While COP26 today focuses on science and innovation’s role in combating climate change
, Antarctic researchers are preparing to drill into the ocean floor below the Ross Ice Shelf to discover if cutting
greenhouse gas emissions avoids catastrophic melt of the icy continent.
The Antarctic research project will investigate the sensitivity of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet to global warming of 2°C
(SWAIS 2C) by retrieving sediment from the depths in a bid to find out how the ice behaved when global temperatures were
as warm as those expected in the coming decades.
These geological records could reveal if there is a tipping point in our climate system when large amounts of land-based
ice melts, causing oceans to rise many metres—if it has happened before, it could happen again.
The West Antarctic Ice Sheet holds enough ice to raise sea levels by 4 metres.International cooperation
The SWAIS 2C team includes some of the world’s top Antarctic scientists, led by Drs Richard Levy (GNS Science and Te
Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington) and Molly Patterson (Binghamton University, Binghamton, New York, USA).
It is an international effort supported by USD$4.6 million in funds from New Zealand, the United States, Germany,
Australia, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea, with several other nations planning to join.
The International Continental Scientific Drilling Programme
awarded the project a USD$1.2 million grant, the first for an Antarctic drilling programme.
“We have formed a team of drillers, engineers, field experts and scientists who are up to the task. Discoveries will
show us how much the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could melt if we miss Paris Agreement targets,” Dr Levy
says geological data provides direct evidence on the extent of the ice during a given time period. “This information is
necessary to assess whether climate models are able to capture observed variability during warmer times in Earth’s
history prior to making any assumptions about the future.”1200 kilometres across the Ross Ice Shelf, 1 kilometre down through ice and dirt
SWAIS 2C’s preparation team will depart from Scott Base
this month for a 1200km traverse across the Ross Ice Shelf to the Siple Coast, where land ice meets the ocean and
starts to float. Once the drilling camp has been established, the wider science team will join the group and work
through Antarctica’s ‘summer’ until February. SWAIS 2C field campaigns are planned for the next three years.
No one has ever drilled into the Antarctic seabed at a location so far from a major base, or so close to the centre of
the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Engineers at Victoria University of Wellington’s Antarctic Research Centre
have spent four years developing ‘world-first’ technology capable of hot water drilling through ~800m of ice before
taking sediment samples from up to 200m beneath ice sheet.
The Centre’s Director, Associate Professor Rob McKay, says it is a massively ambitious undertaking, but New Zealand is a
recognised world-leader in designing and building such innovative technology.
“The fact that so many countries are joining us in this effort highlights the urgency to understand more about the West
Antarctic Ice Sheet, which remains the largest uncertainty for sea level rise projections.”Why Antarctica matters
Sediments could help us understand how much Antarctic ice melted when the world’s climate was warmer. This knowledge
will help scientists predict what might happen in the future if global temperatures continue on their current trajectory
towards 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels.
This is important to know because Antarctic ice melt raises sea levels around the globe
. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is considered vulnerable to climate change because much of the ice, which rests on
bedrock thousands of metres below the sea level, is exposed to the warming Southern Ocean.
Antarctic Science Platform
Programme Leader, Professor Tim Naish
of Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, says the project will address one of the biggest questions
concerning climate scientists, and humanity: “Did the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse the last time the Earth warmed?
Can we save the Antarctic Ice Sheet if nations meet the Paris Agreement targets?”
Antarctica New Zealand
Chief Scientific Advisor Professor John Cottle
says this is an exciting development for Antarctic climate science.
“International recognition and support for the SWAIS 2C project highlights New Zealand’s world leadership in scientific
drilling in Antarctica. The climate records retrieved in this project will be critical to a much better understanding of
how Antarctica will respond to a warming planet,” he says.
In 2018 MBIE contracted Antarctica New Zealand to host the Antarctic Science Platform. The Platform aims to conduct
excellent science to understand Antarctica’s impact on the global earth system. The investment of $49 million over seven
years is through the Strategic Science Investment Fund.