Kiwi scientists unlocking carbon secrets in Antarctica

For the first time ever, Kiwi scientists are set to unlock the carbon secrets hidden in the Antarctic permafrost.

In a collaboration with Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), Kiwi scientists are heading into the final season of a four-year work programme in the Dry Valleys investigating the levels of greenhouse gases stored in Antarctica's frozen ground.

The team will take gas samples from the Taylor and Wright valleys, 70km from Scott Base, using probes and chambers to test the type of gas and how much is there.

Last season, the team sent electrical volts into the earth to measure its resistivity in different places.

"What we are trying to see with the resistivity survey is fractures and breaks and changes in the sediment beneath us to see if there are conduits and pathways for the gas to get to the surface," INGV principle investigator Dr Livio Ruggiero said.

It's well-established that the thawing of the Arctic is producing rapid and large emissions, but this is the first time scientists will begin to understand the Antarctic's contribution to global warming.

"We know now that we're getting actually significant emissions from the Antarctic permafrost, what we want to know - is that because the frozen ground is melting and emitting that?" GNS Science chief scientist Professor Gary Wilson said.

"Or is that because there are brines deeper in the sediments that are carrying that carbon dioxide and methane out from under the ice sheet."

The work will also reveal how much the release of the gas might increase as global warming continues, he said.

"If we warm up the planet by 2C, which means 7C in the Antarctic, what does that mean for the response of the Antarctic cryosphere?"

The age of the trapped gas is important too.

"Because if it's just produced locally it's a relatively small problem, but if it's actually coming out from under the east Antarctic ice sheet, that's a very significant issue," Prof Wilson said.

What might lurk beneath Antarctica's ice has been the subject of speculation by sci-fi writers dating back to the 1930s.

Filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro has just released test footage from a project he never got to make, based on HP Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness - a science fiction novella about a group of scientists who uncover terrifying creatures preserved from a past civilisation.

The imagined tentacled beast from the depths of the Antarctic even inspired one of Del Toro's monsters in the 2004 film Hellboy.

The Kiwi and Italians' research findings will be published next year, and could mean a serious scaling up of our efforts to reduce emissions.

"We talk about carbon-zero, but actually we might have to go carbon-negative if there's such a positive feedback in the natural system," Prof Wilson said.

It might not be bone-crunching monsters, but from beneath the Dry Valleys a different monster could be unearthed - one that could speed up global warming in ways we have not planned for.