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Understanding Antarctica’s role in a wilder and warmer world

GNS Science is working with researchers in New Zealand and overseas to tackle pressing environmental questions about ice sheet melt and the impact of climate change on the Antarctic and Greenland.

Antarctic ice sheets melting. Photo: Craig Stevens

Melting Antarctic ice will have a huge impact on agriculture, infrastructure and human life. Photo: Craig Stevens

Extreme and unpredictable weather globally will get worse as ice sheets in the Antarctic and Greenland continue to melt. This was the key finding of an international research collaboration published in Nature in February 2019. The collaboration involved scientists from GNS Science, Victoria University of Wellington’s Antarctic Research Centre, Canada, UK, Germany and USA. 

Using climate models, the researchers simulated what might happen when melt water enters Earth’s oceans. Under current policy settings, the Earth’s temperature will increase by 3 to 4 degrees by 2100 meaning a large amount of water from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets will enter our oceans. This will have very disruptive effects for agriculture, infrastructure and human life which are not currently accounted for in global climate policies. 

Scientists at work on the Antarctic ice core. Photo: Nancy Bertler

Scientists at work on the Antarctic ice core. Photo: Nancy Bertler

The effect of ice sheet melt on rising sea level was also calculated in the study, with sea level rise from ice sheet melt accelerating in recent years. Experiments showed that if we drastically reduce carbon emissions, we can limit future impacts.

GNS Science is co-leading two new projects as part of the Antarctic Science Platform. We will collaborate with Victoria University of Wellington, Otago University and NIWA to improve our understanding of change in Antarctica if we manage to meet emissions targets set at the Paris climate change summit and keep warming to no more than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. 

The Antarctic Ice Dynamics project aims to improve our knowledge of ice sheet response to a warming climate. The project team is developing a new drilling system to enable scientists to take samples from remote locations not fully explored before. It will be deployed in the centre of the West Antarctic ice sheet where the ice sheet goes afloat. Drilling here will provide evidence about the history of the ice sheet and help forecast future sea level rise with greater accuracy. This work will contribute to other key studies that aim to help New Zealand manage and adapt to change along our coastline. 

The Sea Ice and Carbon Cycle Feedbacks project is investigating the impact of climate change on sea ice, biological productivity and carbon dioxide uptake in the Southern Ocean. The ocean currently acts as a ‘carbon sink’, taking up a large portion of the carbon dioxide emitted into the air from human activity. We need to know if the carbon sink is changing size and whether it will continue to be a sink. This requires more year-round observations to build a fuller picture. The work will produce science that will underpin decisions about our changing climate system.