mr Sanson is hoping the science team can help unlock the processes and uncertainty around the climate change problems now facing the world.
He thinks New Zealand farmers should take note, and not just because the anticyclones circling Antarctica are responsible for New Zealand's plentiful annual rainfall.
He cites a number of practical scientific discoveries already from Antarctica, such as antifreeze found in the blood of fish, which can be used to stop grapes and tomatoes freezing, and microbes from Mt Erebus fumaroles that have sped up DNA crime scene analysis.
"We have got the most biologically productive oceans on the planet," he says.
Antarctica's 24 hours of sunlight in the summer months helps animals put on body mass 50 per cent faster than in New Zealand.
Seals in the Antarctic are weaned in up to 20 days after drinking essentially pure fat from their mothers.
"The ability for critters here to put on body weight is quite exceptional. So if we want to understand obesity or how to grow cows faster or whatever, we need to understand what's happening here."
But scientists are also keen to know more about the "thermohaline circulation" or the large-scale ocean currents which are driven largely by the Antarctic "engine", and what might happen if the Ross Ice Shelf, which is the size of France and nearly 300m thick, breaks up and melts.
The onset of winter sees the ice start to grow, freezing the seawater out, and the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf resembles a massive undersea waterfall - and perhaps the biggest natural phenomenon on the planet, Mr Sanson says.
"The water is flowing down the continental shelf at such a rate it's the equivalent of the Niagara Falls along a 300-mile (483km) front."
That drove ocean currents, including a pulse of deep water that travelled north from the Ross Sea and past New Zealand, the basis of our fish stocks and weather system.
Less sea ice could mean less power driving the ocean currents, which could change the thermohaline circulation with unknown consequences.
Professor Gary Wilson, the director of the newly established New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI), believes rising sea levels are a concern, but the biggest worry is how climate change will affect Antarctica and therefore New Zealand.
Changes in Antarctica would have profound downstream effects on fisheries, farming and the weather "which we just don't have a handle on at the moment".
The Ross Ice Shelf is a buffer between West Antarctica and the warming ocean.
But scientists do not know what the warming water is doing under the ice shelf. Warming of a couple of degrees in the atmosphere may not melt it much "but actually putting heat under that ice shelf may well be the game changer", Prof Wilson says.
"This is critical for New Zealand. If we don't understand how the engine works and how it's going to impact us, it doesn't matter particularly what we do back in New Zealand because everything will surprise us."
Previous research had been somewhat fractured, but a new approach will involve large-scale projects to see how the whole system is changing, he says.
NZARI has made a bid for funding from the government's National Science Challenges, with $60m to be spent over four years on projects.
Prime Minister John Key, on his recent visit, spoke about the beauty of Antarctica and the good work of scientists, but made no major announcements about increasing research funding for Antarctic projects.
However, following a visit to the Dry Valleys, he did say he hoped "a pretty big project" would be successful in getting funding from the science challenges funding model, which are announced in April.
Antarctic scientists, and perhaps some farmers, will be hoping they are successful.