Antarctic science digs deep for climate secrets

  • 14/02/2017

A research project in Antarctica is trying to unlock one of the continent's secrets - it's a clue, frozen in the ice, that will help them measure just how much the climate is changing.

High summer in Antarctica leads to an explosion of life, when the deep freezer warms up to become just a refrigerator.

There's also an explosion of scientific research.

Ken Taylor runs one of the continent's most ambitious ice research projects, investigating the growing crack in the Larsen C ice shelf.

The massive crack opened up in the floating shelf and is about to break off an iceberg the size of Delaware.

And what's going on is the huge crack that's opened up in one of the floating ice shelves that cling to the coast here.

"It's very large and the fracture that is breaking off is expanding quite a bit lately, jumps about a mile every week or so," Mr Taylor says.

It's not the ice from the ice shelf that is worrying. More Antarctic ice flowing into the sea would increase the threat to low-lying coastal areas around the world, including in the US and New Zealand.

"There are several spots around here, around Antarctica, that are believed to be in this irreversible situation, where the ice on the ground is going to flow into the sea and there's nothing we can do to stop it at this point," Mr Taylor says.

Eric Guth is part of a scientific study that is proving that Antarctic ice is on the move - the Extreme Ice Survey, which uses time-lapse photography to document what's happening.

Images snapped every hour, then strung together, show how quickly the glaciers are flowing. These pictures aren't just useful for science, but they have another purpose.

"Much of the general public are visual learners, as am I, and I think being able to see that with your own eyes is a very compelling way of communicating information," Dr Guth says.

Arguments over the causes of climate change may be raging again at home but in Antarctica, suggestions of a hoax come up against some cold hard facts. 

Dr Taylor, the ice scientist, normally drills miles deep into the icecap for answers. But sometimes, they're floating all around you.

Bubbles trapped in the ice contain the air that was around tens of thousands of years ago when it froze. 

That air that contained a fraction of the warming greenhouse gasses the human race is now pumping into the atmosphere. 

"If you break this open and smell that air, you're smelling ancient air," Dr Taylor says.

"It's really good air, it's like air before humans messed up the atmosphere."

There's another kind of chill down on the ice as well. It's a chill felt by the scientists who fear the research money they need will be harder to come by in the future, and that there is a less receptive attitude in government now for the kind of science they're doing.

CBS News