Looking south to Antarctica

As I stood at Slope Point, the southernmost point on the South Island of New Zealand, and looked out at the ocean, it was with the realization there was nothing between me and Antarctica except for a lot of water.

Slope Point is only 46.66 degrees south. In the northern hemisphere, the equivalent point would be somewhere around Mount Rainier, south of Seattle. A lot of land lies between that point and the Antarctic. The Southern Ocean surrounds Antarctica. As a consequence, it is isolated in many ways.

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Christchurch is home to the International Antarctic Centre, a staging post for traveling to the continent. It features a public science centre which houses a recovery facility for little blue penguins, a chance to ride in a Hagglund, and a storm room which takes people to -18 C (Considered ‘very cold’ by people south of the equator!). It also serves as the administrative centre for a number of research stations.

What is really evident from a trip to the centre is how much is not known about the Antarctic. And standing at Slope Point, it is evident just how much of an effect the continent has on Earth’s climate. A recent special issue of Science highlighted many of the issues.

It was only 200 years ago an expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev encountered the Fimbul Ice Shelf and discovered mainland Antarctica. It quickly became apparent the continent is dominated by ice. Not totally covered in ice – there are dry desert valleys – but with enough ice to raise sea level by 58 metres if it were to all melt.

A rise in sea levels of that magnitude would see much of the world’s present continental coastlines submerged – Vancouver would become ‘Venice-of-the-North’ while Victoria would disappear beneath the waves forming a few offshore islands. Much of New Zealand is below 60 metres above present sea levels. The coastal plains of the South Island would be inundated with cities such as Christchurch and Dunedin being drowned. It is not only the little islands of Polynesia which would be affected by the rise in sea level.

The Antarctic is melting. The good news is it will take a century before all the ice is gone. The bad news is the rate at which the continent is losing mass is accelerating. Some portions are close to the tipping point. The outlet glaciers or ice streams are sliding across the underlying topology at rates up to 4 km/year.

The whole system has three major components: grounded slow-moving ice creeping along at rates of about 1 m/year, the fast-moving outlet glaciers or ice streams and the floating ice shelves. Where the ice shelves float, they are already contributing to the present sea levels. (Melting an ice cube in a glass of water doesn’t change the level of the water.)

But the grounding lines for the ice shelves are shifting inland meaning more ice is being off-loaded from the continental land mass and further increasing the flow of ice in the outlet steams. Further, we have already seen the break-up of a number of the large sheets with the release of ‘icebergs’ the size of European countries.

A lot of the research on the Antarctic has occurred in the past couple of decades. It is not a very hospitable environment and the scientists and support staff living on the continent must receive special training. Simple things, such as helicopter flights over ridges, take on a whole new level of peril. Hence, it is only recently that good data is being collected on many of the prominent and critical features of the continent.

What is readily apparent is the land mass is not contiguous with the ice covering it. Deep radar transects and coastal surveys are revealing a land of mountains, valley, rifts, and even deeply submerged lakes. The highest points can be found over the Gamburtsev Mountains while the deepest is located 3500 m below sea level under the Denman Glacier. Once the glacier melts, it will be a fjord of true magnificent depth and portions.

What is also apparent is the Antarctic is rich in resources. Over 100 million years ago, the continent was located in a sub-tropical climate, very similar to New Zealand, with a proliferation of plants and animals. There are many undiscovered fossil beds in the rocks of the mountain ranges. And vast reserves of oil and coal under the ground.

But for now, the Antarctic remains isolated. Protected by the Southern Ocean and by the southern vortex, it is a world unto itself. Home to penguins, elephant seals, and very brave primates, it is perhaps the most inhospitable place on the planet.

Still, looking south from Slope Point, I can’t help but feel the desire to go and explore.

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