The bank for a changing world

Antarctica, the indicator of climate change

  • Benoît Hervieu Journalist at Usbek & Rica
  • Paris, France
  • 31.10.2018

As its icecap rapidly shrinks along its coast, Antarctica is also gaining snow mass in its central regions. The result of this loss and gain will determine the speed and magnitude of the rise of the levels of the world's oceans. This phenomenon reflects the direct impact of global warming on this continent, which alone accounts for 90% of land ice.

In order to better assess the global impacts of such a change, the French component of the East Antarctic International Ice Sheet Traverse (EAIIST) international exploration project is being supported for two years by the BNP Paribas Foundation, the French Polar Institute (IPEV), the National Research Agency, and investments from Avenir.

An unprecedented scientific expedition of  the South Pole

The Antarctic continent is twenty-eight times the size of France. The coldest and driest region of the globe and covered by ice on 98% of its territory, it’s also the least polluted and the closest in structure to that of the Pleistocene, the age of the glacial cycles preceding the Holocene or present-day Anthropocene. This memory mass of ice, rather hastily named the South Pole, seems at first glance to be less exposed than the rest of the globe to the negative effects of global warming. But for how long? Contrary to popular belief, Antarctica is changing, and not necessarily for the better.

© B. Jourdain IPEV/UGA - Credits: © B. Jourdain IPEV/UGA

While it still contains 90% of the volume of land ice on its territory, the continent is losing more and more, faster and faster. Since 1992, three trillion tonnes of ice has melted, primarily on its western coastal areas. The phenomenon is synonymous with increased pressure on melting ice, with the direct consequence of rising sea levels and its medium-term effects. Yet this melting could be slowed by global warming itself, as it also increases the humidity of the air, and therefore the snowfall in the polar regions. At the same time as its coasts are losing ground, the central regions of Antarctica have gained an estimated 272 billion tonnes over the last two hundred years. The dynamics of this balance of gain plus loss will determine the speed of the rise of the oceans. Despite the joint commitments made at the COP21 to limit global warming to 2 degrees by the end of the century, they still leave over 200 million people at the mercy of ocean flooding, and a rise of 4 degrees would triple this number. A planetary heritage, how fast will Antarctica submerge our coastlines? 

Answering this crucial question is the challenge for scientists engaged in an unprecedented exploration of the continent. Scheduled to begin on 5th December 2019, the East Antarctic International Ice Sheet Traverse (EAIIST) international exploration project aims to better understand the interactions between climate change and rising sea levels at the very heart of polar territory. What is the structure of this Antarctic snow? What is its density? And its degree of reflexivity? How do the arid central regions participate in the Antarctic mass balance? 

better understand the interactions between climate change and rising sea levels at the very heart of polar territory.

©Goinyk

A challenge of self-reliance

Coupling geophysical, geochemical, climatic and meteorological studies, the EAIIST project will bring together forty researchers from four countries (France, Italy, Australia and the United States), from fifteen laboratories, over a two-year period, in order to answer these questions. The 1,600 kilometres of this scientific crossing, with a budget of three million euros, will require ten tonnes of equipment and 67 cubic metres of fuel oil.

"Our goal is to reach the most arid central areas of the continent with unique morphological structures such as mega-dunes, or glass-like surfaces and to understand the dynamics and the role on the mass balance," says Joel Savarino, CNRS research director at the Institute of Environmental Geosciences, and coordinator of operations with logistical support from the French Polar Institute, Paul-Emile Victor (IPEV). "It is these different snowy reliefs that need to be studied. Automatic weather stations will be set up over the trip, core samples taken, and the internal structure of the snowpacks revealed in order to find out the contribution of the arid plateaux to the mass balance of the Antarctic."

Our goal is to reach the most arid central areas of the continent with unique morphological structures.
 © M. Frezzotti PNRA - Credits: © M. Frezzotti PNRA

The EAIIST continues the long tradition of scientific expeditions and the extensive exploration of past French Polar Expeditions, in continuity with the expeditions of our illustrious predecessors E. Shackleton (1914-1917) and Fuchs-Hillary (1955-1958). Despite the significant improvement in exploration equipment and resources, it nevertheless comes with significant logistical difficulties, in an environment where the "highest" temperatures vary between -20° and -40°C. The route connecting the Concordia Station to the mega-dunes can only be taken at the peak of the austral summer, and logistical supplies can only be made within a limited period. It will therefore be necessary to carry out all the operations for the project within a strict duration of 50 days, which an expert witness can testify to. 

"Such a mission is of course of scientific interest, but is also of logistical and human interest," says documentary filmmaker Pascal Guérin, accustomed to extreme filming. "A polar expedition is unthinkable without the logistics provided by IPEV and is, in some respects, even more extreme than a stay on the space station. The psychological challenge is crucial here.” With limited equipment available to himself on the ground, the filmmaker poses the fundamental question of the challenge of self-reliance of the project. "How do you live in these conditions?” The question echoes that of our planetary future, being asked by scientists. 

Such a mission is of course of scientific interest, but is also of logistical and human interest.

Geological periods

The Pleistocene corresponds to the early Quaternary period - geological era since requalified in "period" - and thus to the Paleolithic period. This time period occurs between 2 million years and 10,000 years BC. It is especially marked by the appearance of the homo erectus and long glacial cycles in the northern hemisphere.

The Holocene corresponds to the 2nd part of the Quaternary period, which we currently are in. It started with the Neolithic and is well known because of the appearance of the homo sapiens. This same period is inaugurated at the end of the glacial cycles with the progressive warming of the planetary surface.

The Anthropocene: the term is not recognized by the entire scientific community and does not officially correspond to any specific geological period. Popularized since the 2000s, the notion of Anthropocene owes its formulation to the Dutch meteorologist and chemist Paul Josef Crutzen (Recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize). According to him, the decisive influence of human activity on the climate, observed from the first industrial revolution at the end of the eighteenth century justifies the designation of a new period so named.

Photo Header © B. Jourdain IPEV/UGA

©Lukas Gojda

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