Mystery of Antarctic sea ice investigated by science and art

Artists and scientists are working together to try and solve the mystery of fluctuating sea ice surrounding Antarctica.

In the Arctic, the surrounding sea ice has been shrinking; however the Antarctic sea ice was growing over the last few decades - until late last year, when it abruptly declined and reached a record low.

While a new study suggests it was a series of unprecedented storms that forced the sudden melt last year, the previous increase has been a mystery which baffles scientists.

Now they don't know what to expect this year, NIWA marine physicist Dr Natalie Robinson told Newshub.

"What it means is that there are parts of the Antarctic system that we don't understand at the moment," she said.

NIWA Marine Physicist Dr Natalie Robinson
Dr Natalie Robinson. Photo credit: Newshub.

To help figure out the mystery, and to open the science up to the general public, Wellington artist Gabby O'Connor was enlisted.

After two separate trips down to Antarctica, her latest exhibition has opened at Otago Museum, filled with stunning sculptures, videos and images inspired by her work down on the ice.

"Everything I did was about collecting data and trying to understand the environment," Ms O'Connor told Newshub.

"The main thing with this exhibition is just showing how something so tiny, these fragments of ice… how they actually have an influence on the bigger picture."

Studio Antarctica artist Gabby O'Connor
Wellington artist Gabby O'Connor. Photo credit: Newshub.

As well as helping engage audiences at multiple exhibitions, Ms O'Connor takes the work into schools, something Dr Robinson said helps gives the science a "much bigger profile".

And making it accessible is crucial. The science is complex: this summer, they're heading down to investigate how the ice shelves are melting from underneath, and how that affects the fluctuating sea ice.

Dr Robinson said sea ice is like a protective blanket over the ocean, stopping it from getting too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer.

"If you start taking that blanket away, then that ocean can start warming up, which makes it even less likely to form sea ice again the next season," she said.

Data Days + Studio Antarctica sculpture
Part of the Data Days + Studio Antarctica exhibition. Photo credit: Newshub.

"Once we understand [the melting ice shelf] process better, we can feed that into these global climate models, which can give us a better prediction of the whole Earth system."

Meanwhile, sculptor-turned-researcher Ms O'Connor said she'd like to head back down to the ice to keep working.

"I feel like I have unfinished business with Antarctica," she said.

Data Days + Studio Antarctica is on display at Otago Museum until Sunday as part of the New Zealand Antarctic Science Conference.