As well as geology modules, this semester I’ve also opted to take an Antarctic Studies module. As one of the closest countries to Antarctica, New Zealand has strong links with Antarctica. Christchurch is one of the gateway cities from where scientists and supplies are flown to some of the scientific bases in Antarctica and is home to the International Antarctic Centre museum. Antarctica is an important continent as although nobody lives there permanently, it has global significance both scientifically and politically. Throughout the course we’ve been learning about some of the important scientific activities which take place in Antarctica and I’d like to share some of these with you.
One of the main reasons Antarctica has global significance is due to the large ice sheet which has a volume 25 million cubic kilometres and is 62% of the freshwater on the planet. If all of this ice melted it would produce a global sea level rise of 58m, so obviously it is important for glaciologists to understand how the ice behaves and is changing, especially given that global warming is such a widely discussed topic.
Geologically, Antarctica is also important as it was once part of a supercontinent called Gondwana so studying the rocks which make up the continent can provide clues about continental drift and past environments. Antarctica hasn’t always been cold and information about the climate in the past can be gleaned from rocks and fossils found beneath the ice. Unfortunately the ice is several kilometres thick in some places which makes studying Antarctic geology more challenging and geologists have to use a range of methods to find out what is below the ice. Radar surveys have even found an entire mountain range buried beneath the ice.
Antarctica also provides an excellent platform for astronomy. The cold and dry conditions are good for telescope operation and the atmosphere is thinner and more stable than in other places, meaning there is less distortion of radiation coming in from space. The atmosphere in Antarctica also has low levels of dust and pollution which allows better astronomical observations to be made. There is a wide range of projects currently taking place in Antarctica looking at everything from star formation to detecting neutrinos.
All the scientific activity in Antarctica is supported by a network of bases. The management of these bases is important to ensure that they are as sustainable as possible and don’t deplete resources for future generations. This is made more complicated by Antarctica’s remote location which means that all supplies need to be flown in and all waste needs to be flown out, using a considerable amount of fuel.
There’s still a lot to find out about Antarctica and the number of researchers visiting each year is growing, supported by constantly improving equipment and technology such as the famous RRS Sir David Attenborough (a.k.a. Boaty McBoatface) due to enter service with the British Antarctic Survey soon.